Immense pitching depth has Marlins looking up
Offense a work in progress, but Miami has a young, talented rotation led by Fernandez
JUPITER, Fla. -- When last season ended, the Marlins could be optimistic about plenty of things.
For instance, pitching. Isn't that where it always begins? In that way, baseball is a really simple game. The teams that stockpile the most pitching are the ones that get there the fastest.
At the moment, the Marlins may have as many talented power arms as any team in the big leagues.
"I've never seen this much depth in pitching," veteran utility man Jeff Baker said.
Baker signed a two-year deal with Miami during the offseason as part of new general manager Dan Jennings' plan to infuse the clubhouse with as much leadership and experience as he could afford.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. This all begins with pitching. Because of it, optimism abounds. OK, cautious optimism; take-care-of-business optimism; tune-out-the-noise optimism.
"They're good," Jennings said. "When you can sit in a room and send out kids that quite honestly, five or six of them could be in the big leagues with other teams, that's a good problem. That's what you work for."
If things work out the way the Marlins hope, they'll begin the season with four starting pitchers 24 years old or under. They're led by 21-year-old Jose Fernandez, who is as special a talent as baseball has seen in a long time.
In his rookie season, Fernandez was 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA. In 172 2/3 innings, he walked 58 and struck out 187.
Fernandez won the National League Rookie of the Year Award and finished third in NL Cy Young Award balloting. He has more than just electric stuff. Fernandez has the mound presence of someone much older. He's a dynamic personality, too; the kind an entire franchise can build upon. Behind Fernandez, Miami is lining up three other power arms -- Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez and Jacob Turner.
The Marlins will not be an easy draw for any team because of those guys, and because there's other pitching talent stacked up in the Minor Leagues.
"When you're sending down a left-handed pitcher [22-year-old Andrew Heaney] who works at 90-95 mph with a plus slider and plus command, things are OK," Jennings said. "It puts us in position that, if we've got to go deal for a bat, we're dealing from strength."
Jennings was named GM last season, the latest step in a 28-year career in which he long ago established himself as a terrific talent evaluator and someone who understands the art of building a roster. He began restructuring his baseball staff by hiring a string of respected baseball men, including assistant general manager Mike Berger and pro scouting director Jeff McAvoy.
Now about everything else. Miami scored 513 runs in 2013. That was 85 fewer than any other team. In the last 40 seasons, no big league team has scored fewer.
"Horrific offense," Jennings said. "Maybe one of the worst offenses in the history of baseball. It was just bad."
The lack of offense was despite the presence of one of baseball's best players, right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 24 home runs despite missing 46 games. Left fielder Christian Yelich and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria are rising stars.
Jennings went shopping, adding catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, first baseman Garrett Jones, third baseman Casey McGehee, Baker and others.
"We tried to do a background check on every one of these guys," Jennings said. "Sit face-to-face with them. Find out about the person. Make sure that they were team-first players. They're winners. Garrett Jones was part of something that hadn't [happened] in 20 years. He was part of [the Pirates making the playoffs]. Salty is coming off a World Series [with the Red Sox]. McGehee comes off of winning in Japan. [Rafael] Furcal has been to the postseason [eight times].
"Add those quality guys and their veteran leadership to the young, talented kids that we have, to help show them the way. We felt like that was a recipe for the next step we need to take."
Baker understands that his role is about more than just playing.
"I'm not a big talk guy," he said. "You make sure you do your work in the cage. You get your treatment. You do everything on time. You take BP seriously. You're not out there playing around. It's about setting an example and how you go about your business.
"Get it done. Get ready for the game. There's always teaching moments, but my goal is to build up relationships with the younger guys where they can just pull you aside and talk to you. It's not getting on someone, it's helping each other. For us to win, we're all going to have to pull on the same rope. It's going to take some time to gel, but hopefully it happens."
So far, so good. The Marlins have led all big league clubs in ERA this spring and are among the leaders in strikeouts. The offense is still a work in progress, but there's a good feeling about where things are headed.
"I'm excited," manager Mike Redmond said. "It's definitely a different atmosphere, a different feel in that clubhouse and on the field. I don't know if you guys can feel it, but I sure can."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.