When the revelation that 16 teams would make the postseason in 2020, there was a real chance that a genuinely bad team would make the postseason. It’s rare that more than half of teams end the season with a winning record, so that a team with a losing record would play in October was a given. In a 60-game season, though, the door was open for a true bottom feeder to share in the postseason pot.
The current format allows for good-not-great teams to routinely make the playoffs, but it does a good job of keeping the riff raff out. Last year’s format was a different story. It’s not hard to put together two good months. The 2019 Giants, for instance, went 33-19 over June and July which would have been good enough to get a playoff spot under the 2020 format and that team wound up going 77-85.
It should have been obvious all along that the Miami Marlins were going to slither into the playoffs with a roster that would have lost 90 games in a normal year. Even in 60 games, the Marlins were outscored by 41 runs. Collectively, they were a poor hitting team, ranking 21st in wOBA at .308. Even with Sixto Sánchez dazzling in his debut, the pitching staff ranked 26th in FIP at 5.02. The only thing they did at a satisfactory level was field and they still only ranked 16th with 0 Defensive Runs Saved.
This is a franchise that has two World Series banners to fly but only has six winning seasons in 27 full years. The Marlins have never won a division title, but until the Braves finally swept them, they were 7-0 in postseason series. Despite the Marlins’ best efforts, fortune smiles upon them.
Luck has its limits though. With a full slate of 162 games ahead, the chances of the Marlins making a repeat appearance in the postseason is incredibly unlikely. FanGraphs gives them just a one percent chance of a playoff berth while Baseball Prospectus gives them a 0.5 percent chance of winning the division. Each projects them for a win total in the low 70s; Baseball Prospectus gives them 70 wins and FanGraphs gives them 73.
In the NHL, there’s a thing called peak sadness which is when a team fails to make the playoffs, but also fails to get at least the number five overall draft pick. The concept doesn’t translate all that well to baseball since draft picks are less impactful and fewer teams make the postseason. There are just more MLB teams that satisfy the conditions for peak sadness every year, and in 2021, it appears that the Marlins will be one of those teams.
The Marlins aren’t a good team; they’re not going to make the playoffs unless something catastrophic happens. In this era of truly wretched teams, the Marlins aren’t that bad. PECOTA projects five teams to be worse than the Marlins which puts them outside of the arbitrary Top 5 draft pick threshold. Miami might be the third-worst team in the National League but they could still finish 10 games ahead of Colorado and Pittsburgh.
So the Marlins are caught in the middle. They’re not as bad as the Rockies or the Pirates but they’re not as good as other bad teams like the Giants or Reds. Thanks to their lousy division, the Reds have a 20 percent chance of making the postseason. Even though the Giants are going to get trounced by the Padres and Dodgers for the next decade, they have a five percent chance of getting the second Wild Card spot this year. Those long odds still give San Francisco five times greater odds than Miami.
If the Marlins aren’t shooting for draft picks or a postseason berth, it’s necessary to take the long view on what a successful season looks like. The Marlins have plenty of young talent who are either on the cusp of the majors or who have already had a cup of coffee, and good seasons from their burgeoning stars will make Kim Ng’s job a lot easier.
The aforementioned Sixto Sánchez had the sort of debut that made trading JT Realmuto look like a good idea. In seven regular season starts, Sánchez pitched to a 3.46 ERA and 3.50 FIP. He tapered off a bit toward the end, though. Including the postseason, he allowed four or more runs in three of his last four outings. For that fourth outing, however, he threw five shutout innings against the Cubs in the Wild Card series, and looked dominant while he was doing it.
Sánchez isn’t the only promising young arm in Miami’s rotation. Strikeouts finally started coming for Sandy Alcantara in 2020 as his average fastball velocity rose from 95.9 to 97.3 mph. Pablo López is also coming off a season where he saw a jump in strikeouts. López added a cutter and threw his curveball less often. Elieser Hernandez struck out almost seven batters for every one he walked in 2020. Hernandez has primarily been a fastball/slider pitcher, but he’s been working on his seldom thrown changeup. Trevor Rogers got knocked around in his first big league stint, but he’s a lefty who can hit 97 mph on his fastball and just needs a dependable secondary pitch.
It’s a rotation that’s a dark horse for one of the best in the majors, but none of the starters were as impressive as Zac Gallen whom the Marlins traded to acquire Jazz Chisholm. The 23-year-old shortstop the Marlins received in the challenge trade had a less auspicious start to his big league career slashing .161/.242/.321 in 62 plate appearances. Had the 2020 minor league season not been cancelled, Chisholm likely would have spent most of the year in Triple-A. He was one of the many prospects who jumped from Double-A to the majors rather than remain at the alternate site.
Chisholm’s underwhelming debut doesn’t mean much if anything. The floor for Chisholm appears to be a solid defensive shortstop, and so long as he cuts down on strikeouts, he should hit enough to be much better than that.
The 2021 season won’t see the Marlins reaping many tangible rewards, but so long as the rotation doesn’t take a step back and Chisholm hits, the Marlins can feel good about the season. The Marlins have been bad for most of their existence, and they’ll be bad again this year, but this roster has the potential to be a consistent winner.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.