Miami isn't going to contend for a playoff berth in 2014 – but that doesn't mean that this won't be a club worth watching this season. There are still a few questions surrounding the Marlins going into this season, which could turn ugly in a hurry. Anyway, here are the three key questions for the 2014 Miami Marlins, and why each question has significance.
1) Can Jose Fernandez repeat his performance from 2013?
Jose Fernandez's rookie year of 2013 was phenomenal. The 21-year old Cuban picked up 26 of 30 first place votes in the NL Rookie of the Year award voting, and actually finished third in the NL Cy Young award voting behind Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright. Hell, it was one of the best years we've seen from a rookie pitcher ever – in the last 90 years, only three rookie pitchers that have thrown as many innings as Fernandez have had a lower ERA than his 2.19, and two of those seasons came in the pitcher-friendly year of 1968. That's stunning.
Of course, expectations will be high for him heading into 2014. Will he be a Cy Young candidate once again? Will he merely be really good as some of that new car smell wears off? Is he going to get hurt, giving the much-maligned Verducci Effect another talking point? We obviously don't know, but he's a key part of Miami's success in 2014. Miami's young rotation is counting on a 21-year old to be its stabilizing force, which is a terrifying thing to think about. But really, there's no one else on their staff that could be in that spot – the other four projected members of Miami's rotation combined for just 78 starts in the majors a year ago, and Tom Koehler (who may not even be in the rotation once Opening Day rolls along) was the only non-Fernandez pitcher to clear the 120 inning mark.
There's no Ricky Nolasco to hold the fort down anymore – this is Fernandez's staff. And if he's not able to perform at a level resembling his 2013, the Marlins rotation could fall apart like a house of cards.
2) Is Christian Yelich ready for The Show?
22-year old left fielder Christian Yelich made his major league debut in July after a total of just 222 plate appearances past high-A. The pedigree is clearly there with Yelich – he was a first-round pick in the 2010 Draft, a top 40 or 50 prospect heading into the 2012 season, and a top 20 prospect heading into 2013. But in his major league debut season, Yelich struggled at times. Against left-handers, he hit a pathetic .165/.245/.231. His isolated power was only .108, a number on par with guys like Alberto Callaspo, Erick Aybar, or Yunel Escobar. who are generally ten home run players. He struck out in 24.2% of his plate appearances, which would have been a top 20 rate in baseball last year.
Of course, there were a lot of good things about his rookie year. Yelich was a terror on the basepaths for Miami, swiping ten bags without getting caught once and advancing an extra base on a hit in 14 of 23 opportunities (60.9%, a better rate than Mike Trout's 60.3%). Yelich walked in 11.4% of his plate appearances, which would have been a top 30 rate in baseball if it weren't for an admittedly small sample. He held his own defensively, though he did struggle at times with the glove.
Yelich is the third major building block for Miami, following in the footsteps of Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins were just as aggressive with those two as they were with Yelich, promoting each of those players to the majors at age 20. Both of those players performed better than Yelich in their debut seasons, and while their success shouldn't be held against Yelich, the bar has been set high. The Marlins wouldn't like to see him struggle out of the gate this year, and his success will likely have an effect on what they end up doing with Stanton. Maybe if Yelich struggles, the Marlins will be less likely to deal Stanton in the coming months. Maybe if Yelich comes out of Spring Training like a bat out of hell, the club will be more comfortable dealing their power hitting right fielder.
Remember the struggles of Jeremy Hermida in Miami? He was the #4 prospect in baseball going into the 2006 season, coming off of a season in AA where he hit .293/.457/.518 with 111 walks, 18 home runs, and 23 stolen bases at age 21. In his major league career, Hermida hit jus .257/.334/.415 in 2261 plate appearances for five clubs. Saying that Yelich could pan out like Hermida isn't fair to him, but sometimes, the can't miss guys manage to miss. 2014 will be a huge season for Yelich, despite his youth.
3) Do these veterans have anything left?
The Marlins bought low on a lot of free agents this winter – Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal, Casey McGehee, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are four new faces in Miami's infield. Those four had very interesting, very different seasons in 2012. Jones lost the bulk of his playing time in Pittsburgh over the second half of the season, and finished 2014 with a disappointing .233/.289/.419 stat line. Furcal didn't play at all last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March. McGehee spent his year in Japan as a teammate of Masahiro Tanaka's with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and hit .292/.376/.515 with 28 home runs before heading back stateside. Finally, there's Saltalamacchia, who was the catcher for the World Champion Red Sox, and hit .273/.338/.468 in his finest season to date.
But really, how much do any of these guys have left in the tank? Saltalamacchia is the young gun of the group, and he turns 29 in May. McGehee is 31, Jones turns 34 in June, and Furcal is the elder statesman of the bunch at 36. Granted, even if the group struggles as a whole, it's not as if they're replacing a group of All-Stars – Placido Polanco, Donovan Solano, Logan Morrison, Jeff Mathis, Rob Brantly, and Derek Dietrich combined to play 3379 2/3 innings at first base, second base, third base, and catcher, and were worth -1.6 fWAR in 2013,
Even if Miami's new and improved infield doesn't live up to expectations, they still need to be better than that, right?