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Mudville: April 14, 2024 10:37 pm PDT
Fish out of water

BY KEVIN KERNAN

JUPITER, FL – Love Skip Schumaker’s enthusiasm and baseball knowledge.

The Marlins are going to put the first year manager to the test.

As spring training rolls on the Marlins are trying a new methodology in Kim Ng’s third season as general manager. Not much power; a shaky defense where players have been placed in different positions in the hopes they somehow score more runs than last season – when the Marlins finished 28th in runs scored with 222 and 28th in batting average at .230 and lost a stunning 40 one-run games to finish with a 69-93 record.

At least they were consistent.

In a continuing series here at Baseball or Bust, the post-Derek Jeter Marlins are the latest team to be put under the AMBS microscope.

What makes matters worse for the Marlins is that the Padres, kind of like a sister team on the West Coast, have broken the bank in signing players under owner Peter Seidler – and have totally excited their fans.

Something the Marlins haven’t done under owner Bruce Sherman.

In many ways the Marlins are the classic Fish Out of Water story.

They moved their second baseman Jazz Chisholm to centerfield; they moved the second baseman they signed, Jean Segura, to third base; traded for AL batting champ Luis Arraez to play second (a position the Twins preferred Arraez did not play); and have veteran Joey Wendle playing shortstop, a position he has played in only 89 games over his career. First baseman Garrett Cooper is limited in range.

Too often the Marlins seem like nine players going in different directions, and in many ways this is a blank slate for Schumaker, and he is excited for this challenge.

When you lose 40 one-run games in a season, you’ll try anything to get better. The 1968 White Sox hold the MLB record in the live ball era for the most one-run losses with 44.

Defense is a major issue.

“They can’t catch the ball,’’ one scout bluntly told BallNine,

That’s a problem.

“And you would think with their pitching staff they would make defense a priority,’’ the scout added.

He’s got a point. The Marlins are just different. It will be fascinating to see how this all turns out this season. Like I said, the thrifty Marlins are Fish Out of Water in the power-packed NL East, a division filled with high rollers.

The shame of it all is that Miami could be a hotbed for MLB just as San Diego has become – but the Marlins simply can’t get their act together. Players should love playing there like they love playing in San Diego. The Marlins have their two World Series championship teams – two more than the Padres, I might add – but little else to brag about. Those World Series victories are from another era.

The team that eventually got rid of the Home Run Sculpture (and by the way, I liked the Home Run Sculpture) has now pretty much gotten rid of Home Run Hitters.

The Marlins were 24th in home runs last season and have gone to a contact-based offense. With the new rule changes where you can create offense more easily with no shift and essentially no way for pitchers to hold runners on anymore – as well as bigger bases – the Marlins are hoping they are ahead of the curve.

It has been one season after another driving on Dead Man’s Curve for the Marlins; in fact they have 12 straight losing seasons over a full schedule. Three of those 12 teams played under .400 baseball. It’s really difficult to be that bad for that long – but somehow the Marlins have accomplished the feat.

Marlins' Skip Shumacher

Miami Marlins Manager Skip Schumacher (55) walks back to the dugout after making a pitching change during the MLB spring training game between the Miami Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays on March 06, 2023, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I pull for the Marlins. I want them to be a success. I know they have a lot of good people in the organization and they added two more this season in former major league managers Jim Riggleman and Terry Collins. They also added Dave Wallace to help with the pitching. As Kim Ng is in the final year of her contract, the team must show improvement.

This is an organization that can’t get out of its own way. Donnie Baseball is gone from the Marlins. Don Mattingly is now the bench coach for the Blue Jays and Schumaker is the new sheriff in town. He’s got the Cardinals Way as a background, so that should help.

Accountability now becomes the watchword in Miami. A lot must change, including getting the draft right. It would also help if the Marlins did not take their best assets, such as they did with All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, the kind of catcher everybody wants in the game, and trade them away; not only just trade away, getting pretty much nothing in return, but they traded Realmuto within their own division, where he will haunt them for years – as the Phillies made it to the World Series last October.

That’s a beaut.

The Sandy Alcantara trade with the Cardinals was a huge win for the Marlins with the right-hander winning the NL Cy Young Award last year, but there has to be much more for the Marlins. Schumaker is tasked with making the Marlins into a team.

Too often the Marlins seem like nine players going in different directions, and in many ways this is a blank slate for Schumaker, and he is excited for this challenge. He also knows about moving positions, having been a centerfielder who was moved to second base by Tony La Russa.

“People talk about moving around but Wendle has played shortstop and Arraez has played a lot of second base,’’ Schumaker told BallNine of the Great Defensive Experiment. “When I moved to second, I had never played there in my whole life. Ever.’’

Schumaker did play shortstop though in college for the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos and was moved to centerfield after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2001 draft by the Cardinals.

You can tell immediately that Schumaker is sincere and detail oriented and is fixated on doing things “the right way.’’

Sandy Alcantara

Miami Marlins Pitcher Sandy Alcantara (22) delivers a pitch to the plate during the MLB spring training game between the Miami Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays on March 06, 2023, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When he was first base coach for the Padres, Travis Jankowski once told the San Diego Union-Tribune with a laugh that he was “terrified’’ of Schumaker, saying, “I feel like if you hit the bag with the left foot he’s going to come over and rip your jersey off. He’s just freaking jacked and walking around with that shaved head, he just looks like a guy you don’t want to make angry. My goal is as soon as I hit that ball is I better be hitting the bag with the right foot.’’

