Turmoil in South Beach

Perhaps no team in baseball outside of Boston has had a more disappointing and distressing season than the Miami Marlins. Following an offseason spending spree that netted shortstop Jose Reyes, closer Heath Bell, starter Mark Buehrle, and manager Ozzie Guillen, (hell the team even made Albert Pujols an offer that was reported to be above $200 million) the Marlins appeared to be in perfect position to re-brand going into their new ballpark. Gone were the nickle-and-dime practices that had plagued the franchise since it’s inception. Instead, the Marlins brass decided to open their pocketbooks to acquire marquee talent in order to drive up interest in the crowded Miami market.

Unfortunately that strategy also fell flat on its face, as the Marlins find themselves among the worst teams in baseball, ranking 26th in runs scored while ranking 22nd in fewest runs allowed. In fact, the Marlins have been so bland, they even had their TV series on Showtime, The Franchise, cancelled after only 8 episodes. Miami now heads into a tumultuous 2013 offseason with a ton of uncertainty and few options to be had. Reinforcements probably aren’t on the way, as the front office enters yet another cutback phase, looking to drop the payroll to somewhere around $80 million. Let’s take a look at what lies ahead.

Will Ozzie Guillen be back?

Rumor has it that owner Jeffery Loria and the rest of the Marlins’ front office aren’t all that impressed with Guillen’s first season at the helm in South Beach. You can count Heath Bell among that camp as well. The Marlins former closer had some harsh words for Ozzie, saying

“It’s hard to respect a guy that doesn’t tell you the truth or doesn’t tell you face-to-face.” We need a guy that leads us that everybody respects and looks up to,” Bell said. “That’s what we need.”

Guillen, for his part, hasn’t made matters any easier, pissing off management, including Loria at nearly every turn for doing things like making inflammatory statements about Fidel Castro. Guillen has done a terrible job of getting the most out of his offensively-challenged roster by misusing his bullpen while appearing oblivious to his players’ needs. Look no further than Edward Mujica, who has been lights out since being shipped to St. Louis, posting a 1.13 ERA in 24 innings after struggling to carve out a role in Miami. Jeffrey Loria goes through managers the way most teams go through long relievers, so it would be of little surprise if somebody else is in charge of the lineup card come Spring Training 2013.

Can the big money players (Bell, Buehrle, Reyes) bounce back in 2013?

Both Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle have both had solid, if unspectacular, 2012 campaigns playing well enough to justify $10 million and $6 million each will make this season. Buehrle’s contract only has 3 more seasons on it and should play out fine, since he’s never been one to rely on overwhelming stuff to put batters away. The outlook for Reyes over the next 6 seasons doesn’t look as bright.

Reyes, who’s 29 now, is locked up until he’s 35 and is still owed $114 million. He’s hitting .285/.346/.433 with 35 doubles, 11 homers, while going 36/46 in steals. Those numbers are all in line with his career averages, except for his steals, which have been down for the past couple of seasons. Reyes has also played some very shabby looking shortstop this season, struggling badly at times in the field, particularly with his throws. Reyes’ best asset, his blazing speed which has netted him 4 seasons of 50+ steals, probably won’t ever improve again, meaning Miami probably picked the wrong player to lock into a long-term deal. Reyes should still be productive for the next couple of seasons, but if I were a Marlins fan I’d be nervous about 2015-2018, when Miami will pay the shortstop $22 million a year.

Heath Bell, on the other hand, has been a disaster from the start. He’s got a 5.19 ERA on the season in 60.2 innings while posting the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career. He’s been whacked around by righties this season, with opposing hitters going for a .318/.361/.515 triple slash for a .861 OPS, more than 200 points higher than Bell’s career average. Some of this could be bad luck, due to a .354 opponents BABIP, but I tend to believe that the Marlins acquired Bell a couple of years too late. Miami’s still on the hook for $27 million dollars over 3 more seasons after this one, proving once again that you should never ever, under any circumstance, pay top dollar for a closer.

Can Miami finally find a competent offensive catcher?

Miami hasn’t had a competent offensive catcher behind the dish since the halcyon days back in 2003 when Ivan Rodriguez their man. John Buck and Brett Hayes did the yeoman’s share of the work behind the plate this season, and it wasn’t pretty to watch. Miami catchers rank in the bottom-5 in baseball in plenty of offensive categories including: RBI (26th), hits (29th), runs scored (29th), and batting average (26th). Neither Buck nor Hayes are defensive wizards either, meaning both players should be considered expendable after the season. In better news, rookie Rob Brantley (acquired in the Hanley Ramirez trade), has been excellent in his short cameo thus far. Brantley is hitting .325/.419/.488 with 13 walks and 13 strikeouts in his first 96 plate appearances. He needs work on his receiving and throwing skills behind the dish, but the offensive tradeoff is more than worth it for a team that ranks 14th out of 16th in runs scored this season.

Will Josh Johnson regain his mojo?

Two seasons ago Johnson was considered one of the 5 best pitchers on the planet after dominating the National League’s hitters to the tune of an 11-6 record with a 2.30 ERA (180 ERA+), while striking out better than 9 per 9 innings. In 2011 the Marlins nominal ace was off to an even better start (1.64 ERA in 60 innings) before being shut down for the year with a shoulder injury. His 2012 campaign has been a little bit different, although he’s still been an above average pitcher, just not the All-Star caliber one we’ve come to know and love. His strikeouts are down to their lowest rate since his rookie year and batters are making better contact against him than they have since 2008, garnering nearly 2 more hits per 9 innings.

More distressingly, his average fastball velocity is just 92.8 mph, which is down 2 miles per hour from his peak 2 years ago. It’s obvious watching him pitch as well. Johnson used to put hitters away with ease, starting them off with an array of well-located 95 mph heaters only to put them away with a devastating curveball. Johnson’s going to be 29 next season so he’s still conceivably in his prime. All he needs to do is regain a little bit of that velocity and the righty will revert back to the dominant ace from years past.

The Marlins probably won’t be making waves next season either, as the franchise appears to be back on the rebuilding through youth track. The mid season roster purge looks to have brought in some future starting players and with Giancarlo Stanton (age 22) already crushing the ball at the big league level, the team’s youth movement is off to a solid start. If they can bring up a couple more impact players, hire a new manager, and get a huge rebound from Reyes, Johnson, and Bell the potential to contend in 2013 is there. It might be a long shot but anything is better than the hell the franchise has gone through in 2012.

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