2014 Marlins Q&A with Michael Jong

This week, we’ll be previewing the Phillies’ NL East opponents for the 2014 season with a brief Q&A session with various team bloggers.

Michael Jong is a contributor to SB Nation’s Marlins blog Fish Stripes.  He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few Marlins-related questions to help preview the upcoming season in the NL East. Give him a follow on Twitter @MRJManiac.

1. The Marlins’ big off-season addition was Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a three-year, $21 million deal. Was this a good signing?

The signing of Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a fantastic move for a Marlins team without a distinct future at the catching position. The Fish suffered through a season of prospect Rob Brantly and perennial hitting disaster (and good defensive catcher) Jeff Mathis, and the team was badly in need of an upgrade offensively at the position. After the unattainable Brian McCann, Saltalamacchia was the next best choice, and unlike the flurry of large free agent signings, Miami got Salty on the relative cheap at $7 million a season. This deal was only $3 million more than what the team gave John Buck, a far inferior player, just three seasons ago. Saltalamacchia can add a power stroke to a pop-less lineup and would be a two- to three-win improvement offensively over Mathis. In addition, while his control of the running game is known to be mediocre, his work in pitch framing and blocking is above average and could be worth half a win a season. Overall, the Fish got a bargain above-average player for a lot less than the market was willing to bear.

2. Jose Fernandez was obviously great for the Marlins last season, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award. How do you feel about the rotation behind him, though?

The Marlins’ biggest strength aside from the individual performances of Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez is their rotation. Besides Fernandez, the Fish boast two young starters with decent potential in Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez. Eovaldi has the higher ceiling of the two, as his elite fastball velocity (96 mph average last season) gives him an obviously powerful tool that only the best pitchers can claim. If he ever figures out one or two out pitches to add to that elite fastball, the strikeouts could start racking up for Eovaldi behind Fernandez.

Alvarez is the weaker of the two in terms of potential, but as he showed in the second half of last season, he too can have his moments. Alvarez was the fifth Marlins starter to throw a no-hitter and displayed strong control for much of the season. He has a ground ball-heavy game but was susceptible to the home run in the past. This past year, that susceptibility went away in the cavernous Marlins Park and he flourished to a two-win season in limited playing time.

The rest of the rotation faces some question marks, but there is help on the way. While Jacob Turner, Tom Koehler, and prospect Brian Flynn each have flaws, they hold varying levels of promise for the team. In reality, they are also just holding spots for the team’s other pitching prospects, including top talent Andrew Heaney, who could arrive by midseason.

3. Left fielder Christian Yelich is a break-out candidate for a lot of people. PECOTA isn’t so optimistic, putting him at a .271 true average and 2.0 WARP. What is a realistic expectation for him?

Actually, the listed numbers seem about right for a “realistic” expectation for Yelich. Right now, he is not a player who immediately profiles as a star, simply because his game involves his performing well in multiple areas instead of excelling in one. Yelich lacks power, and while the line drive swing looks good hitting into the Marlins Park gaps, the dimensions will do him no favors in the home run department. But he should be able to survive big-league pitching thanks to strong plate discipline (11 percent walk rate last season) and a track record for solid contact in the minors.

Where Yelich’s game may help him excel further is what he can do on the bases and defensively. He is a heady baserunner and a capable base stealer, as evidenced by his 10-for-10 performance late last season. While his foot speed is not elite, he makes up for it by taking good jumps and making decisions quickly on the basepaths. On defense, his arm is the only limitation to a great fielding career. Yelich is a slender athlete who can cover plenty of ground in left field, and that is especially important in a large stadium like the Marlins’ home. His jump to superstardom would have to include ample baserunning and defensive contributions, which could happen as early as this year.

4. The Marlins went after cheap veterans at three infield positions: Garrett Jones at first base, Rafael Furcal at second base, and Casey McGehee at third base. Do you see this working out, or should the Marlins have approached it differently?

