JUPITER, Fla. -- Last year's 95-loss season is in the rearview mirror for the Marlins, who see 2021 as a step back in order to move forward. That was the message manager Don Mattingly relayed on the first day of Spring Training, and his optimism isn't without reason.
"I think we can win, and I think that's the key," Mattingly said. "I think we believe we can win. Our group believes it. Now we've got to go prove it. We've got to go execute; we've got to do the things it takes to win. But I believe we can win. Our coaching staff believes we can win. I feel like our players believe that we can win, and that's really what matters the most."
What needs to go right?
Since beginning a rebuild in 2018, Miami has laid a foundation of solid starting pitching. Despite using 18 guys in ‘21, the rotation still ranked 13th in ERA (4.08) and 17th in WAR (10.1) in the Majors. So over the offseason, the Marlins bolstered the lineup to complement the young arms. Whether Miami rebounds from a fourth-place finish will be determined on the mound and in the training room, where the club hopes to avoid costly injuries. Look no further than right-handers Pablo López and Elieser Hernandez, who combined for just 31 starts in '21.
There are two question marks for the Marlins: How will Jesús Sánchez look in center field, and how will a closer-by-committee fare? Without a natural center fielder on the roster, Miami will slot Sánchez between Soler and García. It's a position Sánchez hasn't played since 2019 at the Triple-A level, but his advanced defensive metrics are promising. Since the Marlins intend on moving players around, expect to see Jon Berti, García and perhaps Brian Anderson in center. And without a proven closer, Anthony Bender (150 ERA+ as a rookie) and newcomer Sulser could be the primary options until Dylan Floro (15 saves) returns. As is the case with the lineup, Miami will work favorable matchups in the bullpen.
Team MVP will be
The additions of Soler, García and Wendle should help returning middle-of-the-order bats like Anderson, Jesús Aguilar and Garrett Cooper see better pitches with more protection in the lineup. Rather than choose from those names, I'll go with Jazz Chisholm Jr. Despite playing in just 124 games in 2021, he fell only two homers shy of the first 20/20 Marlins season since '10. Chisholm, who can flash the leather at second base (5 DRS) and boasts elite speed (29.1 ft/sec), has the makings of a star. And that's without mentioning his endless swag and bountiful energy.
Team Cy Young will be
This is an easy one. In 2021, ace Sandy Alcantara was one of just three Major Leaguers to record 200 strikeouts and 200 innings. The other two were Walker Buehler and Zack Wheeler, both of whom finished in the Top 4 in NL Cy Young Award voting. Miami rewarded Alcantara with a five-year extension over the winter. The Marlins will go only as far as the rotation takes them, and the 26-year-old's ability to pitch every five days (403 innings in the last two full seasons) is crucial.
Though I won't predict the Marlins returning to the playoffs for the first time in a full season since 2003, their Hot Stove upgrades should help them finish near .500 and in third -- ahead of the Phillies and Nationals -- in the division. The Gold Glove-winning Stallings will help an already talented pitching staff, while Soler, García and Wendle will lengthen the lineup. A lot will have to go right, especially on the injury front, for Miami to improve its win total that much, but I'm not the only one who thinks it's possible.