MIAMI (AP) — The Miami Marlins begin their 25th season without their late ace, his legacy tarnished by recently disclosed details of his death, which somehow makes the shadow over the franchise even heavier.
And then there’s the for-sale sign posted by unpopular owner Jeffrey Loria, weary of being scorned while his team gets ignored.
With the Marlins, it never seems to be just about baseball.
“We’ve had some seasons that were great,” team president David Samson said, “and some seasons that felt like we were in the middle of an earthquake.”
The end of last season pinned the needle on the Richter scale. Charismatic ace Jose Fernandez and two others died when his boat crashed a week before the final game. A recent state report determined that had the Marlins pitcher survived, he could have been charged with multiple crimes, including boating under the influence manslaughter.
Now the Marlins embrace a new season as they brace for the next earthquake.
Here are things to know about the shaky outlook for 2017:
The Marlins haven’t reached the playoffs since 2003, the longest drought in the National League, and haven’t finished above .500 since 2009. Even so, their starting lineup is unchanged for the third year in a row. Time to deliver. The group can no longer blame youth and inexperience if the season go badly. “You’ve either got to start to win, or things have to change,” left fielder Christian Yelich said. “We realize that.”
HITTING IN THE CLUTCH
The Marlins ranked fourth in the majors last year in batting but 27th in runs, which is a big reason they won only 79 games. Manager Don Mattingly blamed so-so situational hitting. “Part of struggling is that young guys get anxious trying to drive in a run,” Mattingly said. “You hope to gain some ground with experience. There should be a vision toward winning instead of a vision toward individual stuff, and all of that is part of maturity. We have to help them take that next step and get to that next level, because there is another level.”
The lineup is again anchored by slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who won the Home Run Derby in 2016 but batted a career-low .240. Returning as a reserve is 43-year-old reserve outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, now a member of the 3,000-hit club.
Six months later the Marlins are still coping with the emotions of losing a popular teammate, along with the practical challenges of replacing their best pitcher. Miami acquired three established relievers in the offseason, and with a 13-man pitching staff will join baseball’s trend of relying less on the rotation and more on the bullpen. That might be wise, because Miami doesn’t have a No. 1 starter. Dan Straily and Edinson Volquez were obtained to join rotation holdovers Wei-Yin Chen, Adam Conley and Tom Koehler.
“Yes, there’s a glaring hole,” said Koehler, 35-48 in five years with Miami. “We’re missing our ace. Nobody’s going to take that and fill in. But it’s the deepest rotation we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
All-Star closer A.J. Ramos returns to anchor a relief corps that includes newcomers Brad Ziegler, Junichi Tazawa and Jeff Locke. The bullpen is the deepest part of the roster. “We’ve got options down there,” reliever David Phelps said. “We’ve got depth. The guys we brought in are talented, and they add to what we already had, which was a strength to begin with.”
Loria, who bought the team in 2002, is entertaining offers from multiple groups, according to Samson. The Kushner family, which has close ties to the White House, put the brakes on its negotiations to buy the team after news surfaced that Loria was under consideration by President Donald Trump to become ambassador to France. Long criticized for his frugal ways, Loria approved increasing team payroll by one-third this season to about $100 million, stirring speculation he wanted a competitive team to make it more appealing to potential buyers.
Will the team be more appealing to fans? The Marlins have finished last in the NL in attendance 11 of the past 12 years.