The Marlins had very little choice in the overall plan of finding stopgaps in 2014. They were not going to find long-term options at those positions, and the only alternative would be run the same crew they played last year when the team failed miserably offensively. The addition of McGehee in particular was a wise choice, as the team is banking on any residual upside for a bounce back season after McGehee’s successful Japanese stint. He could still provide power the team was sorely lacking last year while playing an acceptable third base.

The other two positions, however, could have been approached differently, even if the overall goal was the same. The Marlins had in-house candidates with better prognoses than Furcal and Jones in Donovan Solano and Logan Morrison respectively. Rather than spend more money trying to replace these players with veteran counterparts who were at best their equals, Miami could have stayed the course with Solano and Morrison and found a way to spend the extra $5 million adding to another aspect of the team in more dire straits.

5. How will the Giancarlo Stanton saga play out? Will the Marlins sign him to a contract extension or trade him?

At this point, it seems all but certain that the Marlins will trade Stanton, likely at the end of the 2014 season. While Stanton appears willing to sign a long-term extension, provided the team shows improvement and a commitment to winning, the Fish simply do not have the funds (or so owner Jefrey Loria would have you believe) to retain a superstar talent like Stanton. Thanks to recent contracts signed by the likes of Elvis Andrus and Freddie Freeman, the price of the arbitration extension has skyrocketed. Given that Miami might have had a hard time signing Stanton to an Andrew McCutchen-style extension, it seems essentially impossible for the Fish to commit extra years and $100 million-plus in commitment to a player they still feel has question marks. Stanton is, unfortunately, not long for a Marlins uniform, and the trade will be the next critical move in the development of the Marlins’ next competitive team.

6. Do you see Jake Marisnick beating out Marcell Ozuna for the center field job? If not, when do you see Marisnick eventually taking over?

Initially, I would have answered this question as a “no,” but given Marcell Ozuna’s struggles and Jake Marisnick’s relatively better performance, it is a possibility now that the young prospect gets by the less-heralded name. Ozuna and Marisnick both have similar problems with plate discipline, as neither knows how to take a walk and both have had strikeout issues in the past. Both also provide athletic defense, though Marisnick is considered a ready MLB plus defender in center field, while Ozuna has a small sample of good numbers from defensive statistics and a cannon arm on his side.

Marisnick could use more seasoning en route to an eventual promotion next season when Stanton is likely traded, but with the way Ozuna is playing, that may not happen. Instead, Marisnick’s timetable might be sped up to an Opening Day job, and given how poorly he handled himself in 100 plate appearances last year, that may be a mistake.

7. Andrew Heaney was rated the Marlins’ top prospect by Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus. He’s currently battling for a spot at the back of the rotation. He hasn’t played at Triple-A yet. Do you think it’s wise for the Marlins to push him so aggressively?

Heaney is indeed battling for a rotation spot, but he would have to seriously impress the Marlins’ brass in order to win a role in the rotation over starting the year in Double-A. There are multiple names like Tom Koehler, Kevin Slowey, and prospect Brian Flynn who are more likely to take the fifth rotation spot. But the Marlins are not as concerned about service time and want to challenge their prospects if they feel they are ready. There are other players who are developing alongside Heaney, such as Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani, whom the Marlins have no intention to rush because they do not appear ready. But if Heaney dominates Double-A in the first half of 2014, the Fish have no problem allowing him to sink or swim in the majors in order to further his development.

Bold Prediction: Will the Marlins beat last year’s 62-100 record? How many games will they win?

The Marlins will win 70 games in 2014, thus beating their mark from last year. A combination of simple regression to the mean and the addition of some noticeable talent such as Saltalamacchia should propel Miami to a better record by default. The 70-win mark would put the team ahead of its post-fire sale counterparts from 1999 and on par with the 2007 group, which could be considered a relative success.

Thanks again to Michael for making the time to answer some questions for us. Check out his work at Fish Stripes throughout the season and make sure to follow him on Twitter @MRJManiac.

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