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Miami Marlins are fishing for October

3/20/2015
Giancarlo Stanton and the Miami Marlins are ready to contend for a playoff spot. AP Photo/John Bazemore

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Three years ago, they blew their team up after a spending spree that went all wrong. Two years ago, they lost 100 games and ran through 22 rookies on the journey to the bottom of the NL East.

So who out there saw these Miami Marlins coming?

Who saw these 2015 Marlins not just spending money but spending money like Donald Trump?

Who saw them signing Giancarlo Stanton to the largest contract (13 years, $325 million) in the history of North American pro sports?

Who saw them then turning around and locking up their left fielder, Christian Yelich, so he could play alongside Stanton, if all goes right, for the next seven years?

Most of all, who saw them talking about contending, about a future that could very well include a rendezvous with October? But they are. And they should.

“We understand what the number is to make the playoffs,” their manager, Mike Redmond, said. “That’s the goal, man.”

By “the number,” he means the number of wins it will take. That number figures to be at least 10 more than the 77 games the Marlins won last year. That would be coming on the heels of a 15-win jump a year ago, the largest by any team in the National League.

So let’s think through what they’re trying to do here: Win 15 more games one year than the year before, then take another double-digit leap the following year? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, just one team in the division-play era -- the 2007-08 Cubs -- ever did that in back-to-back full seasons.

So what the Marlins are aspiring to do isn’t merely hard. It’s historically hard. But history doesn’t seem to scare them. The Nationals don’t seem to scare them. The challenge definitely doesn’t seem to scare them.

“If we get a championship,” center fielder Marcell Ozuna said without much prompting, “that’s what we want. We’ll see what happens.”

But is this team really ready to fish for October? Here are five reasons it isn’t preposterous:

The outfield

We wrote just a few days ago about the ongoing debate in this sport over who has the best young outfield in baseball -- the Marlins or Pirates. Well, there are no hanging chads clouding the voting on this in South Florida.

Bet you didn’t know that the 8.1 wins above replacement accumulated by Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna the past season were the most by any three outfielders on any team in baseball. If you’ve watched those three guys at all, you know there’s nothing misleading about that WAR total.

Stanton almost won an MVP award. Yelich won a Gold Glove, finished second in the league in pitches per plate appearance and was compared by his manager this week to a young Joe Mauer. Ozuna pounded 23 homers in a huge ballpark in his first full season in the big leagues. And none of them is older than 25.

“The right fielder [Stanton] might hit 50 homers,” one NL scout said. “The center fielder [Ozuna] might hit 30 to 40. The left fielder might win a batting title, and he’s got as good an idea at the plate as any young hitter in baseball. That’s three really exciting guys to build around.”

The face of the franchise

We live in an age when the good, old-fashioned masher has become almost as endangered a species as the Siberian tiger. But not in Miami. Because that’s where Stanton continues to whomp baseballs that clear tall buildings, scatter concession-stand lines in the concourse and break scoreboards.

“I saw him hit a ball in BP the other day that went over the building in pretty much dead-center,” new second baseman Dee Gordon said. “It was amazing. There’s no chance I would ever do something like that.”

How about if he got to try it from the mound, Gordon is asked. “Still no." OK, what about from second base? “From the warning track would be my best shot,” Gordon said, barely joking.

On the outside, there might still be concerns about how Stanton will respond to the fastball he took in the face the past September. But there are no more concerns within the Marlins after a spring of watching Stanton do his thing.

“If anything,” president of baseball operations Michael Hill said, “what’s come out of it is he’s not drifting as much at the plate. He’s not chasing as much. He’s swinging at more balls in the zone, so he’s hitting more balls hard. And when he hits the ball hard, good things happen.”

It’s crazy to think Stanton pulled even with Dan Uggla last year for the most career home runs in Marlins history (154) -- before he turned 25. He’s younger, in fact, than every one of the top five finishers in the AL rookie of the year voting. So when his manager and his hitting coach, Frank Menechino, predict he’s going to get better, we probably shouldn’t be laughing.

Just as importantly, Stanton has reacted to signing that historic contract by “taking ownership” of this team, general manager Dan Jennings said. More and more, the day he signed that deal is beginning to feel like a franchise-changing event.

“There’s no doubt, he was the sail to the ship,” Jennings said. “He hoisted it. And we caught air and took off.”

The new guys

The skeptics might never believe that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has a serious commitment to building a winner. And it’s very possible that “no matter what you do, you can’t change their opinion,” Jennings said. But he and Hill both say they’ve been empowered by Loria to, in Jennings’ words, “make baseball decisions that affect this organization for a long time.”

So what they’ve done since the end of the past season goes way beyond the long-term deals with Stanton and Yelich. There have been trades for Gordon, Mat Latos, Martin Prado, Dan Haren, Aaron Crow, David Phelps and others. There have been free-agent signings of players such as Michael Morse and Ichiro Suzuki.

If this group stays healthy and Gordon can embrace the patience at the plate preached by Menechino and the defensive tweaks implemented by infield guru Perry Hill, this team is clearly better.

The Marlins appear to have upgraded at first base, second, third and the rotation. Prado, Morse, Haren and Ichiro have brought professionalism and positivity into a mostly young mix. But now this team has to make it all work on the field.

“We don’t play on paper,” Jennings said. “We play in the dirt. But the guys who are here are not here by accident. They’re here for a reason.”

The secret weapon

It has been 10 months since the ace, Jose Fernandez, went to see his friendly neighborhood Tommy John surgeon. It will be another three to four months before the Marlins expect to see him back on the mound, sometime between mid-June and mid-July.

But when he returns, if he’s anything like the guy who won the NL pitcher of the month award in April, it isn’t hard to imagine what that means -- if this team can stay in contention without him. What Madison Bumgarner meant to the 2014 Giants, Fernandez could very realistically mean to a Marlins team that found itself in, say, the NL wild-card game in October.

“We’ll see,” Redmond said. “We’ll see when he comes back. But it’s got a chance to be exciting. That’s for sure.”

100 reasons

There’s not much in baseball more painful than a 100-loss season. But in baseball, as in life, something good can always come from something bad. Redmond is convinced much of the optimism of 2015 grew from the nightmare of 2013.

“I said it then, and I still say it now, that there were going to be a lot of good things that came out of that year,” the manager said. “And there has been.”

Because the results of the games were just about meaningless, the Marlins were able to bring Ozuna, Yelich and the shortstop, Adeiny Hechavarria, the big leagues that year. Henderson Alvarez made huge strides and threw a no-hitter. Fernandez won the NL Rookie of the Year award. Steve Cishek grew into a legit big league closer. A lot of things happened that led to the 15-win jump last year and the big dreams this year.

It seems almost unfathomable for a team to make the expedition from 100 losses to October in just two years. But it turns out it’s not as rare as you’d think. According to Elias, four teams have done it in the division-play era -- the 2008 Rays being the most recent -- and the addition of the second wild card makes it even more doable now.

But now comes the hard part. Now they actually have to do it.

“As we say down south, it ain’t the sugar that makes the tea sweet," Jennings said. "It’s the stirring. So we put the sugar in. Now they’ve got to stir it around.”