By Marc Normandin
The Marlins are in familiar territory, even if the faces are new. What went down in the 2012-2013 off-season, when Miami sent their high-priced players packing, is something that's happened not just once, but twice before in the Marlins' relatively short history. It ruins relationships with the fans, and it's certainly not the way you'd want your own team to rebuild, but that's exactly what is has effectively done for them twice before: selling off has allowed them to rebuild their core from within.
What you see on the field today for the Marlins is the future. Sure, in their major-league infancy, they've stumbled to the point where they're in line for the second pick in the 2014 amateur entry draft. Those players won't be newbies forever, though, and the experience gained in this lost season will only help them prepare for the time when Miami needs them to be successful, so that the Marlins can succeed once more.
Let's start with the obvious: Giancarlo Stanton. In a down season where he's dealt with injuries, the 23-year-old has still managed a .246/.362/.468 slash line with a 126 OPS+. He's already hit 111 homers in the majors, owns a career 137 OPS+, and won't even be a free agent -- or possibly at his peak -- until 2017. He's a major building block, and while the Marlins will likely deal him away someday for a major prospect haul, the plan is to attempt to win with him before that happens, in the same way they gave winning a shot with Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera and the rest of the 2003 squad before they were sold off.
The other piece everyone is familiar with -- or soon will be -- is starting pitcher Jose Fernandez. The 20-year-old entered 2013 without any experience above High-A ball, and was the fifth-best prospect in the minors by Baseball America's reckoning. The Marlins surprised many by placing him on the Opening Day roster and in the major-league rotation, but he's responded with a campaign that's even better than what the Fish could have imagined. Fernandez has made 26 starts, is leading the National League in strikeout rate, and has a 168 ERA+ that would lead the league if not for Clayton Kershaw's ridiculous 187 mark. For all the love being sent the way of the Mets' Matt Harvey, Fernandez is three years younger, and with better early results. He's already an ace in terms of quality -- once the reins are loosened a bit, he might even be the Marlins' workhorse.
That's just two players, and they're easily the top ones the Marlins have and will have. There are plenty of supporting cast members, though, who are already in the bigs with them. Outfielder Christian Yelich ranked eighth on Baseball America's mid-season prospect update, and he's hit a more than respectable .291/.360/.411 (111 OPS+) in the 39 games since he was promoted to the majors. Yelich played more center than anything in the minors, but has been the Marlins' left fielder since his arrival. The 21-year-old should be a positive force defensively given that he's at an easier position and his bat is expected to be the real source of his production.
The reason Yelich isn't in center any longer is because the Marlins have no shortage of prospects for that position. Jake Marisnick, a 22-year-old who ranked 64th on Baseball America's pre-season list, has patrolled center since his .294/.358/.502 line in Double-A earned him a promotion to the big-league squad. He has struggled at the plate in his short time with Miami, but there is a lot to like here, especially on defense, and youth is on his side. It's worth pointing out that Marisnick was part of the return in the off-season mega-trade with the Blue Jays.
Marcell Ozuna isn't in the majors at the moment, thanks to a ligament tear in his thumb that has him out for the year and on the 60-day disabled list. The 22-year-old was ranked the 75th best prospect coming into the year, and while he only posted an 88 OPS+ in his time in the majors, that's in part because he was pulled out of High-A to fill in when Giancarlo Stanton was injured. Ozuna still has learning and development to do, but when he's ready, he's yet another homegrown regular who could blossom into a seriously productive ballplayer.
Adeiny Hechavarria, acquired from the Blue Jays this past winter, hasn't hit much at all in his first full season in the majors. The 24-year-old Cuban shortstop is great in the field, though, and has hit a bit in the upper minors in the past -- there is work to do here in terms of his approach and getting himself to the same place where Jose Iglesias is now for the Tigers, where he hits enough to justify his job as a starting major-league shortstop. If he can be even tolerable offensively, he could be a low-cost asset at a position where those are hard to come by.
To varying degrees, that's a lineup core you can build around once they start to come into their own. The pitching is no joke either, though, as the Marlins have worthwhile starters to take their turns after Fernandez. There's Jacob Turner, acquired from the Tigers last summer in the mid-season Anibal Sanchez swap. Turner failed to impress much in Detroit despite strong minor-league campaigns, but in his time with the Marlins, he's produced a 3.20 ERA in 24 starts and 146 1/3 innings. He needs to walk fewer batters, or strike out a few more, in order to improve his K/BB and make his performance more believable going forward. But even if he's only capable of being an average hurler, he's under team control until 2019 at the earliest, and average pitchers are expensive pitchers both on the trade and free agent markets.
There is Nathan Eovaldi, whom the Marlins picked up in last summer's Hanley Ramirez trade. The right-hander made the back-end of last year's Baseball America top-100, and has shown why in his first full campaign in Miami, producing a 3.40 ERA and 3.50 FIP in 84 2/3 innings and 14 starts. He missed time with right shoulder inflammation that kept him out until mid-June, but has looked good since, and is another pitcher the Marlins won't have to go shopping for in the future.
Another young pitcher who missed time with shoulder trouble is Henderson Alvarez, whom the Marlins acquired from the Jays. Alvarez has thrown just 70 2/3 innings over 12 starts, but has looked more capable than he did in 2012, his first full year in the majors. The strikeouts, while not high, are out of embarrassing territory, especially when you consider his grounder tendencies and his fantastic control. Alvarez might just be an average starter, but there is potential for more here, and he's still all of 23 years old.
Not all of the Marlins' future starters are in the majors. Andrew Heaney, the Marlins' first-round pick from the 2012 draft, was the #33 prospect on BA's mid-season report, and while he's been limited in terms of pitch count and innings, the 22-year-old has flat-out dominated the minors. He posted a 0.88 ERA over 13 games in High-A before getting the bump to Double-A, where his punch outs have fallen a bit but his ERA remains impressive at 2.94. He's not big-league ready yet, but should be up relatively soon, especially given the Marlins' speedy standards.
After Heaney is his Double-A teammate, Justin Nicolino. He also dominated High-A ball, but has faltered a bit against more advanced competition. Still, Nicolino -- yet another prize in the Blue Jays deal -- entered the season as the #86 prospect, and will only be 22 next season. There's plenty of time to work out the kinks, and as evidenced by the starters the Marlins are featuring now that everyone is actually healthy and on the mound consistently, there's no rush anyway.
The current iteration of the Marlins is not a pretty one, but you can see a future in which they are excellent. If they make a couple of moves this winter to fill in the blanks, rather than playing the likes of Justin Ruggiano, Jeff Mathis, and Juan Pierre, they might even have a chance as soon as 2014. It all depends on their willingness to spend now (or soon), and the speed at which the likes of Yelich, Marisnick, Ozuna, and the pitchers can move along in their development towards their bright futures.
If you're concerned about whether they'll spend or not, push those worries aside. After all, they'll only have Giancarlo Stanton around for so long -- they need to compete in this cycle before he's gone.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.