No one expected it outside of the Marlins’ Roger Dean Stadium facility in Jupiter, FL. No one believed in this Marlins group. They were picked to be last in the NL East. Most assumed they’d struggle to win 20 games. They were even labeled a ‘bottom feeders.’ But the Marlins always believed, and the proved the doubters wrong with a wildly successful 2020 season.
Miami’s run to the MLB postseason remains one of the most unlikely sports stories in recent memory. The season, which started amid a COVID-19 outbreak that saw the club lose more than half its Opening Day roster, turned into a celebration of resilience and development as the #WhyNotUs refrain took hold and the Marlins rocketed into playoffs.
“Our message to our guys was pretty simple,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said via Zoom. “We talked about it when we went to [Spring Training]. We talked about [how] it’s time. It’s time to take the next step forward as an organization.”
Miami certainly demonstrated that step forward. Here’s a look at five takeaways from a wildly successful 2020 season for the Marlins.
Marlins 2020 Season: They’ve Closed the Gap
Miami was widely selected to finish last in the NL East this season. A young roster, coupled with bargain-basement veteran additions, led most to think they’d only be marginally more competitive coming off 105-losses. But the Marlins surprised everyone by making a run to the National League Division Series.
Miami’s season ended at the hands of the Braves this week. While a three-game sweep leaves a bitter taste in their mouths, the Marlins can only look at their 2020 season as a success. Last season, the Marlins went 24-52 against the NL East, and 4-15 against the Braves specifically. In 2020, Miami went 21-19 versus NL East rivals and 4-6 against Atlanta.
The Fish have certainly closed the gap between them and Atlanta. In 2019, Miami finished 40 games behind the Braves. In 2020, they finished just four games back of them.
“I think we’re closer,” Miguel Rojas, the team’s leader and de facto captain, said. “But we know [the Braves are] not going anywhere. They’re a good team. I’m pretty positive that the guys that gained the opportunity and gained the experience this year, especially in the postseason. It was pretty important for us moving forward.”
Starting Pitching Remains the Strength
The obvious focus for this organization in the rebuild has been starting pitching. With elite-level pitching prospects and MLB difference makers, the future of the Miami Marlins seems to be in good hands. The 2020 season showed the Marlins starting pitching remains the team’s strength.
Sandy Alcantara emerged as a legitimate ace this season, even after his bout with COVID-19. In seven regular season starts, Alcantara went 3-2 with a 3.00 ERA and 1.19 WHIP with 39 strikeouts in 42 innings pitched. He dominated the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the Wild Card round, going 6.2 innings, surrendering just one run.
In the NLDS versus a potent Braves lineup, Alcantara kept the Marlins in the game through six innings but faltered late. Sandy’s best start, though, came in New York, against the vaunted Yankees lineup. With a playoff berth on the line, Alcantara went 7.1 innings, giving up just two runs to help propel the Marlins to the postseason.
Pablo Lopez presented himself as a clear Number 2 starter in this league. He took the ball coming off of the long COVID quarantine and helped lead the Marlins to the top of the division early in the 2020 season. His development makes Lopez one of the most improved players from 2019.
Throughout the season, Lopez focused on execution to great success. He started a team-high 11 games and went 6-4 with a 3.46 ERA. Take out back-to-back bad starts in early September and Lopez would have posted a sparkling 1.93 ERA in 2020.
Sixto Sanchez flashed on the scene and showed his potential as a frontline starter. Sanchez made seven starts and posted a 3-2 record with a 3.46 ERA. He tallied 33 strikeouts in 39 innings pitched, and when he had command of his full pitching arsenal, he was masterful.
“I learned that I can help the team,” Sánchez said through an interpreter. “That’s one of the things I saw in my two [playoff] starts. I know that I’ve got the tools to keep helping the team in the future.”
The Marlins also saw Elieser Hernandez take a step forward in his development before being lost to a season-ending injury. Hernandez made six starts and finished with a 1-0 record and 34 strikeouts in 25.2 innings pitched.
“Sandy and Pablo, you’ve seen the growth that they’ve been able to make,” Mattingly said. “I think Sixto and Rogers, you see that they’re still a little young. They’ve got steps to take, as well as Sandy and Pablo continuing to grow, but those guys are still at another level than those other guys. Sixto and those other guys are going to have to take steps forward to improve.”
Alcantara, Lopez, Sanchez and Hernandez are likely locks for the 2021 starting rotation, but there are others who could push for a spot as well. Trevor Rogers had his moments in 2020, as did Braxton Garrett and Daniel Castano. The Marlins also have Edward Cabrera and Max Meyer near the Majors.
Positional Prospects Need to Develop
While the pitching talent showed it’s ready to take the next step, Miami’s positional prospects lagged behind some. If the Marlins are going to continue to push for the playoffs after this 2020 season, they’ll need to see some of that position talent develop into difference makers.
