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Miami Marlins spring preview: Don Mattingly has lots to do

By Walter Villa, The Sports Xchange   |   Feb. 20, 2016 at 2:11 PM

The Miami Marlins now have a new target in their aspiration to win the National League -- the New York Mets.

New York became the division's gold standard after reaching the World Series last year. The Mets are blessed with high-end pitching, especially in the rotation, and upgraded their middle infield and also brought back their top slugger in Yoenis Cespedes.

The Marlins? They are certainly projected to be better than the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, both of whom are building for the future and willing to suffer in the present.

But Miami is projected to be no better than third place, also trailing the Washington Nationals in projections.

The Marlins didn't do much in the offseason. Their big move, supposedly, came when they named Don Mattingly their manager.

"I plan on being here 10 years," said Mattingly, 54, who signed a four-year contract.

Mattingly is the Marlins' seventh manager since Jeffrey Loria bought the team in 2010. And let's remember that Mattingly was fired by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mattingly's team had the best 1-2 pitching punch in the majors with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke, and yet the Dodgers were unable to get past the Mets.

Now, with a much smaller payroll than he is used to and a front office that has been dysfunctional at best, Mattingly is expected to lead the Marlins to the playoffs?

Don't count on it.

Miami's big player acquisition in the offseason was No. 2 starter Wei-Yin Chen. But the Marlins also gave up on injury prone No. 2 starter Henderson Alvarez, who had been an All-Star in 2014.

The Marlins have three of the most dynamic players in the majors in ace Jose Fernandez, speedy leadoff batter Dee Gordon at second base and right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, who has 50-home run potential.

Gordon led the league in batting average and steals. Fernandez is a legit threat to win the Cy Young -- he has been unbeatable at home, and he has dominant stuff. Stanton hits moon shots when he squares 'em up and is so strong he can still hit it out off the end of his bat.

But the biggest problem with the Marlins is that they lack organizational depth. Their farm system is barren, ranking the worst in baseball. That's a huge problem that will take years to fix.

The Marlins, despite their star power at the top end of their roster, have way too many holes to be a serious contender as currently constructed.

Spring training won't fix that. The best the Marlins can hope for is to keep Fernandez, Stanton, Gordon and closer-in-the-making Carter Capps healthy, something they have not been able to do of late.

The Marlins also need bounce-back years from players such as Martin Prado at third base, Marcell Ozuna in center field and Jarred Cosart at No. 3 starter.

In addition, left fielder Christian Yelich needs to be consistent in each half of the season, which was a problem last year, and first baseman Justin Bour will have to prove that he can be a force against lefty pitching, another huge issue.

Whether it's justified or not, Cosart is confident in this team.

"If you go position by position, we are as talented if not more talented than the Kansas City Royals or the St. Louis Cardinals," Cosart said. "We just have to stay healthy and put it all together."

NOTES, QUOTES

POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: The Marlins are the 11th team for RHP Edwin Jackson, who defines journeyman. Jackson 32, pitched exclusively out of the bullpen last season for the Cubs and Braves, compiling a 3.07 ERA in 47 appearances, getting one save. In the previous eight seasons, Jackson was a starter, and he will get that opportunity in Miami.

Jackson, who has career numbers of 88-107 with a 4.58 ERA, will have to fight off challenges from David Phelps (4-8, 4.50 ERA last season) and LHP Brad Hand (4-7, 5.30).

It's an underwhelming list of candidates, and that includes rookies who may get a shot in spring training -- LHP Justin Nicolino (5-4, 4.01), LHP Adam Conley (4-1, 3.76), RHP Jose Urena (1-5, 5.25) and RHP Kendry Flores (1-2, 4.97).

Other than Jackson, the other six candidates listed above all made starts for the Marlins last season. In fact, they combined to make 64 starts for the Marlins, who are desperate to find a qualified fifth starter.

ROOKIE WATCH: A pair of 25-year-old rookie right-handers -- Brian Ellington and Kyle Barraclough -- could battle for the final spot in the Marlins bullpen. There is also a chance that both rookies impress enough in spring to make them major league teammates just as they were late last season. Ellington, who made his major league debut on August 3, was 2-1 with a 2.88 ERA in 23 games for the Marlins. Barraclough, who made his major league debut on August 7, was 2-1 with a 2.59 ERA.

Neither pitcher had worked at a level higher than A ball before 2015. Ellington's fastball ranges from 93-97 mph; Barraclough's fastball runs from 94-98 mph.

Ellington's story is especially compelling -- he had Tommy John surgery as a senior in high school and de-committed from Florida State University. He battled his way back through two junior colleges -- nearly quitting the game -- and the NCAA Division II before becoming a 16th round pick.

Barraclough's rise hasn't been as dramatic. He was a seventh-round pick, and the Marlins acquired him from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade for former closer Steve Cishek.

COMEBACK TRAIL: A non-roster player breaking camp with the big-league team is always a long-shot, but it could happen if injuries occur. Effective left-handed relievers are always at a premium, which could give Chris Narveson a chance. He went 3-1 with a 4.45 ERA in 15 appearances for the Marlins last season, including two starts.

PLAYER NOTES

--INF Derek Dietrich should get a shot to unseat Martin Prado at third base. Prado, 32, is in the final year of his contract, and he is not worth the $12 million he is owed, at least not according to his 2015 numbers (.732 OPS). Dietrich, 26, is younger, less expensive in terms of his minimal contract and has more pop in his bat (.802 OPS). Dietrich had 10 homers in 250 at-bats. Prado had nine homers in 500 at-bats.

--OF Ichiro Suzuki is back for another year -- even if it's not really a great idea for the Marlins. It seems obvious that the once great Suzuki has vastly diminished skills at age 42. He produced a horrid .561 OPS last season with just 12 extra-base hits in 398 at-bats. It's sad because Suzuki has led the league in hits seven times in his Hall of Fame-worthy career.

--C Jeff Mathis is back for his fourth year with the Marlins, and that's a very bad thing for the Miami offense. Mathis, 32, is a career .194 hitter with a .560 OPS. It didn't seem possible that Mathis could get any worse as a hitter, but that's what happened last year when he "hit" .161 with a .504 OPS. He was a free agent after last season, yet the Marlins brought him back, ostensibly for his defense and leadership skills. The fact that the Marlins can't find anyone better to make those 30-something starts as a backup catcher says a lot about the current state of the franchise.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have a talented and young team that has a chance to grow and develop. That's why I was so intrigued by the Marlins. That's the biggest reason why I'm here." -- Marlins manager Don Mattingly.

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