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It’s Time to Take the Marlins Seriously

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Lineup! This is a weekly column that will examine — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order. The shape of each entry will vary from week to week, but there will always be nine. Like the past two weeks, our big bat is up second.

1 NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.

Clayton Kershaw is seeing a doctor for lower back discomfort — and not some high-grade physician who deals only with Kershaws instead of normal humans. That comes as something of a surprise.

When pitchers, particularly fun pitchers with high strikeout totals, get hurt, we assume all roads lead to Tommy John surgery and that they’ll be out for at least a year. So while back injuries can and do derail athletic careers, it’s a huge relief that Kershaw’s issues aren’t elbow- or shoulder-related. He still hopes to make his next start on Friday.

Ultimately, this scare seems like it’ll just end up being the latest way to demonstrate Kershaw’s superiority over his fellow pitchers. When Matt Harvey, Yu Darvish, and José Fernandez got Tommy John surgery, they were somewhat unsurprising casualties of a job that destroys the human body. The same goes for Noah Syndergaard, who had an elbow scare last week that turned out to be a minor bone spur that won’t require surgery, or missed time of any kind.

It feels like Kershaw ought to be above all that human frailty, even though he’s not literally invincible — he missed six weeks thanks to a DL trip in 2014, though he bounced back to win the Cy Young and the NL MVP. Nonetheless, it feels incomprehensible that Kershaw could be anything but both dominant and durable because that’s all we’ve ever seen from him.

2 OK, let’s talk about the Marlins.

Last week I said we’re going to have to start taking the Marlins seriously very soon. Well, the time has come. So, how legit are the Marlins?

Right now, they’re 41–36, 4.5 games back of Washington in the NL East, which puts them in line for the second wild-card bid. That’s an 86-win pace.

No NL team has won the wild card with 86 wins since the league went to two wild cards in 2012, though 88 wins has been enough before. In other words, the Marlins haven’t built a huge cushion, but they’re on pace to be in the race until the very end. They’re also outperforming their run differential by four games, which isn’t alarming in one direction or another, but does indicate that they’ve been slightly lucky.

Here’s what we can trust. José Fernandez is a top-10 starting pitcher, and he’s pitched like it. Christian Yelich is probably miscast as a middle-of-the-order hitter, but as long as he’s hitting somewhere in front of Justin Bour, Marcell Ozuna, and The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton, he’ll score a ton of runs with a .399 OBP. After years of teasing us with an inconsistent bat, Ozuna has been by far the best position player on the team. Maybe he won’t post a 153 OPS+ the rest of the way, but he’s always had this kind of breakout season in him. Martín Prado is a nice bat near the top of the order, and while Bour’s .522 slugging percentage might look unsustainable, he slugged .479 last year, so maybe it’s time to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. Those two should be average starters at the infield corners going forward, as should catcher J.T. Realmuto. Miami’s bullpen has been very good as well, thanks to closer A.J. Ramos and three other relievers with at least 27 innings pitched and an ERA+ of 130 or better.

Then there’s TMGS, who’s on a hellacious hot streak after a hellish two-and-a-half-month slump to start the season. Stanton has raised his batting average 18 points in the past 10 days, and he remains the team’s hidden weapon: The Marlins are in a playoff spot despite their best player being nearly replacement-level until mid-June.

A good bullpen, three star-level outfielders, a no-doubt no. 1 starter, and three average position players is not a bad formula, but there are still some gaps in the lineup and a few unsustainable-looking performances.

For instance, there’s not much I’d enjoy more than Ichiro hitting .340 all year at age 42, but he hasn’t had even a two-win season since 2010. I’m just not going to bank on him keeping it up, and he’s been Miami’s only reliable bench bat this year. I’d also take the under on Derek Dietrich, filling in at second base for the suspended Dee Gordon and hitting .305/.392/.448 all year. Still, even if Ichiro and Dietrich both regress to the mean all at once, the lineup’s going to be playoff-caliber.

The starting rotation, though, is another story. Depending on how much you trust Adam Conley, Miami has — at best — two good starting pitchers. If Wei-Yin Chen fixes whatever’s causing him to put up a 5.00 ERA (and a 4.63 FIP) through 86.1 innings, maybe Miami’s in business, but right now, the rotation after Fernandez just isn’t good enough to keep this team in the race for another three months.

