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Pressing Questions: The Miami Marlins

Marlins fans can't bear to watch (USAT)

The Marlins entered last year with a ton of promise, moving into a new stadium while adding Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell (and just missing Albert Pujols) through free agency. The optimism even led to Showtime featuring them for Season 2 of “The Franchise.” Instead, things didn’t go quite as planned, as Miami finished in last place and 29 games out of the N.L. East, scoring the second fewest runs in major league baseball (even leading to Showtime ending its run of episodes early). The disappointment resulted in a fire sale both in-season and afterward, as the publicly funded stadium continues to look more and more like a huge fraud perpetrated by owner Jeffrey Loria. Not only were newcomers Reyes, Buehrle and Bell moved (with the former two explicitly promised they would not be traded), but Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck were also dealt. Ozzie Guillen was also fired as manager after just one season, with three years remaining on his contract.

As a result, the Marlins enter 2013 as one of the favorites to finish with the fewest wins in baseball (the Astros being the other main contender), and while they have succeeded in total rebuilds before, this feels different, or at least like much more of a long-term plan, to put it nicely. With their current strategy, it’s more a question of “when” the team will trade Giancarlo Stanton than “if,” which makes the franchise possibly the most depressing to root for, even before you consider the taxpayers getting screwed. Marlins fans deserve better. With such a depleted roster in arguably the best division in baseball, somehow avoiding 100 losses may ultimately look like a successful season.

Now onto some pressing questions:

Q: How high should Giancarlo Stanton be drafted?

A: While Stanton is likely to get traded at some point, it’s probably not going to be this season. Injuries (mainly his knee) limited him last year to just 123 games (and he played at less than 100 percent in many others), but he still finished with 37 homers – the second most in the National League, and he was just 22 years old. While the new Marlins Park was neutral in runs scored, it greatly suppressed home runs, ranking 26th according to Park Factors. It’s obviously a small sample, but most predicted as much based on the stadium’s dimensions, so it’s something he’ll likely have to continue to deal with moving forward. However, Stanton led the National League in “No Doubt” home runs, including the longest of the MLB season, so his power is prodigious enough that it matters less, although it would be nice to see what he could do if he played in Coors Field.

Stanton hit 21 home runs over 202 at-bats on the road last season. He also hit 18 homers over 164 at-bats after the All-Star break after returning from knee surgery, posting a .299/.356/.701 line in the process. He’s 23 years old! The upside here shouldn’t be understated (he somehow had 56 home runs over his first 875 ABs in the majors despite hitting more groundballs than fly balls, a ratio in which he totally changed last year (0.87)). Players with a possibly volatile batting average who don’t contribute a ton in steals and runs scored are typically overrated in fantasy circles, but Stanton is a special talent who should be considered the favorite to lead baseball in home runs this year – I’d personally set his over/under at 49.5, but 60 aren’t out of the question. Plenty of studies have been done by people far smarter than me have proven lineup protection to be a total myth, but Stanton will really test that theory in 2013. Only his home park and teammates (even if his BB rate and Zone% remain constant, there’s no question Miami’s lineup will hurt him when it comes to runs scored and RBI) prevent him from being a top-five fantasy pick. As is, he’s still worthy of a late first round selection.

Q: Is Ricky Nolasco better than his ERA suggests?

A: Nolasco is now the team’s ace thanks to all the trades, and for those who are into advanced metrics, he’s been the poster boy for being unlucky. Over the past four seasons, here are his ERAs: 5.06, 4.51, 4.67 and 4.48. And here are his xFIPs: 3.23, 3.37, 3.55 and 4.17. Put differently, Nolasco has produced the 19th best xFIP (3.59) over the past four years. His ERA (4.68) over that same span ranks 137th. I’m hardly the first to suggest this, as it’s become pretty obvious by now, but Nolasco is most definitely not the product of bad luck. His career BABIP is .309 and his career HR/FB% is 10.6 – hardly anomalies. Here are his K rates over that same aforementioned four-year stretch: 9.49, 8.39, 6.47 and 5.89. Just to be clear, that trend is going in the wrong direction.

