The Miami Marlins Have Become MLB’s Unlikeliest Underdog Story
The Miami Marlins’ 2020 season was set to be doomed before it even began. Within days of the start of the 2020 MLB season, delayed thanks to the COVID 19 pandemic, the Marlins found themselves taken off the field due to the pandemic itself. An outbreak of the virus spread through the team, with more than seventeen players testing positive. Not only could this have doomed their season, but some were predicting that it could doom the entire MLB season as well.
To the dismay of those who seem to be hoping that every attempt to restore some measure of normal life fails, that was not the case. The Marlins eventually returned to play, with manager Don Mattingly having the Herculean task ahead of him to get his club, which has not made the postseason since 2003, into playoff contention. However, when the Marlins did return to play, they embarked on an unlikely hot streak, and although they have cooled off since then, as of this writing they are in contention for a playoff position in the MLB’s expanded format for 2020, sitting in second place in the National League East.
Matttingly has not had any star-level contributions from position players- according to the analytics website Fangraphs, no Marlins player ranks in the top thirty in Wins Above Replacement (WAR)- the highest ranking is infielder Brian Anderson in the fifty-second position. But the Marlins have nonetheless received a plethora of solid, if unspectacular contributions in their lineup, from Anderson and fellow infielders Miguel Rojas, Jesus Aguilar, Jon Berti and Garrett Cooper.
The Marlins’ front office also made moves at the deadline to increase the team’s chances at winning, both now and in the future. They traded for outfielder Starling Marte from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who instantly became the team’s second most valuable position player after Anderson. Marte has an additional year of team control beyond 2020, when the Marlins will hope to prove themselves over a full season of baseball, or at least, one hopes.
The Marlins, perhaps out of necessity due to the number of players lost (at least temporarily) due to COVID-19, have been aggressive in calling up players from their top ranked farm system in order to help the major league team. In particular, the team’s no.1 prospect, right handed pitcher Sixto Sanchez, has impressed in the big leagues, in particular with his fastball, which has the ability to touch 100 miles per hour in starts regularly. He has been everything the club hoped he would be when he was the prize return of the team’s trading away All Star catcher J.T. Realmuto to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019.
September 13 saw perhaps the most optimistic snapshot of the team’s future that they have experienced in a long time. In a Sunday doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies, they started Sanchez in the first game. He did not disappoint, tossing a seven inning complete game for a Marlins victory. In the second game, the Marlins started fellow prospect Braxton Garrett, making his major league debut.
Garrett was selected seventh overall by the Marlins in the 2016 MLB Draft from an Alabama high school, with the club having high hopes he could be a frontline starter in their future rotation. But Garrett was bedeviled by injuries in pro ball, missing a significant amount of time due to Tommy John surgery, missing the entire 2017 and 2018 seasons. Despite his high draft status, by 2020 Garrett had dropped to be only the seventh ranked prospect in Miami’s organization, although that also spoke to the depth of talent Miami had accumulated in their system.
Making his debut in the second game of the Sunday doubleheader against the Phillies, Garrett showed that he was worthy of his high draft stock of more than four years ago now. He went five strong innings, striking out six and allowing a single earned run to pick up his first major league win. The doubleheader serves as a preview of the Marlins’ ideal future on the mound, with Sanchez the headliner and Garrett (whose pure stuff is not nearly as overpowering) providing strong support in the middle.
The Marlins still have a depth of talent waiting to emerge in their prospect system, some of whom may not contribute to the big league club until the 2021 season. These include outfielder J.J. Bleday, taken fourth overall from Vanderbilt University in the 2019 MLB Draft, and University of Minnesota pitcher Max Meyer, drafted third overall in 2020. More advanced position player prospects, such as shortstop Jazz Chisholm (recently called up to the Major League team) have yet to quite live up to the contributions that Garrett and especially Sanchez have given the team on the mound, but if he can live up to his potential, the Marlins will add yet another piece to what may become one of the most formidable collections of young talent in the league.
The Marlins’ history over the past two decades has been a torturous one for their long-suffering fans. Their playoff drought of seventeen years is the second longest in baseball, after only the Seattle Mariners. And the team’s fans have been heartbroken time and again by the club trading away homegrown superstar players, such as Miguel Cabrera, Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and J.T. Realmuto.
Many Marlins fans will be reluctant to support the team (whether by watching on television, on social media, or-eventually- in stadium again) unless they show that those days of trading away homegrown stars are in the past. That will mean making a financial commitment to extending some of these talented players long-term, which may be a tall ask in the age of COVID. But one thing is for certain- for the first time in a long time, the Marlins are having a moment, in the face of more adversity than any baseball team has faced in a long time. Their fans should, for the moment at least, enjoy the ride.