The Miami Marlins, playing in one of the best divisions in baseball, aren’t expected to be major players in the National League East this season.
But they ARE expected to make strides and be highly competitive throughout the summer.
Coming off a 69-93 season, their quest to finish at .500 in 2023 is underway, and they were highly competitive in April.
To finish at .500 in a full season for the first time since 2009 and make a statement that they are a team on the rise, here are five things that need to happen:
1. Young pitchers Jesus Luzardo, Edward Cabrera, and Trevor Rogers need to take positive steps.
Luzardo, a 25-year-old lefthander, is coming off a strong season (3.32 ERA, 30% strikeout rate) and must continue his growth if the Marlins are going to make progress. With Pablo Lopez traded in the offseason, he will take on a bigger role. The Marlins need him to embrace it.
Cabrera, a 6-foot-5, 217-pound righthander, recently turned 25 and is just coming into his own. He showed his potential in 14 starts last year (6-4, 3.01 ERA) as he allowed just 44 hits and struck out 75 in 71 2/3 electric innings. His development made Lopez expendable.
As for Rogers, the Marlins need to see the 2021 All-Star version instead of the lefty who struggled mightily in 2022.
Things didn’t start out as planned in 2023 as Rogers, 25, had to exit an April 19 start against San Francisco because of left forearm tightness.
The Marlins need Rogers to resemble the pitcher who finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2021. He had a 2.64 ERA that year, but it ballooned to 5.47 last season, a year in which he struggled with back injuries.
In addition to the young pitchers, it wouldn’t hurt the Marlins if 37-year-old Johnny Cueto showed he still has something left in the tank.
2. The Big Two must continue to be elite performers, and the offense needs to be much better.
The Marlins boast the defending National League Cy Young winner (Sandy Alcantara), and last year’s American League batting champion (Luis Arraez).
They will be the leaders on a team that hasn’t finished at .500 (in a full season) since Derek Jeter was still in his prime.
“I think there’s a lot of talent on this club,” general manager Kim Ng told reporters before the season started.
Arraez was the Marlins’ biggest off-season addition. The Fish got him from the Minnesota Twins for Lopez and highly regarded prospects Jose Salas (shortstop) and Byron Chourio (outfielder).
In 2022, Arraez hit .314 and had more walks (50) than strikeouts (43). The 26-year-old second baseman got off to a great start with the Marlins, taking a .400-plus average into late April.
The Venezuelan is now the centerpiece of an offense that needs to show much improvement. A year ago, the Marlins averaged a paltry 3.62 runs per game, third worst in the National League.
While Arraez is the straw that stirs the drink, as Reggie Jackson used to say, the offense is also counting heavily on All-Star Garrett Cooper, star-in-the-making Jazz Chisholm Jr. (see below), Bryan De La Cruz, Jorge Soler, and Jon Berti, who led the majors with 41 steals a year ago.
Alcantara was up and down this April, but, based on his superb career, he should be back to his old self shortly. He was magnificent in 2022, going 14-9 with a 2.28 ERA. He allowed just 174 hits in 228 2/3 innings while striking out 207 and walking only 50.
He was the first Marlin to win the Cy Young award, and he said his goal was to repeat in 2023.
“The hard work, the positivity, fighting for my team every day,” he said of his mindset. “My mentality all the time is to be aggressive and try to get better every day.”
3. Chisholm and Jean Segura must adapt to new positions.
Chisolm, normally a second baseman, is playing center field for the first time, and Segura is moving from second to third.
Chisholm, 25, is the Marlins’ table-setter out of the leadoff spot. Injuries limited him to 213 at-bats last season, and he still managed 14 homers and 12 steals.
He is Mr. Excitement, a fiery player capable of reaching the 30/30 club in homers and steals if he stays healthy. But he strikes out too much and has had back and hamstring issues.
If the Marlins are to take a step toward joining the Braves, Mets, and Phillies as NL East heavyweights, Chisholm is the key.
While Chisholm’s career is on the rise, Segura’s is winding down. But he’s still a valuable player. He batted .277 for the Phillies last year and helped them win the National League Championship.
A career .284 hitter, the 33-year-old Segura has averaged 28 doubles and 13 homers per 162 games.
There don’t seem to be many questions about whether Segura and Chisholm will help the Marlins’ offensive production. But there are questions about whether they will be defensive liabilities in their new positions.
4. The bullpen needs to assert itself.
One word best describes the Marlins’ bullpen in 2022: Ineffective.
It was the biggest reason Miami led the majors with 40 one-run losses.
The bullpen added several relievers in the offseason, including JT Chargois, Matt Barnes, and closer A.J. Puk.
Puk, Barnes and Chargois got off to strong starts with Miami. Puk had three saves and a 1.13 ERA in his first seven games with the Marlins, while Barnes won his initial decision and compiled a 2.70 ERA in his first seven appearances.
Chargois did not allow any runs in his first five games with the Fish, but he was placed on the injured list in April with a right oblique strain.
The trio gives the Fish reason for hope. They were added to a bullpen that includes returnees Dylan Floro, Steven Okert, Tanner Scott, and Huascar Brazoban. Rookie George Soriano also could help.
“We’re going to be nasty,” Scott, a lefthander who had streaks of wildness last season said in spring training.
Three of the Marlins’ relievers have been closers at some point, including Floro, who had that role the previous two years in Miami. He has been consistent, putting together a 2.91 ERA in that span.
Okert, another returnee, blossomed last year as he pitched in a career-high 60 games and held opponents to a .186 average.
The Marlins need him to rebound from a groin injury, which sidelined him early in the 2023 season.
They also need the bullpen newcomers to show they are an upgrade.
A year ago, Marlins’ relievers had the sixth-worst ERA (4.15) in the NL, and their WHIP was the third worst (1.41).
5. New manager Skip Schumaker needs to find his way and make his mark.
Schumaker was hired after last season, becoming the 16th manager in the Marlins’ history.
When Ng named him, she said she liked the fact Schumaker was part of a winning culture – he played for two World Series-winning teams in St. Louis, and last season was the bench coach for a Cardinals team that reached the playoffs.
She also called him someone who is tenacious and gets the most out of his ability – and others.
Schumaker, who replaced Don Mattingly, has a tough challenge. The Marlins have had a losing record in 12 of the last 13 years. The exception: They went 31-29 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
Can he turn around a long-struggling franchise?
In time, yes. But the Marlins will need a few years before they can compete for the division title in the powerful NL East.
That said, getting to .500 would be a positive first step. If the Marlins get there, maybe ownership will be a player in the free-agent market and add a key piece or two to help get Miami to the next level.
All photos courtesy of Miami Marlins