The Marlins could use a little of that attention to detail. Now they just have to find a way to reach first base. It’s early, but so far this spring they are hitting .214 and the only team worse is the Pirates at .196.

It should help that outfielder Avisail Garcia, who was a tremendous disappointment last season, playing in only 98 games and hitting .224 with eight home runs, appears to be in much better shape this season. That’s a start for Garcia who pulled down $53 million from the Marlins.

There is a lot of work to be done.

And that starts with Jazz Chisholm nailing centerfield.

Schumaker can relate to the move with one major difference. Remember, Schumaker was making the switch with La Russa at the helm – so he would have early work in the morning during spring training with Jose Oquendo, and then La Russa threw him in just about every spring training game for nine innings (“I had 110 at-bats that spring,’’ Schumaker said with a smile) and then there would be more afternoon work with Oquendo.

Yes, a much different time in baseball not too long ago.

“That was my day, every day,’’ Schumaker told me.

“So you are not going to do that to Jazz?” I asked with a smile.

“Hell no,’’ Schumaker said. “He’ll break.’’

But it’ll take work and Chisholm only played 60 games last season due to injuries. The good news is that “Jazz is committed to it,’’ Schumaker said.

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Jazz Chisholm Jr. #2 of the Miami Marlins takes outfield fielding practice during a workout day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 19, 2023 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Jasen Vinlove/Miami Marlins/Getty Images)

As for those players moving around, he added, “I’m not pushing for it, they want it. That’s the key.’’

And as we all know with these talented MLB players, that’s half the battle.

“Once that happens, then it just takes high character,’’ Schumaker said. “We have (assistant hitting coach) John Mabry who has played multiple positions. We have (first base coach) Jon Jay who has played multiple positions. We have guys on staff who have done it before. We know it’s possible.’’

Schumaker then made this fascinating comment to me.

“I think defense is the easiest part to get better at, of the tools, because it’s just work,’’ he explained. “I can’t show you how to hit home runs, I can’t show you how to run faster.’’

Watch the Marlins work the outfielders during practice: they’re constantly preaching to “hit the cutoff,’’ and that’s a lost art in the game, as well.

Schumaker has already learned how to deal with ace Sandy Alcantara on the days he pitches.

“I was told ‘don’t go near him,’ so that’s what I’m used to with those ace guys,’’ Schumaker explained regarding the Marlins’ MVP. He then added, “The great ones aren’t even satisfied with the best seasons, right, so I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of MVPs and they followed it up with just about as good an MVP season right after it; the Albert Pujolses and Clayton Kershaws and everyone else. I think with as good a season as Sandy had, he still feels like he can do better. Go ahead, go for it. It’s easy for a manager when you can sit back and watch your best player be your hardest worker.’’

Also coming over from St. Louis (the Cardinals and Marlins share a spring training facility so these teams know each other well) was Mabry, who should not only help the hitters – but he is one of those coaches who brings value to the pitching staff as well.

There were concerns that Alcantara was tipping his pitches, and Schumaker addressed that, saying, “John Mabry is as good as I have ever seen at showing and seeing the tipping of pitches from our guys and their guys, so all off-season he’s been concentrating on all our guys and dissecting them and figuring out certain guys. Some guys just don’t realize they are doing it. They are creatures of habit. As a hitter, man, especially the bullpen guys with two pitches, and when you’re eliminating an out pitch, it’s real.’’

Miami Marlins infielder Luis Arraez throws a ball during a fielding drill during spring training at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Jupiter, Florida. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Marlins hitters are going to have to gain every advantage they can against opposing pitchers; and with that contact-oriented offense, they are going to have to string together hits. Base-running should be much better this year because pitchers only have two mound disengagements per batter, and that should lead to a lot more stolen bases.

My son Corey also pointed out to me the other day that if the pitch clock is winding down, the runner should be able to just take off – because at that stage of the game, the pitcher has to be totally focused on throwing the ball home and not getting a violation – so that should lead to an even bigger lead on the base paths.

In those situations, controlling the running game becomes an afterthought.

There are so many consequences of the New Rules that will surface that no one in the MLB executive offices has even considered at this point, but that is why they are in the offices and not on the field. I’m still amazed that no managers were placed on the CCB Committee (that’s the Committee to Change Baseball).

The Marlins will need these advantages to score runs, and Schumaker is focusing on all the little things this spring.

It will be fascinating to see if in some way the Marlins re-invent the baseball wheel. With so many one-run losses last season, little things will mean a lot; but it looks as if the Marlins don’t have enough to keep up with the big boys in the NL East and the dogfight that will be there for the wild card spots.

That sure is a lot to ask and 12 straight losing full seasons speak volumes. But I get it to a degree. What the Marlins have been trying to do in the past didn’t work, so they might as well give this a shot – since they’re not going out and spending money like the Padres.

When you’re a Fish Out of Water in your own division, something has to change; it’s basically sink or swim time.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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