One year later, the Miami Marlins are better off than the Toronto Blue Jays.
A loaded statement? Perhaps. But it’s true. For all the justifiable criticism of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria after his 2012 fire sale, the Marlins will win more games than the Blue Jays over the next three seasons.
In fairness to the Blue Jays, they are saddled with a brutal schedule in the American League East. I wouldn’t be as bullish on the Marlins if they had to play 76 games against the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Orioles. But successful teams are built to seize competitive advantages within their particular circumstances. And on that score, the Marlins are in a more favorable position than their trading partner from the November 2012 blockbuster.
The Marlins are poised to compete for a wild-card berth — seriously, they are — in a National League East that includes the aging Phillies, hobbled Braves, rebuilding Mets . . . and, admittedly, the powerhouse Nationals. Marlins first baseman Garrett Jones told me Thursday that his new team has comparable talent to his old team — the Pittsburgh Pirates, who reached the playoffs last year.
"We can compete with anybody," Jones said.
And this wasn’t blithe spring optimism. Jones meant it. When I asked why, he replied, "The arms."
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are staring at a second consecutive last-place finish. The reason for that: the arms, of course.
Consider the state of each team’s organizational pitching depth 10 days before the regular season begins.
The Marlins are one of the few big league teams in position to trade a starter if they’re offered an impact position player in return. They have six experienced starting pitchers on the 40-man roster: Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner, Brad Hand and Tom Koehler. (The latter two have pitched exceptionally well this spring.) Kevin Slowey, a non-roster invitee, has performed well enough in camp to merit a roster spot.
Turner, who is out of minor league options, is the most likely trade candidate. Multiple teams have inquired generally about the Marlins’ starting pitching in recent days, sources say, with the Mariners and Diamondbacks among the teams most interested in acquiring a starter. Michael Hill, in his first year as the team’s president of baseball operations, seems content to wait while gauging the desperation of other teams to add a starter. That’s the wise play.
Meanwhile, Marlins officials are confident they have no fewer than five prospects capable of starting in the majors at some point this year: left-handers Brian Flynn (who debuted last year), Andrew Heaney (the system’s top prospect), Justin Nicolino and Adam Conley, and right-hander Anthony DeSclafani.
Three of the aforementioned 12 — Alvarez, Nicolino and DeSclafani — arrived in the controversial trade with the Blue Jays, who happen to be short on pitching at their camp on the opposite Florida coast.
Toronto has been among the worst teams in the majors this spring in ERA, WHIP and walks. On aggregate, those numbers represent some cause for concern. Manager John Gibbons can feel relatively confident in what R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle will offer. Drew Hutchison has had an encouraging spring coming off arm surgery. But the uncertainty surrounding the remainder of the rotation has grown since the Jays failed to sign free agent Ervin Santana.
Brandon Morrow, a perpetual injury risk, has pitched only five innings in the Grapefruit League. J.A. Happ has issued nine walks in four innings. Esmil Rogers remains inconsistent. Ricky Romero and Marcus Stroman, rotation hopefuls as recently as last week, already have been sent to the minor leagues. Todd Redmond, who averaged less than five innings per start with the Blue Jays in 2013, could begin this season in the rotation.
There are sudden calls for top prospect Aaron Sanchez to make the Opening Day roster. He is talented enough, but it’s not fair to ask a 21-year-old with zero experience above Class A to rescue the Blue Jays because they made no moves of consequence during the offseason.
One year after the Jays were supposed to win the World Series, it’s becoming harder to see how they can finish with a winning record. Toronto could contend with the everyday lineup it has now, but the other AL East teams are going to bludgeon the Jays’ rotation.
Here’s the irony: I don’t blame Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos for his franchise-altering deal with the Marlins. The organization’s greater mistake was a failure to carry over the large-market philosophy of 2012-2013 into the most recent winter. Santana should have been a Blue Jay long before the injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy thrust the Braves into the conversation.
The Marlins, meanwhile, reverted to an approach that had been an organizational hallmark — a low budget and emphasis on young talent. The movement started in July 2012, when the Marlins lit the fuse on their ill-fated chemistry experiment by trading Hanley Ramirez, Randy Choate, Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Those moves netted Eovaldi, Turner and Flynn.
Of equal importance, the Marlins kept All-Star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who won’t be traded anytime soon. They also are benefiting from an improved front-office culture. The atmosphere had grown dysfunctional under former GM Larry Beinfest, who was fired last year. The Marlins’ operation is running more smoothly overall, now that Hill, Dan Jennings and Dan Noffsinger hold more prominent roles, along with the additions of top evaluators Mike Berger, Craig Weissmann and Jeff McAvoy. Manager Mike Redmond — who has the ideal personality for this roster –has a better feel for the job in his second season, too.
Were Marlins fans right to feel betrayed when the team stripped its roster after one season at a new, publicly financed stadium? Absolutely. But even Loria’s harshest critics would have to acknowledge that his front office traded for the right players. The Marlins also have developed a number of their own prospects – Fernandez (reigning NL Rookie of the Year) foremost among them.
Now, one year after fan discontent reached an all-time high, the Marlins’ present and future outlooks are quite good. They have the best ERA of any team in the majors this spring, at 2.95 heading into Friday. Some will remain skeptical until the Marlins’ March success continues into the regular season. That is fair. But I’d like to remind you of something: The lowest ERAs last spring belonged to the Red Sox and Cardinals.