The Braves and the Marlins will meet for the first time in 2019 on Friday night when they open a three-game series at SunTrust Park. The Marlins are in their second year of their rebuild and traded away another big name in catcher J.T. Realmuto this offseason. While they aren’t expected to win a large number of games in 2019, there is a sense of optimism for the future.
(Kris Willis) The Marlins are in their second year of rebuilding. What are your thoughts on how things are progressing?
(Ely Sussman) Off the field, new ownership has made big strides mending the Marlins’ relationship with the Miami community. The importance of that cannot be overstated—city officials were still bitter about funding Marlins Park and not seeing much return on their investment, and fans felt no affinity toward the product considering the extreme postseason drought. Listening to their constituents and rebranding (uniforms, marketing strategy, ballpark features, etc.) has generated some real enthusiasm for the franchise.
On the field, I’ve got to admit that 2018 was disappointing. Several fringy prospects had intriguing breakouts, but most of the toolsy, high-ceiling guys underachieved or battled injuries. This will be a critical year for the player development staff to unlock the full potential of their top prospects.
(KW) J.T. Realmuto rumors dominated the offseason and he ended up getting traded to the Phillies. What were your thoughts on the return?
(EY) It was worth the wait. The Marlins were under immense pressure to “get it right” considering that Realmuto was their last premium major league asset, and they wound up with a nice balance of quality and quantity. Sixto Sánchez could have success in the majors now. Everything you want from a pitching prospect. Question is whether his body can hold up with a starter’s workload long term. Jorge Alfaro is already among their most marketable players. Many of his skills are comparable to Realmuto’s...except for plate discipline and receiving (which are pretty important ones). Even so, he figures to be a useful building block. Coming off a dominant 2018, left-hander Will Stewart adds to their terrific pitching depth. The international bonus pool money was utilized, too. Overall, my grade for the return was a B+.
(KW) The Christian Yelich trade was criticized last year. Was it really as bad as people think or will we need to wait a few seasons to see?
(EY) To set the record straight, the instant reaction to the trade—both locally and nationally—was actually more favorable to the Marlins than their other blockbuster trades had been. The narrative gradually changed once regular season games began, then spun out of control in July when Yelich’s bat went bonkers and Lewis Brinson injured his hip. I believe that the Marlins anticipated a breakout from Yelich, but couldn’t get him to buy in to a multi-year rebuild. They feared he would negatively impact the clubhouse (and didn’t mind subtracting his production to improve their 2019 MLB Draft position). Still too soon to pass judgement because Brinson has nowhere to go but up, and the three other prospects that the Fish received are on track to see major league action later this season.
(KW) Speaking of Lewis Brinson, he struggled in 2018 but looked much better in spring training. Do you think he can carry that over into the regular season?
(EY) Brinson’s spring stats were also strong in 2018, but yes, he looked improved this time around. Homering to all fields, including against a couple veterans. In the microscopic sample we have so far, the hard work is translating—his quality of contact is the best of any Marlin, despite several hard-luck outs. I do not see Cooperstown in his future, but Brinson has the combination of power, defense and intangibles to be an above-average regular for the next decade.
(KW) The Marlins are going with a young pitching staff to start the season. Who of that group are you most excited about?
(EY) There are mixed opinions at Fish Stripes about that, but what a great problem to have! The most complete pitcher of the group is Pablo López. Evaluators underestimated the quality of his stuff coming up through the system. He’s also an extremely cerebral athlete who recognizes the benefits of proper sequencing. Still only 23 years old, I think López has All-Star potential when healthy. Sandy Alcantara bears some resemblance to José Ureña, except with a couple extra ticks of fastball velo and superior breaking balls. Trevor Richards’ changeup is a phenomenon, and his journey all the way up here from independent ball is inspiring. And Caleb Smith was a shrewd pick-up from the Yankees. Despite last season’s fluky lat injury, he has all the ingredients of a mid-rotation workhorse.