The Miami Marlins are one of the more deep-rooted rebuilding teams in Major League Baseball, and there are some fascinating aspects to their process. Furthermore, there are parts of their rebuild that are reminiscent of their division rivals from the late 2000s: the Washington Nationals.
Yes, the Marlins, who haven’t made the playoffs since their 2003 World Series championship, could hold the same fate as the Nationals, the defending World Series champions. Let’s consider all the similarities, both major and minor, between the Marlins over the last five years and the Nationals from 10-15 years ago.
Bought by a High-Profile/Rich Individual
Ted Lerner bought the Washington Nationals, previously the Montreal Expos, from MLB in 2006 for $450 million. Forbes estimates Lerner’s 2020 net worth as a whopping $4.4 billion.
Former New York Yankees star Derek Jeter and New York businessman Bruce Sherman bought the Miami Marlins from owner Jeffrey Loria in 2017 for $1.2 billion.
Endured a Location/Stadium Change
The Nationals, established in 2005, played in RFK Stadium from 2005-07. Washington founded Nationals Park in 2008, located roughly 10 minutes southwest of RFK Stadium.
The Florida Marlins were established in 1993, residing in Sun Life Stadium. They stayed in the venue through 2011, afterwards moving roughly 20 minutes south to Marlins Park. The 2012 MLB season was the birth year of the Miami Marlins.
Ripped to Shreds by the Public
The Nationals won between 73-81 games from 2005-07. Then they didn’t, to put it politely. They won a combined 187 games the ensuing three seasons and were mocked for depressing attendance in their new ballpark. Washington was the laughing stock of the NL East in the first half of its existence.
The Marlins have finished in last place in the NL East in each of the last two seasons, winning a combined 120 games. They haven’t posted a winning record since 2009, have been last in MLB in attendance the last two seasons, and been one of the punching bags of the sport. They’re the unequivocal worst team in their division (Nationals, Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies).
Minimal, But Encouraging Homegrown Building Blocks
Washington’s core in the late 2000s was, well, Ryan Zimmerman. The team’s first-ever draft selection was the one constant in an otherwise chaotic carousel of young players coming in and out of the MLB roster. Zimmerman won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger and made the NL All-Star Game roster in 2009.
Ian Desmond, a 2004 draft selection by the Expos, showed some promise at shortstop and swung a line-drive bat in the early stages of his career. Desmond would later become one of the best offensive shortstops in the sport.
Miami is looking for a core around the diamond. That said, they have some budding position players, one being Brian Anderson. The 27-year-old plays third base and right field and has been the bright spot of the Marlins’ offensive attack. Last season Anderson posted an .811 OPS while totaling 20 home runs and 66 RBIs across 126 games.
Young Starting Pitching Sparked Optimism
Starting pitching was the impetus of Washington’s extensive rebuild. In 2009 they drafted Stephen Strasburg with the first overall selection in the MLB Draft. In one of the most anticipated and remembered MLB debuts in recent memory, Strasburg logged 14 strikeouts while surrendering just two runs and four hits across seven innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 8, 2010.
The Nationals selected right-hander Jordan Zimmermann in the second round of the 2007 MLB Draft. In Zimmermann’s first full season at the big-league level, he recorded a 3.18 ERA, kept hitters off-balanced, and looked like an All-Star in the making.
Strasburg won the 2019 World Series Most Valuable Player Award and earned a $245 million payday from the Nationals. Zimmermann was arguably Washington’s best and most consistent starter from 2011-15, making two NL All-Star Game rosters and habitually pitching into the late innings.
Starting pitching is the featured element of Miami’s future. In the offseason of wheeling and deal at will (2017-18), the Marlins traded Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Dee Gordon.
As part of the Ozuna trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Marlins acquired Sandy Alcantara. As part of the Yelich trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Marlins acquired Jordan Yamamoto. Alcantara, 24, is a budding ace. He has a consistent, five-pitch arsenal, posted a 3.88 ERA across 32 starts last season, and has been able to work out of trouble.
