Judged against expectations, the Miami Marlins at the All-Star break might be the best thing in town among our Big Four pro teams, which, granted, might say more about the town than it does the baseball team.
The Dolphins fell from a playoff year to a 6-10 record chased by a dubious offseason.
The Panthers improved but still disappointed in missing the playoffs despite a young core more promising than it is producing.
The Heat seems stuck in the hopeless no-man’s land of low-playoff-seed average.
The Marlins at least are exceeding expectations and showing signs that there may have been a method to the sadness in the latest fire sale that served as a jarring franchise reboot under the new owners.
Derek Jeter is not entitled to stand on any soapbox and crow, “I told you so!” But he is entitled to believe he might gradually be winning some benefit of doubt on his ground-up rebuild.
Miami has a credible farm system of prospects for the first time in years, thanks to the unpopular trades of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon. I was loud among critics who called that a salary dump without winning (or fans) in mind. And it was a salary dump. But I would now acknowledge there was a long-range plan, at least.
The youthful makeover had the Marlins expected in the short term to be the worst team in baseball, with Jeter accused of “tanking” in a contentious national TV interview. And the critics seemed right after that 5-17 start and when the Marlins sank to a season-worst 19 games under .500 at 20-39.
Since then, though, the club has surged to become competitive in going 21-18, including six series wins over teams with winning records.
The sum still shows a team out of the playoff hunt, and still on pace to lose 96 games. But the indications of hopefulness are hard to miss.
One is that all-star J.T. Realmuto, maybe the best catcher in baseball, now seems likely to be offered a contract extension after the season, rather than being dealt before the July 31 deadline. Same with highly coveted closer Kyle Barraclough, who anchors a really stout bullpen.
Miami has been (lately) winning with a patchwork lineup of temp-veterans and emerging youth. Top prospect Lewis Brinson has had a miserable season (.186), but others have emerged led by right fielder/third baseman Brian Anderson, who should be getting rookie of the year attention. So should pitcher Caleb Smith.
Top pitching prospect Sandy Alcantara is getting his shot. Pitcher Jorge Guzman, who some think might be even better, is still down on the farm. Outfielder Monte Harrison and infielder Isan Diaz are other promising prospects coming up.
It is an interesting dynamic in the NL East right now.
The Washington Nationals’ window seems to have closed, and now Bryce Harper is a pending free agent.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves have taken over — both doing over the past few seasons what Miami is doing now. They are the living blueprint of what the Marlins are attempting.
I would rather be the Marlins right now than the New York Mets, who have two great starting pitchers surrounded by a mess, with a reboot of their own seeming likely.
I talk to many Marlins fans and a consensus I hear is one of cautious optimism, a sense of a plan in motion.
It is a fallacy that crowds are way down. Official attendance is, yes, but that’s because the gate no longer is routinely padded as it was during the Loria regime. In a refreshing nod to transparency, the Marlins now report the number of fans actually at the game, and the count is not noticeably below a year ago. In other words, the offseason makeover that sent Stanton and others packing has not had a dramatic negative affect on crowds, nor has the terrible start to the season.
Sunday’s crowd of 14,793 in fact was the team’s biggest since April 14, for what that’s worth. The hard-core base support remains, but must be significantly grown. The stadium move south has been a challenge. The Dolphins, Panthers and Hurricanes football all moved north. The Marlins bucked the trend, and must find a way to grow their backyard support in Miami-Dade while also re-engaging Broward fans with a reason to turn off the TV and drive south in rush-hour traffic to be at the ballpark.
I would say that starts with winning, but it doesn’t, really. Not here.
With this team, in this market, it starts with trust. Is there a belief by too-often-burned Marlins fans that Jeter has the right plan and the needed commitment?
The past six weeks have moved the needle a bit in his favor. That’s not nothing. It’s a start.