The good thing about being a playoff-adjacent team with a bad rotation is that the Marlins don’t need to trade for this year’s equivalent of David Price — even another league-average starter would make a big difference. And that’s important, because the other big problem for the Marlins is that their farm system isn’t very good, so what talent they do have is still years away. Not only does that make it harder — though not impossible — to trade for help now, it means that there’s no real internal solution to the starting rotation issues, either. They can’t just do what the Dodgers did and call up Julio Urias to plug a hole.

The Marlins have a lot of good pieces, a couple of stars, and no surefire fatal flaws. But great as it is to see Ichiro back in his old form, and for Realmuto, Ozuna, and others to get some time in the limelight, this team still needs either a lot of luck or another player or two to be a real playoff contender.

3 Lucas Giolito is what it looks like.

When Lucas Giolito missed his senior year of high school with a UCL injury, he dropped from being perhaps the no. 1 draft prospect all the way to no. 16, where the Nationals overlooked the elbow injury and signed him despite a commitment to UCLA by offering him an over-slot bonus. It might be my favorite first-round pick of the bonus cap era.

Last night, Giolito took the mound in a big league game for the first time, throwing four shutout innings on 45 pitches, striking out one, walking two, and allowing one hit before a rain delay ended his night early.

Listed at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Giolito throws a mid-90s fastball that has hit 100 before, plus the best curveball of any minor league prospect. In the first inning of his big league debut, Giolito ran a 2–1 slider up in the zone that looked like it was going to hit Asdrubal Cabrera in the face but stayed in for a strike. He then came back with one of those over-the-top hammer curves at 81 mph, then finished Cabrera off with two fastballs at 96. We’ll see about the command — although those two walks don’t mean he’s Steve Dalkowski, he can still locate his pitches better — but the stuff is upper-echelon right now. If Syndergaard didn’t exist, Giolito would be unique in his all-power arsenal and Gronkowskian physicality at such a young age.

Still, it’s a little curious that he’s been called up so early. For all his talent, Giolito’s got only 118.1 career innings at Double-A, where he walked 4.3 batters per nine innings and posted a 3.17 ERA this year. Those are fine, but not the kind of numbers that make you want to rush a 21-year-old to the majors, even if the Nationals needed someone to fill in for the injured Stephen Strasburg.

But despite those quibbles and the presence of Julio Urias, Giolito is the most exciting prospect to debut this year.

4 Dope or Not Dope: Chase Utley

One nice thing about working with bicoastal pop culture writers who are way cooler than me is that I’ve learned a lot of new words, namely “dope,” which gets tossed around more than I could possibly have imagined. So, it’s time for a sporadically recurring series in which we decide whether certain baseball-related people and things are dope or not dope.

First up: Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley.

The Case for Dopeness: He’s impervious to pain, if not injury, as he led the National League in HBPs three times and is the current active leader in that category. Utley’s also the best percentage base stealer in baseball history (minimum 100 career attempts), and the best defensive second baseman of his generation. Add his 20- to 30-home run power and you’ve got a fun profile to watch. That’s not even getting into his penchant for scoring from second on groundouts and the deke play in the 2008 World Series. Also: loves dogs; maintained an ongoing correspondence with Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; said a bad word on television; won the World Series and said a bad word on television again.

The Case for Non-Dopeness: Almost all of Utley’s arguments for dopeness rely on events that happened at least five years ago. Certainly from 2006 to 2012, Utley was extremely dope, but as time goes on, he’s become less dope. See: wore a soul patch nearly a decade after soul patches stopped being cool (if they ever were); broke Rubén Tejada’s leg in last year’s NLDS, which was the dirtiest moment in recent playoff history that didn’t involve anyone touching Clay Buchholz’s hair.

Verdict: Dope. I really hesitate to drop “dope” on a 37-year-old whose last major contribution to the game was breaking a dude’s leg on national TV, but listing all his prime accomplishments really drives home how much dopeness he put in the bank during the 2000s. It’s close, but Chase Utley is still dope.

5 The WPA Graph of the Week goes to the Red Sox and Rangers.

This one would be a real kick in the Uribes if anything else had gone wrong for the Rangers in the past couple of weeks. This is interesting not only because the Rangers were up to a 98.7 percent win probability in the ninth inning and blew it, but because of who was on the mound when they did.

FanGraphs
FanGraphs

Up three runs in the ninth, Rangers manager Jeff Banister did not go to closer Sam Dyson in a save situation because he wanted to give a breather to the guy who’s among the league leaders in appearances.