Let’s look a bit deeper at Nolasco’s peripherals and why there’s consistently such a drastic difference between his ERA and xFIP. After his impressive breakout 2008 season, he had the worst LOB% in all of baseball the following year. His 61.0 mark was significantly worse than the next lowest (Carl Pavano, 66.1%). The next season Nolasco got a bit better, but had he qualified he would have tied for 55th among all starters. In 2011, his LOB% ranked 89th among the 94 qualified starters, while last year he ranked 77th among 88 qualified starters. Put differently, Nolasco is dead last in LOB% over the past four years, recording a 66.9% mark. At some point bad luck needs to be shifted to the pitcher’s responsibility, and when you combine Nolasco’s horrendous strand rate with his rapidly declining strikeout rate, he’s not exactly someone even the most ardent sabermetricians should be championing at this point.

Q: Who will be Miami’s closer?

A: With Heath Bell traded, this role is pretty wide open, although Steve Cishek looks like the current favorite, if for no other reason than there are no other viable alternatives. Cishek is decent enough, holding a career 9.24 K/9 rate while allowing just four homers over 122.2 innings. But he also has a career 3.60 BB/9 rate, and it’s safe to expect Miami to produce among the fewest save opportunities in major league baseball this season. I normally don’t pay much attention to that, but it does matter when it comes to really bad teams, and this isn’t even considering the uncertainty of the percentage of opportunities Cishek will receive, even if he’s given the first shot at the role. In other words, Even if a Marlins reliever is clearly named closer before the season, he should still be among the last drafted in fantasy leagues.

Q: Can Logan Morrison stay healthy?

A: Morrison has shown some promising signs with his bat early in his career, but he seemingly can’t shake knee problems, which even have his availability for Opening Day in doubt. After hitting .230 last season and with his health status a question mark, he’s going to be much cheaper on draft day. Morrison is still just 25 years old and will hit in the middle of Miami’s lineup whenever he’s physically ready to return to action, so he shouldn’t be totally overlooked. Even if he isn’t ready for the start of the season, there’s hope he’ll be playing at closer to full strength once he does return than when he was on the field last year.

Q: Can Juan Pierre once again be a valuable fantasy asset?

A: After signing a one-year deal in the offseason, Pierre is set to become the Marlins’ every day left fielder. He’s 35 years old and offers nothing in the power department (he has five homers over the past six seasons, a span that’s included 3,107 ABs), but he posted a .351 OBP last year and recorded 37 steals in fewer than 400 at-bats, so he clearly has something left in the tank. In fact, his SB success rate (84.1%) was actually the best of his career. He tied for the fifth-most stolen bases in the National League despite being a part-time player. Pierre’s 27:23 K:BB rate was plenty solid too. Bottom line, despite his advanced age, Pierre is looking at an increased role and should be a nice asset for those looking for help in steals and batting average.

Q: What about the young pitching?

A: A big piece of the Hanley Ramirez trade, Nathan Eovaldi hasn’t posted impressive K rates in the majors, but he averaged 94.1 mph with his fastball last season, which would have ranked as the sixth highest had he qualified. Meanwhile, another newcomer, Henderson Alvarez, had the ninth highest average fastball velocity (93.3 mph) last year. Jacob Turner is also a former top-10 overall pick, so there’s some upside with the team’s young arms, especially while playing in a pitcher’s park. And that’s before even mentioning 20-year-old Jose Fernandez, who might very well be the most valuable pitcher on the team’s current roster long-term (if I were starting a dynasty league, he’d be my first pick among Marlins pitchers). Fernandez just posted a 1.75 ERA and 0.93 WHIP with a 4.5:1 K:BB ratio as a 19-year-old. The Cuban right-hander sits regularly in the 95-97 mph range with his fastball and has a developing changeup to go along with a nasty slider. He might even reach the majors as soon as this season.

Q: Any other prospects worth watching?

A: Yes, and his name is Christian Yelich. He hasn’t played above High-A, but he just hit .330/.404/.519 with 12 homers and 20 steals over 397 at-bats as a 20-year-old. With such a depleted roster, Yelich is worth mentioning here, as there’s actually a chance he might make an impact in Miami this year.

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