With core in place, Marlins aim higher in '22

October 4th, 2021

MIAMI -- Around this time a year ago, shortstop Miguel Rojas packed his bag for the National League Wild Card Series. On Sunday, he served as acting manager in the Marlins' 5-4 victory over the Phillies at loanDepot park to close out the 2021 season.

Though pundits predicted the fourth-place Marlins (67-95) to finish toward the bottom of the NL East standings, Miami had higher expectations because of its rotation and the momentum of its first playoff appearance in 17 years. But top 100 prospect Sixto Sánchez never appeared in a game and Elieser Hernandez spent time on the 60-day injured list twice. From the onset, the Marlins turned to bullpen games and a carousel of starters.

By the Trade Deadline, Miami had shipped off expiring contracts in Adam Duvall, Starling Marte, Corey Dickerson and Yimi García.

“As I told the players today, this season has been really kind of gut-wrenching from the standpoint of, I truly in my heart believed that we were going to be competing for this division and be in a spot where we're fighting down to the end,” manager Don Mattingly said. “No matter what the reason, sometimes you take a step back to move forward.”

During the second half, the Marlins were without Pablo López, who returned to the big league mound in the finale after a right rotator cuff strain kept him out since the All-Star break. He allowed a Freddy Galvis solo homer and struck out four batters over 1 2/3 innings. More than anything, it provided peace of mind to the 25-year-old right-hander entering the offseason.

López, ace Sandy Alcantara and NL Rookie of the Year candidate Trevor Rogers form a formidable front three in the rotation. Despite the turnover and missed time, the Marlins finished 11th in the Majors with a 3.96 ERA. Eight of the 10 pitching staffs in front of them made the postseason.

“It should excite everyone a little,” said López, who finished with a 3.07 ERA in 20 starts. “I know it excites me a lot, because we had a good chunk of getting to see a lot. There's plenty of talent there, the desire, the will to work to get better is there. We have Sandy leading us, then we have Trevor with what he was able to show, the way I was able to go about my business the times I was able to go and take the mound.”

But it's clear the Marlins have work to do on the fielding and offensive fronts to complement the pitching. The club led the Majors in pickoffs (23) and errors (122). Miami produced the second-lowest OPS (.671), the third-fewest homers (158) and the second-fewest runs (623). The good news is Miami may have found young talent it can build around.

Middle infielder Jazz Chisholm Jr., who went 1-for-4 on Sunday, was two homers shy of the first 20-20 season in Marlins history since Hanley Ramirez (2010). Miami rookies hit 53 homers, including catcher Nick Fortes’ decisive two-run shot in the season finale, for the second-highest total in club history. First baseman Lewin Díaz, named the club’s Triple-A Player of the Year, and outfielder Jesús Sánchez scored 26 of the 98 runs the team has scored in September (27%), collected 21 of the 66 extra-base hits (32%) and knocked 13 of the 30 home runs (43%). Everyone in that group but Fortes was a former top prospect seeing his first substantial time in the big leagues. 

“Getting them this opportunity to see how the big leagues is and how’s the pitching, how's the hitting, for the catchers how to call the game at this level, all that is important for them to get experience under their belt,” Rojas said. “Show up to Spring Training knowing that they're going to fight for a job. But now, how are you going to be better so you can contribute to a winning team? That's the biggest question.”

With the games done, it’s up to the front office to decide how everyone fits into the plans for contention. 

“I think one of the No. 1 priorities on baseball operations was to build our system, strengthen our system,” CEO Derek Jeter said on Saturday. “We've done that. Now, we need to see the wins on the field here in Miami, so that's why I'm excited about going into this offseason, and I'm excited about the young core that we have. But we’ve got to see how we can get better and what we can add to them.”