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Top 5 “The Last Dance” performances in Marlins history

Which players on the verge of free agency dug deep to surpass expectations?

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What do the Marlins—at any point in their history—have in common with the iconic 1997-98 Chicago Bulls? Not much. ESPN’s “The Last Dance” chronicles a Michael Jordan-led dynasty, whereas the Marlins, even in their eventual championship-winning campaigns, were considered underdogs and nuisances. Who outside of South Florida truly wanted to emulate them in the way that countless sports fans did M.J.?

However, basketball players, baseball players and professionals across many industries can relate to the anxiety that comes with imminent change. That Bulls roster, for example, was loaded with pending free agents. Despite constant speculation about where each of them would go next, they didn’t let that interfere with their performance.

Which brings us back to the Marlins, as I highlight players who thrived during their walk year to keep the team in contention (players traded away midseason have been excluded). Before the final episodes of the documentary air Sunday night, let’s remember former Fish who made the most of their last dance.

5. Mike Dunn, 2016

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Mike Dunn’s biggest asset was his durability. He began his age-31 year as the franchise’s all-time leader in career pitching appearances (a record which won’t be challenged anytime in the foreseeable future). So it came as a shock when he began 2016 on the disabled list with a left forearm strain, then had a setback pushing back his regular season debut by nearly two months.

Dunn made up for that lost time and ended up pitching in 51 games. It wasn’t a sexy style, but he avoided costly implosions out of the bullpen—he never allowed more than two runs or four baserunners in any appearance. He entered the final homestand of the season with a 2.84 earned run average. His performance slipped down to the stretch (ERA rose to 3.40), but the Marlins were officially out of contention by then, anyway.

Over the winter, the Rockies inked Dunn to an instantly regrettable three-year, $19 million contract.

4. Jeff Conine, 2005

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The Marlins reacquired Jeff Conine in August 2003 as last-second depth for their playoff push, and it was fair to worry how much Niner had left to contribute in the twilight of his career. With more than a decade of major league experience, he made drastic improvements to his early-career strikeout rate, but his athleticism was understandably deteriorating. Those concerns proved to be premature—he was an important cog in their lineup through 2004.

But then, the signing of Carlos Delgado heading into ‘05 seemingly relegated Conine to an afterthought in his walk year. He started only three of the first 29 games of the regular season and wasn’t taking advantage of those limited opportunities.

Even without being a power threat, the 39-year-old found his groove eventually (.304/.374./403 in 384 PA). Ichiro Suzuki is the only player older than Conine in Marlins history to be an above-average hitter—in terms of weighted runs created-plus—while handling a substantial role.

3. Juan Encarnación, 2005

From that same Conine season, Juan Encarnación had more on the line. Theoretically in the prime of his career, his on-base percentage plummeted below the .300 mark the previous year. He would need to improve in that department to attract suitors in his first taste of free agency.

The ‘05 Marlins fell short of their collective goal to return to the postseason, but Encarnación wasn’t to blame. He set new personal bests with a .349 OBP and 112 wRC+. The lean outfielder was especially productive with runners in scoring position (.331/.399/.523).

The Cardinals outbid the Fish for Encarnación with a three-year deal. That was shaping up well for both sides until a foul ball to an eye abruptly ended his career in 2007.

2. Carl Pavano, 2004

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Coming off a hefty workload in 2003 (220 13 innings pitched when including October), it would’ve been unsurprising if fatigue caught up with Carl Pavano the following season. The reality was quite the contrary: Pavano emerged as the ace of the Marlins rotation.

Lacking the swing-and-miss ability that’s typical of star pitchers, the right-hander succeeded with a ground ball-heavy approach. He induced 18 double plays and fielded his position perfectly in 40 chances, stranding 76.9% of all baserunners. Pavano earned his lone All-Star selection while placing sixth in NL Cy Young voting.

Beginning in 2005, injuries piled up and deprived Pavano of most of his prime years, but he was the Yankees’ albatross contract by then.

1. Pudge Rodríguez, 2003

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The Marlins knew that Iván Rodríguez would only stick around for a single year before re-entering free agency in search of long-term security. The 2003 season was a rollercoaster, but everybody involved would ride it all over again without hesitation.

Regular season and playoffs combined, Pudge caught 155 games and drove in 102 runs. Marlins pitchers were noticeably better with him behind the plate compared to main backup Mike Redmond. He also starred in one of the most cherished moments in franchise history:

This first/last/only dance vaulted Rodríguez to a big payday from the Tigers and solidified his Hall of Fame credentials.