Yamamoto, 24, made 15 starts last season. Across those outings he held opponents to a .191 batting average and totaled 82 strikeouts. Per Statcast, Yamamoto went away from his four seamer roughly 50 percent of the time. Meanwhile, Caleb Smith has shown flashes of being a reliable starter. He logs strikeouts at a high rate, throws a mean slider, and boasted an ERA below four through the first five months of last season; we’re currently gearing up for a 60-game regular season. Young right-handers Pablo Lopez and Elieser Hernandez have considerable starting experience, and the Marlins’ top prospect, Sixto Sanchez, is yet to make his big-league debut.
Drafted an Outfielder in the Top Five
The Nationals owned the first pick in the MLB Draft yet again in 2010. This time around they went with a position player: Bryce Harper. While it ended with him signing with the division rival Philadelphia Phillies in 2019, the outfielder lived up to the hype in D.C. Harper was a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the order and smooth in right field. He won the 2015 NL MVP and posted an OPS above 1.000 in 2015 and 2017.
The Marlins selected outfielder JJ Bleday with the fourth pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. Just one year into his career with the Marlins, he’s widely viewed as their top position player prospect. Bleday has a similar swing to Harper in the way he drops his hands and follows through.
Homegrown Starter Loses His Spot
Before the likes of Strasburg and Zimmermann were yearly fixtures in the Nationals rotation, left-hander John Lannan was the ace. The homegrown southpaw was an effective pitch-to-contact pitcher. He thrived on catching hitters off-balanced with his breaking pitches. Lannan posted an ERA below four in three out of four seasons from 2008-11.
Unfortunately for Lannan, he lost his spot in the rotation in 2012 and was sent to Triple A. Meanwhile, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Edwin Jackson, and Gio Gonzalez thrived in his absence. Consequently, starts were difficult to come by for Lannan when he made appearances with the big-league club. He would sign with the Phillies the ensuing offseason.
Jose Urena made appearances out of the Marlins bullpen over the first few years of his MLB career but became a mainstay in their rotation early in 2017. In both 2017 and 2018 he recorded an ERA below four. Urena hasn’t been one to pitch deep into games. At the same time, he gets considerable movement on his slider and has been able to evade mid-game catastrophes.
Last season Urena suffered a back injury, which forced him to go on the 60-day injured list. When Urena returned, he was utilized as a reliever and, much like the first half of the season, struggled to get into a groove. He finished the season with a 5.21 ERA and is supposedly competing for a spot in the Marlins rotation.
Gradually Making Impactful Moves
The Nationals signed Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham in the winter of 2009 while acquiring Nyjer Morgan from the Pittsburgh Pirates during said season. Dunn was a home run machine, Willingham was a reliable outfielder, and Morgan was an outfielder commander with blazing speed. In the winter of 2011, Washington signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal.
The ensuing offseason they acquired Gonzalez from the Oakland Athletics. While he got off to a sluggish first couple of years with the Nationals, Werth added an All-Star caliber outfielder to a young offense. Gonzalez was arguably Washington’s best starting pitcher in his debut year and enhanced a young rotation. None of these moves interfered with the players the Nationals were building around; they improved the team and added name recognition.
The Marlins got their hands a little dirty this past offseason. Adding infielders Jonathan Villar and Jesus Aguilar, outfielder Corey Dickerson, catcher Francisco Cervelli, and reliever Brandon Kintzler, they improved multiple facets of their ballclub.
Villar is a versatile infielder with a line-drive swing; Aguilar is a power hitter, a year removed from posting an .890 OPS and totaling 35 home runs and 108 RBIs; Dickerson is a contact hitter; Cervelli is a respectable catcher; Kintzler is a steady backend reliever. None of these players get in the way of those the Marlins are building around; they complement them.
Their Paths are Similar
The logistics are the same in these two rebuilds: a heavy reliance on starting pitching, making impactful and prudent moves when they present themselves, and not changing course. Time will tell whether the Marlins become a perennial World Series threat.