Despite Outbreak, Marlins Skate to the Top of the NL Easton August 10, 2020 at 3:55 pm

Despite Outbreak, Marlins Skate to the Top of the NL East

“They already have their own helmets.” — NASA recruiter, The Right Stuff

When word arose that the Marlins were so desperate for players in the wake of a coronavirus outbreak that sidelined more than half of their Opening Day roster — and threatened the viability of the remainder of the 2020 season — that they were calling up an Olympic speed skater, it felt like the scene in The Right Stuff where Jeff Goldbum and Harry Shearer pitch President Dwight Eisenhower, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, and NASA bigwigs on the possibility of using race car drivers, circus acrobats, and other daredevils as astronauts. “Besides turning left, I don’t think there’s much similarity,” said 30-year-old second baseman Eddy Alvarez of the similarity between baseball and short track speed skating, the sport in which he won a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics as part of Team USA’s 5,000 meter relay team.

One of 17 players added to the Marlins’ active roster at various points last week as the team returned to play following the postponement of seven games due to the outbreak, Alvarez debuted on Wednesday against the Orioles, becoming the first Winter Olympian ever to reach the majors, and the first non-baseball Olympian to play in the majors since Jim Thorpe (1913-19). He entered Sunday having gone 0-for-9 with five strikeouts, but collected his first big league hit off Met ace Jacob deGrom, a hot smash that third baseman J.D. Davis could only stop. It was one of his three hits in the game, accompanied by another infield single off deGrom, and a double off Edwin Diaz; Alvarez reached on an error in his other plate appearance, and also added a stolen base and a great diving play at second base. Have a day, Eddy.

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Despite Alvarez’s banner day, the Marlins lost, 4-2, but even so, a team that went 57-105 last year finished the weekend with a 7-3 record, putting them into a tie with the Braves atop the NL East. Just what in the name of Don Mattingly‘s sideburns is going on?

By now, the contours of the Marlins’ mess, the largest outbreak on any team to date, are at least somewhat familiar. Just before their Opening Day game against the Phillies on July 24, they placed catcher Jorge Alfaro on the Injured List for undisclosed reasons. Then, just before playing the Phillies two days later, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that starting pitcher Jose Urena was scratched due to a positive test, and soon afterwards, he added first baseman/designated hitter Garret Cooper and right fielder Harold Ramirez to the list of positives. Even so, the team went ahead with the game; it was initially reported that they did so after deciding to play via a group text centered around shortstop Miguel Rojas (Phillies general manager Matt Klentak clarified that the decision came from MLB). A day later, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that eight more players and two coaches had tested positive, and the hits kept coming; by July 31, the count included a staggering 18 total players — more than half the active roster.

The outbreak sent the rumor mill spinning as to its origins, with Atlanta bars and the team’s flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia the primary focuses. MLB launched an investigation, via which a source told The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drelich that the league’s investigators do not believe that the infection was caused by players’ nightlife activities:

“The failure to use masks, the players gathering in the hotel without masks, whether it’s in the hallway or people’s rooms — if you really want to know what could have been done better by the club, that’s really where it lies,” one source with knowledge of the investigation said.

…MLB suspects a super spreader — someone who transmits the virus to more than the two or three people a carrier normally would infect — was involved in the Marlins’ rapid spread. The Marlins’ seating arrangement on their Delta charter from Atlanta to Philadelphia, where the team has been quarantined since July 26, contributed to the league’s initial conclusion. However, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said recently, “We’ve got zero documented evidence of any transmission of COVID aboard a single Delta plane through the pandemic.”

“(The league) thinks the initial exposure took not all 20, but took a lot of them,” the source said. “Then we had some spread from there based on the failure to follow the protocols.”

“No salacious activity,” said team CEO Derek Jeter, adding, “Some of our traveling party had a false sense of security.”

The infected Marlins were forced to quarantine in Philadelphia for most of a week before being transported to Florida on multiple sleeper buses. Four games against the Orioles and three against the Nationals were postponed before the team could return to play, and meanwhile, the Marlins’ front office had to reassemble a roster using players from its alternate site in Jupiter, Florida as well as trades and waiver wire pickups. Once play resumed, the Marlins — who had won their final game before their hiatus — stretched their winning streak to six by sweeping four games against the Orioles in Baltimore (two of which they won as the “home” team) and then winning Friday’s series opener against the Mets, running their record to 7-1. They lost to the Mets on Saturday and Sunday, but even so, they’re off to their best start since 2009, when they bolted from the gate 9-1 — and this time around, 7-3 represents one-sixth of their schedule, not 1/16th.

The Marlins have used a lot of smoke and mirrors to get this far. Their run differential is just +4. They’ve outscored opponents 42-38; by Pythagenpat, they have a .545 winning percentage, by Baseruns, an even more modest .494. They’re 4-0 in one-run games thus far, after going 16-28 in such games last year, and it doesn’t hurt that 40% of their schedule has been against a team that lost 108 games last year, though to be fair, the Orioles themselves are 7-7 at this writing.

How threadbare is Miami’s roster? Here’s a look at what became of the 30 players active on Opening Day:

Note that in the Status column, I am replicating their RosterResource page, which is based on the Marlins’ official transactions. Teams are not allowed to disclose a player’s testing status without the player’s permission, and some have apparently not granted it, even though other sources have reported that they tested positive, as is the case for the players sidelined during the Phillies series. Based upon publicly available information, the list above still accounts only for 17 of the 18 players; my best guess is that one player on the taxi squad has also tested positive, but has not been put on the IL; recall that teams aren’t obliged to report which three players are on the taxi squad for a given game.

