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Expected To Be MLB's Worst, Marlins Are Exceeding Expectations

J.T.-Realmuto-2016-ew
Marlins' catcher J.T. Realmuto

ATLANTA—A funny thing happened during the Marlins’ expected plunge to the bottom of Major League Baseball. The rookies and castoffs they acquired to replace their all-stars began playing, well, well.

Dan Straily pitched seven shutout innings to lift the Marlins to a 2-0 win over the National League-best Braves on Friday night. With eight rookies on their active roster—including six on their pitching staff—the Marlins have won three of their last four.

Miami’s overall record stands at 17-27. It’s not good, but it’s not the worst. It’s not even one of the five worst records in baseball.

In fact, it’s better than the 16-28 record the Marlins had through 44 games last season, when Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon were still around and the franchise’s fire sale had yet to commence.

“I think when you’re starting a build and you’ve gotten rid of some really good players, things don’t look good on paper,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “But our pitching has kind of stepped up, our young guys have thrown the baseball pretty good for us ... Anywhere in baseball you get good pitching, you’ve got a chance to win.”

Indeed, welcome contributions from the rookies on the pitching staff have been a driving force behind the Marlins' surge towards respectability.

Lefthander Jarlin Garcia has a team-best 3.14 ERA and is holding opponents to a .184 batting average. Fellow lefty Caleb Smith has a 4.22 ERA and a team-high 57 strikeouts through nine starts. Rule 5 righthander Elieser Hernandez made his first major league start this week and delivered five innings of one-run ball. Six-foot-eight behemoth Tayron Guerrero has emerged in the bullpen, averaging 98 mph on his fastball and pitching to a 3.98 ERA in 21 appearances. Drew Steckenrider didn’t allow a run in 16 of his first 17 appearances before running into trouble recently.

In both the rotation and bullpen, the Marlins' young arms are showing promise.

“They’re all just kind of finding their own,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “Early in the season they were kind of feeling their way through you could tell a little bit, but lately they’ve just all been pounding the strike zone which is huge for them. They’ve all got really good stuff. Now they just have the confidence to know they can pitch with it and get hitters out in the zone with it.”

Combined with Straily getting better each successive start since his return from a forearm strain, Jose Ureña catching fire his last four starts and Kyle Barraclough pitching at an all-star level out of the bullpen, the Marlins suddenly have a staff capable of keeping the team in games.

“We ride our pitching,” Mattingly said. “When we’re pitching good it gives our guys a chance to kind of stay in the game and scratch for runs. That’s our best games. It doesn’t have to be shutouts, but we just gotta stay in the game. The games we’ve been hurt, we get behind early and we create no offense. The guys give us better at-bats it seems like when we’re in a game like (Friday), where every hit could be big and every run for us is big.”

Scratching enough runs across has been a challenge. The Marlins have scored the fewest runs in baseball, but the few remaining accomplished veterans are coming through. Realmuto broke a scoreless tie with an RBI triple in the sixth inning on Friday, and Starlin Castro followed with an RBI double.

Realmuto is batting .313 with a .942 OPS. Castro is on pace for his second consecutive .300 season. Justin Bour has an .835 OPS. and rookie Brian Anderson has settled into the No. 5 spot in the order and hit .267 with a .731 OPS, both of which are above league average.

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The Marlins are by no means a good team. They’re still in last place in the National League East, and they rank in the bottom five in baseball in most statistical categories.

But they’re playing competitive baseball, seeing some promising performances from their young pitchers and having players step up and show they can be building blocks for the franchise as it moves forward.

For a rebuilding team that was supposed to be the dregs of MLB, the Marlins are doing all right and surpassing the expectations set for them.

“We knew we had talent in this room when we started spring training,” Realmuto said. “Everybody in this room believes in themselves and we feel like there’s better baseball to be played from us. It’s not like we’re overachieving right now. We feel like we can be even better.”

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