Marlins center fielder Lewis Brinson talks about Opening Day
All Marlins’ position player talk today, with spring training opening this week:
▪ The outfield situation is unique in that, as Don Mattingly confirmed, there’s not a player at this moment who can assume he will be a starting outfielder for this team.
In the wake of the team’s decision to play Brian Anderson at third base instead of right field, there are essentially six realistic options for three starting outfield jobs: Lewis Brinson, Curtis Granderson, Garrett Cooper, Magneuris Sierra, Austin Dean and Rosell Herrera.
After a season in which he hit .199 with just a .240 on-base average, the Marlins cannot be sure that Brinson will be a long-term starting big-league outfielder, let alone the All Star type that some projected.
His .199 average was second-worst among all National League batters with at least 300 at-bats, ahead of only Adam Duvall. He struck out 29.5 percent of his plate appearances and had more strikeouts (120) than hits and walks combined (93).
One problem is he swung at 38 percent of the pitches he saw out of the strike zone and made contact with 49 percent of them.
A strong June (.267) raised hopes, but then he missed nearly two months with a hip injury and then he hit .239 in September, with 26 strikeouts in 92 at-bats.
The Marlins never could have envisioned Brinson/Sierra both hitting under the Mendoza line after acquiring them in the Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna trades. But they will be patient with both — to an extent.
As for Sierra, more worrisome than his .190 average was that he walked just six times in 147 at-bats. The Marlins have implored him to bunt more. It’s way too soon to lose hope, because he is a .287 minor-league hitter in 528 games with 112 steals in 161 attempts and has the potential to be a plus defender. But as is the case with Brinson, Miami can no longer be sure what it has.
“Both have tremendous upside,” Mattingly said Saturday. “Lewis struggled, but he’s a tremendous kid in the way he continued to work. We have seen improvement and see him start to catch on before his [hip injury that sidelined him most of July and August]. He showed some good signs before and afterward.
“Magneuris, we know the potential is there. We will be working with him in all different areas — on base, his whole preparation on how to get ready. Both of these guys need to keep improving, and we’re going to help them do that.”
Granderson could emerge as a starter against right-handers. He slipped to .242 last season (.247 against right-handers, .174 vs left-handers). But he’s a career .262 hitter vs right-handers.
“I saw him in Milwaukee last year and he’s still in really good shape and still gives you quality at-bats,” one American League scout said. “Defensively, he’s slowing down a little bit. I saw him mostly play right and left. He’s still a threat to hit the ball out of the park. He still draws walks, good leadership guy.”
As Hill said, “as you look at our right-handed dominant position players, especially in the outfield, he’s a good complement to them. He’s still an extremely talented player, albeit 37 years old.”
Dean has a chance to win a job this spring; he hit .420 in 22 games at Double A but just .221, four homers, 14 RBI in 122 plate appearances with the Marlins.
And Mattingly said Herrera (.234, 20 RBI in 86 games for the Royals and Reds last season) “has a really good swing and has upside.” He’s a “tremendous looking athlete,” Hill added.
Cooper, 27, was limited to 12 games because of wrist injuries and hit .212 in 33 at-bats, but the Marlins still believe he’s going to hit. He’s a .304 career minor-league hitter and had 84 RBI in 82 games in the Yankees system in 2017. And he hit .326 in 43 at-bats for the Yankees in 2017. First base would be an option for him, too.
The Marlins have 10 or so legitimate outfield prospects, but they have either regressed (such as Sierra) or probably aren’t ready yet for the big leagues, a group that includes Monte Harrison ( .240, 19 homers, 48 RBI, 28 steals but also 215 strikeouts at AA Jacksonville), Brian Miller ( .295, 40 steals, 43 RBI between Class A and AA), 2018 third-round pick Tristan Pompey (.299, 23 RBI in 52 games in three low-minor league levels) 2018 first-round pick Connor Scott (.218, 13 RBI in two low levels of minors) and brothers Victor Victor Mesa and Victor Jr.
▪ Though Harrison will be in big-league spring training and remains the organization’s No. 1 prospect, his 36.9 strikeout rate and .240 average suggest he needs time in Triple A. “It’s all mental for me,” Harrison said. “If I put myself in the right position mentally, I’ll be perfectly fine.”
Even if Harrison is great this spring, a strong case could be made to allow him to develop in the minors for another couple months; keeping him there well into June extends the time until he becomes a free agent.
▪ The Marlins are looking at a Neil Walker/Peter O’Brien platoon at first base, and that makes some sense. Walker, a switch hitter, is better from the left side; he has a career .271 average vs. right-handers, .256 against lefties.
The right-handed O’Brien has hit .270 vs lefties and .204 vs right-handers in 140 big-league at bats.
The Marlins know O’Brien can hit for power; he hit 30 homers in the minors last year and four in 74 plate appearances with Miami. What was encouraging was he also hit for average (.273) during that September Marlins stint — important because he hit only .191 and .216 the past two seasons in the minors with substantial at-bats. His ability make contact remains a concern.
▪ The Marlins hope Isan Diaz — acquired with Brinson, Harrison and pitcher Jordan Yamamoto in the Christian Yelich deal — improves enough to take over for Starlin Castro late this season (if Castro is dealt at the deadline before he hits free agency next winter) or in 2019.
Diaz hit .232 with 13 homers and 56 RBI between Double A and Triple A. But he must make better contact; he struck out 140 times, or 32 percent of his at-bats.
▪ Baseball America raised the Marlins’ farm system from 24th to 13th in their 2019 rankings.
▪ In his first extended interview after his trade from the Marlins to Philadelphia, J.T. Realmuto told Sirius XM’s Craig Mish: “I wasn’t unhappy at all with anything in Miami. I have nothing but love for Miami. The organization treated me and my wife great and with respect. I’m playing this game for one reason and that’s to win a World Series. That’s not to say the Marlins won’t ever win a World Series, but it’s tough when you are in a rebuild or build, but it’s tough to walk out there to be a little less equipped than the other team.”
Here’s Mish’s full interview with Realmuto, who had a lot more to say as he reflected on his Marlins years and the future.