“He’s a workhorse, but nobody can withstand that kind of pace,” Banister said after the game. “He’s on pace for 88 appearances — that’s not conducive to where we want to go.”

Instead, he went to Jake Diekman, who recorded two outs but allowed a run and left with a man on base. Then in came Matt Bush to face the right-handed Mookie Betts. Betts tied the game with a home run, and three batters later, Dustin Pedroia scored the eventual game winner on a wild pitch.

Texas had a 96.4 percent win probability at the start of the ninth inning — save situation or no, you shouldn’t need a closer in that situation. Diekman entered the game needing to get three outs without giving up three runs. He and Bush are both good relief pitchers, but any pitcher who’s on a big league roster converts a three-run save opportunity an overwhelming majority of the time.

A bad result shouldn’t negate a good process. If a situation like Friday’s comes up again, and Banister has the option to save his best reliever for tighter games, he ought to do the exact same thing.

6 Daniel Mengden is the best-looking pitcher in baseball.

Oakland rookie Daniel Mengden has been one of the nicest surprises of the season. The 2014 fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M has pitched well in four starts, and he picked up his first win on Monday against the Giants.

But the best thing about Mengden, well, is how he looks. If Lucas Giolito is what it looks like, Mengden is not what it looks like. He doesn’t appear as big as his listed 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, and because he’s a normal-sized guy who wears tight pants, high socks, and a Hercule Poirot mustache, plus has a herky-jerky windup that looks like something out of a Jazzercise video, he is certainly unique among big league starters.

7 Kris Bryant does the damn thing.

On Monday, Kris Bryant hit three home runs and two doubles, making him only the fourth player ever to record five extra-base hits, including three homers, in a game. (The three others: Braves first baseman Joe Adcock in 1954, Shawn Green of the Dodgers in 2002, and Josh Hamilton of the Rangers in 2012.) Bryant was also the first player since Josh Hamilton to record 16 total bases in a game, which is the maximum number of total bases you can have without being required to register as one of the armed services.

The most interesting thing about Bryant, though, is not that he’s hitting .277/.368/.561, or even that he’s the most attractive man in baseball. No, it’s his bizarre positional flexibility. You wouldn’t think that a guy listed at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds would be a utilityman, but he’s already played six positions this year. Bryant obviously splits time among third base and the outfield corners, but he runs well enough for a big guy that he might be a viable center fielder if the Cubs, for some reason, wanted to try that out. And while his inning at shortstop seems ridiculous, is Bryant really that much bigger than Carlos Correa and Corey Seager? Bryant would be a superstar even if he were just a pretty face and a big bat, but it turns out he’s quite a bit more.

8 Cleveland has become Titletown.

There’s been a lot of talk about LeBron James breaking a citywide sports curse on Cleveland, but that win might have been even more restorative than anyone had imagined. Since the Cavs won the title on June 19, the Indians haven’t just run away with first place in their division or posted the best record in the AL — they literally haven’t lost. With the Cavs coming back from a 3–1 deficit and the Indians on an 11-game winning streak, we’ve got to consider the possibility that this story ends with the Browns going 16–0 and winning the Super Bowl.

9 Is this the end of the … Rod?

It looks like Alex Rodriguez’s time as a useful big leaguer might finally be winding down. A full-time DH, Rodriguez is hitting .219/.258/.391, which would be his first OPS+ of less than 110 since 1995. He’s doing just fine against lefties, but he’s hitting only .200/.236/.348 against right-handers, which is bad because most pitchers are right-handed.

If he weren’t owed $21 million this year, and another $21 million next year, and if he weren’t one of the most controversial figures in modern baseball history, the Yankees would have divested themselves of Rodriguez one way or another. And if he keeps posting a 71 OPS+ as a platoon DH, they might cut their losses anyway.

When all of this is said and done, the one thing I can guarantee about A-Rod is that he’ll go down as one of the most underrated players of the 21st century. He was the closest thing to Mike Trout before Trout came along, but his contributions — a great deal of which came at shortstop — are unprecedented in the modern game: 118.3 career WAR (16th most all-time), 695 home runs (fourth all-time), along with 328 stolen bases and more than 3,100 hits and 1,300 walks.

He’ll never be truly appreciated, not because he took performance-enhancing drugs, but because nobody liked him very much. He seems perfectly happy to ride into the sunset and spend his 40s being a goofy dad, and I’m glad, because if he looks for validation from the baseball world that is commensurate with his accomplishments, he’ll never find it.