Marlins show signs of progress amid growing pains
Rookie Fernandez and young rotation become a building block for future
MIAMI -- If adversity indeed makes a team stronger, then the Marlins should be a tightly-knit group next year.
Whether they're dramatically improved or not will depend on how much they've grown collectively from the second-worst season -- record-wise -- in franchise history.
After overhauling their high-priced, underachieving 2012 squad, the Marlins redirected, building around core rookies and young veterans. When you play 20 rookies before the September callup period, you expect growing pains. There certainly were plenty of them from Miami's wide-eyed group.
Mike Redmond, three years removed from being a longtime backup catcher, was brought in to manage and help mold a squad that was high on raw talent, but low on big league experience.
With change comes uncertainty. Redmond was well aware of that early on in Spring Training. But once the season got underway, he was clearly blindsided by the sheer volume of players who were sidelined in the first month due to injuries. A team short on depth found itself with 10 players serving 11 disabled-list stints in the first month alone.
"Starting the season, I really had no idea what to expect," Redmond said. "Looking back on the season, those first two months, I don't know if anybody could have been prepared for what happened with our team -- with all the injuries. It seemed like [they] kept mounting, and mounting and mounting."
And the losses kept coming and coming and coming. Miami went 8-20 in April, and headed into June at 14-41. With so much going wrong, the Marlins appeared headed toward a historically dreadful season before they eventually showed some promise.
Their fortunes turned about the time a number of key players returned from the DL.
In the first month, they were minus two starting pitchers -- Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez. Slugger Giancarlo Stanton missed all of May due to a strained right hamstring, and first baseman Logan Morrison opened the season on the 60-day disabled list, as he recovered from right knee surgery.
Catcher Jeff Mathis was sidelined for more than a month because of a broken right collarbone.
"When we got some guys healthy, we came out of it," Redmond said. "We started playing some really good baseball. We got a glimpse of what this team is capable of."
The silver lining was the two-month period from June 1-Aug. 1, when Miami was a respectable 27-24. During that stretch, rookie right-hander Jose Fernandez became a phenom. He was Miami's lone All-Star and one of the National League's top pitchers.
Fernandez made the leap from Class A in 2012 to the big leagues seem easy. He turned 21 on July 31, and by that time, he was developing into a serious National League Rookie of the Year candidate. Only a team-mandated innings limit slowed Fernandez down, as he was shut down following a Sept. 11 win over the Braves.
Pitching, in general, became the club's strength, and a lack of run production its weakness.
"I know what I've been able to see, and I'm sure what a lot of fans have been able to see is we have a sound foundation of players," Redmond said. "We have a young, core group of talented young guys. That's definitely something I take out of the season, as far as encouragement. We have some nice pieces here. Now, we've got to just figure out, moving forward, how to build around it."
Record: 62-100, fifth place in the National League East
Defining moment: Inexperience coupled with injuries led to a predictable slow start. Within the first five weeks, the Marlins had a long list of injuries, including Stanton, Morrison, Alvarez, Eovaldi and Mathis.
The setbacks were too many for the young squad to overcome. Fortunes changed on June 8. Miami snapped a three-game slide and outlasted the Mets, 2-1, in 20 innings at Citi Field. The next day, they knocked off New York in 10 innings. Within days, Morrison, Stanton and Eovaldi were returning, and the club went on its best stretch of the season. The Marlins were 21-17 from June 1 through the All-Star break, prompting management to hold the young nucleus together to keep building around.
What went right: The progression of Fernandez from promising rookie to legitimate ace, and one of the top starters overall in the National League. The hard-throwing right-hander posted the finest rookie season by a Marlins' pitcher ever, as well as one of the best by any rookie since Dwight Gooden broke in with the Mets in 1984. ... Steve Cishek, after a rough first month, became a lockdown closer, topping the 30-saves mark. ... Marcell Ozuna came on with a flourish, providing energy and excitement with his bat and arm. Ozuna offered a spark after Stanton was injured at the end of April. He was a bright spot in the first half, but he suffered a left thumb injury on the day he was being sent down to the Minors because he was starting to slump. The thumb required season-ending surgery. ... The starting rotation overall. More than just Fernandez, the Marlins were pleased with the progress made by the rotation, which did wear down a bit in September, which isn't uncommon for young starters. Fernandez, Eovaldi, Alvarez and Jacob Turner will head into Spring Training as frontrunners to win rotation spots. Tom Koehler also showed promise, and is an option to start or relieve. ... Adeiny Hechavarria came as advertised at shortstop. The 24-year-old played stellar defense, and his statistics would be substantially better if he didn't have a week where he made several errors in early August. The slight slump aside, he played at a Gold Glove-caliber level. His offense still needs improvement.
What went wrong: The offense never got on track, ranking last in the Majors in pretty much every significant category. The lack of power was evident, and Stanton lacked protection in the middle of the order. ... The resignation of hitting coach Tino Martinez created a stir and brought unexpected change in the middle of the season. Martinez stepped down on July 28 amid accusations he was abusive to some of the young players. An already struggling offense found itself with a new coach, as John Pierson took over on an interim basis. ... Stanton had a down year. The 23-year-old will be the first to admit he didn't live up to expectations. When healthy, he showed a few signs of being the force he was in 2012, when he finished with 37 homers. But nothing was sustained. ... Injuries overall were problematic, especially in the first half. By the second game of the season, they were down to their fourth-string first baseman.
Biggest surprise: Those who had seen Fernandez pitch knew he could be good. Few could have imagined just how good. Fernandez set the tone for a young, talented rotation that certainly held its own in a trying season. The hope from within the organization is the rotation will be the foundation for a brighter future.
Hitter of the Year: Even in a down year, Stanton still remains one of the most feared sluggers in the game. Missing substantial time because of injuries hurt his overall production. But in September, he showed signs of being his old self. Improving his pitch selection is something to work on in 2014.
Pitcher of the Year: Miami may have finished with the worst record in the National League, but whenever Fernandez was on the mound, it believed it was as good as anyone. Along with being 12-6, Miami was 18-10 in his starts before his season concluded due to his innings limit. Fernandez had one of the best rookie seasons by any pitcher in the last 30 years.
Rookie of the Year: Fernandez is the obvious choice, but because he already is the club's Pitcher of the Year, let's spread the wealth and recognize the strong season by Hechavarria at short. The 24-year-old was terrific defensively, showing why the Marlins believe he is deserving of Gold Glove consideration in the future. The Cuban native needs to improve at the plate, but he is the only player on the club with 500 at-bats.