The Marlins have seen the steady development of players like Brian Anderson and Rojas, but the frontline prospects called up to the Majors this season did not impress.
Monte Harrison started the year as the fan-favorite among the prospects. Unfortunately, Harrison’s struggles at the plate in his first call up showed he still had work to do. Between his two stints with the Marlins this season, Harrison managed just a .140/.213/.233 slash line. He connected on one dramatic home run but struck out 24 times in 47 plate appearances.
To his credit, Harrison became a weapon on the basepaths and craved out a pinch-running/defensive role during the postseason push. At 25-years-old, though, Harrison will need to adjust to Major League pitching in order to stick moving forward.
Lewin Díaz, acquired via trade last season, appeared in 14 games for the Marlins in 2020. The sweet-swinging lefty has an MLB-ready glove, but at the plate, he lacked production. In 39 at-bats, Diaz hit .154, striking out 12 times but hitting a pair of doubles and getting three RBI. At 23-years-old, he may still get some seasoning in the Minors.
One prospect who wouldn’t get any additional Minor League work is Isan Díaz. The 24-year-old second baseman was projected to be the starter for Miami this year, but after the COVID-19 outbreak, he opted out for a time. After returning late in September, Diaz saw action in five games before a season-ending injury. Although Diaz has a power bat, he’s lacked discipline at the plate thus far. In 201 career MLB ABs, Diaz has managed just a .174 batting average.
Jazz Chisholm remains Diaz’s primary competition at second base moving forward. The only one of these positional prospects to start in the postseason, Chisholm flashed his glove through his time with the Marlins. His bat is behind his glove though, as he managed just a .161 batting average in 56 at-bats. Chisholm connected on two regular season home runs and just missed a postseason homer.
Jesus Sanchez and Eddy Alvarez also struggled to perform at the plate in their time with the big club. The Marlins will need one or more of these positional prospects to make the leap moving into 2021.
Tough Choices Ahead for Marlins Front Office
The Marlins used a whopping 61 players this season. Among that number were 37 pitchers, including 13 different starting pitchers. The Marlins set a new MLB record by have nine different starting pitchers in their first nine games of the season.
Beyond that, the Marlins used 21 rookies this season, including 18 players who made their MLB debut. This constant roster shuffle started in July and led the front office to make an astounding 174 roster moves. Marlins President of Baseball Operations, Michael Hill, remained a busy man throughout the season. And he’ll have his work cut out for him moving forward.
The Marlins 40-man roster is full, but there are an additional 12 players on the Injured List. So tough decisions stand on the horizon. The team will likely pick up the options on centerfielder Starling Marte and closer Brandon Kintzler, and they’ll have to decide what to do about Jesus Aguilar, who was the team’s MVP.
Several bullpen arms will also need to be resigned or extended for 2021, including Richard Bleier, Brad Boxberger and Yimi Garcia. Mike Hill will also need to decide whether or not to bring back veteran starter Jose Urena, who missed the playoffs due to injury.
Other key players stand to enter their arbitration years and could use a long-term contract extensions. Among those: Alcantara, Anderson and Lopez.
Miami will need to decide if Jorge Alfaro, who did not start a single postseason game, is the catcher of the future. With the retirement of Francisco Cervelli and the offensive limitations of Chad Wallach, the Marlins may look to free agency if they’re not sold on Alfaro.
Marlins 2020 Season: The Future is Bright
All that said, the 2020 season for the Miami Marlins can only be viewed as a success. The team emerged from the NL East cellar to fight and secure their first playoff berth in 17 years. The Marlins rallied around the ‘WhyNotUs’ hashtag and ‘bottom feeders’ label.
“When I first got to Spring Training, I felt like this team was very young,” Kintzler said. “I feel like these guys got hungry. They matured really fast. What do they need to do to get to the next step? They just need to get better. Experience is the only thing that helps you get better up here. The window is just opening for this team. Hopefully, they take advantage of it.”
The mix of savvy veterans and hungry youngsters catapulted the Marlins into the MLB limelight. That sort of experience remains valuable, despite the disappointing ending to the 2020 season.
“At the end of the day, this is just the beginning of where we’re going to go. I feel like this organization, the things that we’re going to do here are going to be sustainable for a long time. We have to be happy but not satisfied,” said Rojas. “We got a taste of the postseason and we know how to play in the playoffs now.” Rojas said they need to use the experience as motivation to get better.
With such a bright future ahead of them, Marlins fans can finally feel excited for the upcoming season. No one expected this performance outside of those in the clubhouse and front office. But this success validates so many of the difficult decisions they’ve had to make during this rebuild, including bringing back Mattingly as manager.
“This was the closest group I’ve had as far as a group of guys who fight and feel like they’re united in their stance in where they want to go,” Mattingly said, “and that’s really what we talked about. I’m really proud of this club and what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
“We did give ourselves an opportunity this year. I think that’s a step forward for us.”