Barry Bonds was standing outside the batting cage, listening to the metronomic clacking sound of bats striking baseballs by hitters silhouetted behind a dark screen, when he was asked to assess the state of the Marlins lineup.
A season ago, before Bonds arrived to become their new hitting coach, the Marlins failed miserably when it came to putting runs on the board. Only Atlanta was worse at it, and the Marlins front office had done nothing during the course of the offseason to improve on the situation, leaving the lineup entirely untouched.
It’s the same now as it was then.
And yet Bonds sees it differently. A lot differently.
“It’s a great lineup,” baseball’s all-time home-run king said. “This lineup can hold its own with any lineup.”
Say what? Has Bonds lost his mind?
In its annual preseason projections, Baseball Prospectus doesn’t see much hope for improvement, predicting the Marlins to score only 26 more runs than the 613 they totaled in 2015.
But the Marlins — and Bonds is far from alone on the shared thinking — see otherwise.
“There’s way more in [the lineup] than we’ve shown,” Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton said. “We have the formula.”
Said outfielder Christian Yelich: “I like our lineup with anyone’s.”
So how’s that possible?
Start with Stanton. He broke a bone in his left hand on June 26 and never returned. A full season of Stanton, the thinking goes, and the Marlins are suddenly an altogether different team.
“I wasn’t there the whole time,” Stanton said of a 2015 season in which he still led the team with 27 home runs and was on pace to becoming the first Marlin to hit more than 50.
Removing Stanton from the lineup removes not only his direct contributions, which are substantial, but indirectly impacts the rest of the lineup in a trickle-down effect. Without Stanton to fret about, opposing pitchers can go about their business differently with the rest of the Marlins hitters.
“Stanton makes every one of those guys significantly different,” said one major-league scout who closely follows the Marlins. “What do I have to fear when Stanton’s not in the lineup? Nothing. Plain and simple.”
But the Marlins need more than Stanton to improve their scoring output.
When Stanton went down, Yelich was hitting .222, Marcell Ozuna was two weeks away from being demoted to the minors, struggling first baseman Michael Morse was on the disabled list and about a month from being traded, and catcher J.T. Realmuto was just getting his feet wet after replacing Opening Day backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who had been released.
The Marlins need Yelich to get off to a better start, Ozuna to fulfill his potential, NL batting champion Dee Gordon to maintain his presence at the top of the order, first baseman Justin Bour to figure out how better to hit left-handers (all 23 of his home runs came against righties), and Realmuto and third baseman Martin Prado to at least maintain their same levels of production.
If all that happens, then the Marlins are better off offensively.
But that’s a big if.
“I think we’re all kind of in a position where talk is cheap,” Yelich said. “Every spring we come in and everyone talks about how good our lineup’s going to be, how the team is going to be, and then the season happens and [stuff] happens. It’s to the point where we’ve got to perform. That’s the bottom line.”
The Marlins have one of the youngest lineups in the majors. Prado, 32, is the oldest member of the lineup. No other player is older than 27.
But other than Bour and Realmuto, it is an experienced lineup in terms of big-league seasoning. Everyone else has at least 1,200 major-league at bats, which is about two full season’s worth.
“It’s all about taking the next step,” new Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “Are they going to get better? Or is this it?”
Mattingly feels the talent is there. He noted that although the Marlins struggled to score runs, they have shown the ability to hit. They ranked fourth in the NL last season with a .260 batting average.
“That tells you a lot,” Mattingly said. “Sometimes it tells you you’re not doing the little things, as far as moving runners, getting guys in from third, doing the little things it takes to win a game. So that part of it, you just try to knit that all together.”
But the Marlins’ relatively healthy team batting average was offset by its failure to draw walks. Marlins hitters ranked last in free passes last season, some of that having to do with the absence of Stanton for half the season.
And so it boils down largely to improved health and production.
“We have a good lineup,” Yelich said. “It’s balanced one through eight. We’ve got talented players. Now it’s about performing and actually showing it. We didn’t do that last year. But we’ve got to stay on the field [healthy], or it’s all irrelevant.”