JUPITER, Fla. — Major League Baseball wants a faster-paced game with more balls in play, more action on the bases and more athleticism from its players. Jazz Chisholm Jr., the lively second baseman turned center fielder for the Miami Marlins, has a feeling how this will play out.
Pitch clocks, bigger bases, restrictions on pickoff throws, elimination of the infield shift? Finally, a victory for the little guys.
“A lot of pitchers are going to make a lot of mistakes this year because they’re falling behind in counts and not focusing,” Chisholm said one recent morning by his locker at Roger Dean Stadium. “It’s going to get in a lot of guys’ heads, the pitch clocks.”
Chisholm went on to describe his vision: slap-and-dash hits by Luis Arraez and Jean Segura, stolen bases by himself and Jon Berti, home runs by Jorge Soler.
“I feel like we’re just going to wreak havoc in every way,” Chisholm added.
Could baseball’s new rules really prop up its perennial also-ran? This is the 20th anniversary of the last championship for the Marlins, who have reached the postseason just once since then, in the shortened 2020 season. Two of their National League East rivals won 101 games last season (Atlanta and the Mets), and another (Philadelphia) reached the World Series.
Yet when Marlins General Manager Kim Ng had a veteran to trade this winter, she did a very unusual thing. The franchise that dealt away Gary Sheffield, Mike Piazza, Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton — and so many other stars — made a deal in hopes of a win-now payoff.
After going 69-93 last season with the lowest batting average in club history (.230), the Marlins acquired the American League batting champion, Arraez, from the Minnesota Twins for Pablo Lopez, a dependable right-handed starter. To replace Lopez, they signed Johnny Cueto, a 15-year veteran coming off his best season since 2016.
“We feel like we’re ready to win,” said Berti, an infielder-outfielder whose 41 steals led the majors last season. “We’re ready to take that next step forward. We’re going to miss Pablo — great guy, great teammate, great pitcher — but we were able to add some more length to our lineup, obviously, with the batting champ.”
Arraez hit .316 last season — keeping Aaron Judge, the runner-up at .311, from winning the A.L. triple crown — and will play second base, bumping Chisholm to center field. Chisholm was voted to start the All-Star Game at second last summer, before a back injury cut short his season, but he has eagerly embraced the change, working with the former center fielders Juan Pierre and Jon Jay (a Marlins coach) and talking with luminaries like Ken Griffey Jr. and Sheffield, who switched from infield to outfield in his Hall of Fame-caliber career.
“For me, it’s pretty easy to go from the infield to the outfield, especially as a guy who loves to go back and try to get fly balls all the time; in the games, I’m right there with the outfielders on the fly balls,” Chisholm said. “So I trust myself to go out there, my teammates trust me to go out there and my manager trusts me to go out there.”
Ng hired Skip Schumaker as a first-time manager, largely because of Schumaker’s experience playing and coaching for the detail-oriented St. Louis Cardinals. The Marlins went 24-40 in one-run games last season and believe their pitching will usually give them a chance.
Sandy Alcantara was the unanimous N.L. Cy Young Award winner, and the young starters behind him and Cueto seem poised for a breakthrough: Jesús Luzardo, Braxton Garrett and Edward Cabrera combined for a 3.32 earned run average in 49 starts last season. Ng also added the left-hander A.J. Puk, a power reliever, in a trade with Oakland this month.
In other words, the Braves, the Mets and the Phillies cannot easily dismiss the Marlins.
“We’re in a tough spot, but anything is possible when you have pitching,” Ng said. “If you’re holding a good offense to two or three runs and you can squeak out a few runs — there are going to be a lot of close games.”
The Marlins had the N.L.’s worst slugging percentage last season (.363) and need at least adequate production from their top power threats, Soler and Avisail Garcia, to even flirt with contention. But with players like Arraez, shortstop Joey Wendle and Segura, who signed a two-year, $17 million contract to play third base, they have several hitters with a strong aversion to strikeouts.
Arraez was the majors’ leader in at-bats per strikeout last season (12.7, well ahead of Cleveland’s Steven Kwan at 9.4) and fanned only 43 times in 603 plate appearances.
“I hate strikeouts,” he said, simply, and so does Segura, a former N.L. hits leader who flicked a ninth-inning, go-ahead single in the Phillies’ first playoff game last fall — on a pitch in the opposite batter’s box — to spark an unlikely run to the pennant.
“With a small thing, a big thing can happen,” Segura said. “A big run on a ground ball to second base with two strikes in the shadows — just put the ball in play and it opens up everything.”
Ng loves that approach — a former softball player at the University of Chicago, she struck out just once in 49 at-bats while hitting .388 as a junior — but understands the imperfections of her lineup. Chisholm, Soler and Garcia are prone to strikeouts, and even with fewer divisional games this season, there will still be plenty of punchless nights against the aces of the N.L. East.
But the Marlins are not conceding, and that is a good thing. They may not slay the beasts of their division, but it should be fun to watch them try.
“I think we owe it to the fans,” Ng said. “We can’t sit there and have the great building blocks that we do and just throw up the white flag before opening day. It doesn’t make sense. I think we managed to keep a lot of our prospects and still put a club on the field that’s going to compete, no matter how hard our division is.”