Note also that my count does not include outfielders Lewis Brinson and Matt Joyce, both of whom were placed on the IL for undisclosed reasons on July 15, or catcher Will Banfield, who was placed on the IL for undisclosed reasons on July 8. Brinson and Joyce were both activated last Tuesday and are now two of the roster’s most recognizable names; at 36 years old, the latter is the team’s elder statesman.

If you’re scoring at home, five of the seven position players who returned this year after posting a positive WAR in at least 50 PA for the 2019 Marlins — Rojas (1.9 WAR), Alfaro (1.3), Cooper (1.3), Ramirez (0.4), and Wallach (0.3) —
are currently out, leaving only Anderson (a team-high 3.1) and Berti (1.7). Brinson (-1.7) was at the other end of the spectrum, and also below replacement level was Diaz (-1.2), a former Top 100 Prospect who last week became one of the youngest (24 years old) and least established major leaguers to opt out.

Still in place from the Marlins’ intended starting lineup are Aguilar, Anderson, and Dickerson (in left field). Villar, who had supplanted Brinson on the center field depth chart, is now filling in at shortstop. Berti has taken starts at second base, shortstop, center, and right field. Cervelli has done most of the catching, while Joyce has served as a platoon right fielder/DH against righties.

The newcomers are a motley assortment. Center fielder Monte Harrison, one of seven Marlins to make our Top 100 Prospects list, is the only true prospect they’ve recalled; he was 104th overall and sixth on the Marlins’ list) behind three others who need to be added to the 40-man roster this year for Rule 5 draft purposes. A 24-year-old former second-round pick who arrived from Milwaukee via the Christian Yelich trade, he grades out as a 50 Future Value player, with everything but his hit tool and game power grading out as plus or better; he’s got contact issues and hits the ball on the ground too often. He’s had a rough introduction to the majors, with just two hits, two walks, and nine strikeouts in his first 18 plate appearances, including a golden sombrero courtesy of deGrom and friends on Sunday.

Alvarez, who bypassed a scholarship opportunity at St. Thomas University in order to pursue speed skating, but later earned all-conference honors as a walk-on shortstop at Salt Lake Community College, signed with the White Sox a few months after skating in Sochi, where he, besides medaling, fell down in two individual races and was disqualified in a third. Though always old for his level in the minors, he showed off good speed and on-base abilities, and grazed the lower reaches of prospect lists circa 2016. Wrote Baseball America, which placed him 28th among White Sox prospects that year, “Because he is 5-foot-9 and has below-average power, he has mastered the small-ball arts of bunting, hitting behind runners, stealing abases and working walks, and he rarely strikes out… [He] has no standout tool, but his competitive makeup has won over most everybody who has seen him play.”

After hitting .323/.407/.570 with 12 homers and 12 steals in 271 PA for the Marlins’ Triple-A New Orleans affiliate, Alvarez put himself into position for at least a glimpse of the majors, particularly when he was added to the team’s 60-man player pool in late June. Nobody expected the circumstances of his arrival to be quite so surreal, however.

Backing up Cervelli is Ryan Lavarnway, a well-traveled 33-year-old who has played parts of nine seasons in the majors, but hasn’t gotten 20 PA in a season since 2015, and has just 447 overall, the second-lowest total for any non-pitcher to play for at least seven franchises. Rounding out the position player fill-ins is 33-year-old infielder Logan Forsythe, who was signed by the Marlins on July 29 after being released by the Phillies a couple weeks earlier; he hit just .227/.325/.353 for the Rangers last year.

On the pitching side, the Marlins have gotten this far despite sending nine different starters to the mound in their first nine games; I’m not sure whether that’s the longest streak ever with a unique starter, but I’m 100% certain it’s tied for the most starting pitchers used in a nine-game span. Even after Sunday, when Lopez became the first Marlin to start two games, the Marlins are tied with the Twins — who have played 16 games — for the major league-lead in starting pitchers used, and they’re the runaway leader in total pitchers used (27).

Two of the nine starters, Humberto Mejia and Daniel Castano, made their major league debuts in the final two games of a seven-game streak that featured at least one Marlin debutante, beginning with Niedert and Vesia (July 25), Holloway (July 26), Harrison (August 4), Alvarez and Sharp (August 5), and Jorge Guzman (August 6). Niedert, Guzman, Vesia, Holloway, and Sharp all hail from the team’s Top Prospects list, albeit in the 40-45 FV range; as noted, the Marlins have thus far kept their better prospects away from the fray.

From outside the organization, the Marlins have added via waivers righties Josh D. Smith and Justin Shafer from the Reds, and Mike Morin from the Brewers, along with lefty Brian Moran from the Blue Jays. They also signed ambidextrous free agent Pat Venditte, and traded for righty James Hoyt via the Indians and lefty Richard Bleier via the Orioles. Somehow, even without two of their top four starters, the Marlins’ rotation has managed a 3.83 ERA (but a 4.92 FIP), that while averaging just four innings per turn; Alcantara, their Opening Day starter, is the only one to throw a quality start, while Lopez is the only other one to last at least five innings (twice). The bullpen has turned in a 3.35 ERA but a 5.06 FIP. The staff’s peripherals — a 20.6% strikeout rate (28th in the majors), 10.7% walk rate (25th), and 1.52 per nine homer rate (also 25th) — suggest that it’s living on borrowed time.

The offense, despite a meager .236/.313/.408 line, has a 106 wRC+ (13th), with Aguilar (177) and Anderson (171) the only players producing at an above-average clip in more than 15 PA. All of which is to say that nobody should get too used to the idea of the Marlins contending, but even so, they’ve raised their playoff odds from a league-low 9.2% on Opening Day to 22.9%, with their projected win total rising from 24.7 to 27.5 along the way. For a team that’s generally the object of scorn and ridicule under the best of circumstances, and that has been the subject of a fair bit of misdirected anger regarding their outbreak, that already qualifies as a minor miracle.

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