What do the Marlins – at any time in their history – have in common with the iconic Chicago Bulls of 1997-98? Not a lot. ESPN’s ‘The Last Dance’ chronicles a directed Michael Jordan dynasty, while the Marlins, even in their eventual championship-winning campaigns, were seen as underdogs and nuisances. Who outside of South Florida really wanted to emulate them like countless sports fans did MJ?
However, basketball players, baseball players and professionals in many industries can feel the anxiety that comes with the impending changes. This Bulls roster, for example, was loaded with pending free agents. Despite constant speculation about where each of them would go next, they didn’t let it interfere with their performance.
Which brings us back to the Marlins, as I’m highlighting the players who thrived in their marching year to keep the team in contention (players traded mid-season were excluded). Before the final episodes of the documentary broadcast on Sunday evening, let’s remember the former Fish who enjoyed their last dance.
5. Mike Dunn, 2016
Mike Dun’s biggest asset was its durability. He started his 31-year-old year as the franchise’s all-time leader in career pitching appearances (a record that will go unchallenged for the foreseeable future). So it came as a shock when he started 2016 on the disabled list with a pulled left forearm, then suffered a setback pushing back his regular season debut by almost two months.
Dunn made up for that lost time and ended up pitching in 51 games. It wasn’t a sexy style, but he avoided costly implosions out of the bullpen — he never allowed more than two runs or four base runners in any appearance. He entered the final homestand of the season with a 2.84 ERA. His performance slipped to the stretch (ERA rose to 3.40), but the Marlins were officially out of the game by then, anyway.
Over the winter, the Rockies signed Dunn to an immediately regrettable, three-year, $19 million contract.
4.Jeff Conine, 2005
The Redeemed Marlins Jeff Conine in August 2003 as last-second depth for their playoff push, and it was fair to worry about what Niner had left to contribute to the twilight of his career. With over a decade of major league experience, he improved his strikeout rate significantly early in his career, but his athleticism was naturally deteriorating. Those concerns proved premature – he was a major cog in their line-up until 2004.
But then the signing of Carlos Delgado in 2005 seemingly relegated Conine to an afterthought in his walking year. He only started three of the first 29 regular season games and was not taking advantage of those limited opportunities.
Even without being a threat to power, the 39-year-old has finally found his groove (.304/.374./403 in 384 AP). Ichiro Suzuki is the only player older than Conine in Marlins history to be an above-average hitter — in terms of weighted runs created more — while playing a big role.
3. Juan Encarnación, 2005
From that same Conine season, Juan Encarnación had more on the line. Theoretically at the peak of his career, his on-base percentage dipped below .300 the previous year. He would need to improve in that department to attract suitors in his first taste of free will.
The 2005 Marlins fell short of their collective goal of returning to the playoffs, but Encarnación was not to blame. He set new personal bests with a .349 OBP and 112 wRC+. The slender outfielder was particularly productive with runners in the scoring position (.331/.399/.523).
The Cardinals outbid the fish for Encarnación with a three-year contract. It was shaping up well for both teams until a ball foul in one eye abruptly ended his career in 2007.
2. Carl Pavano, 2004
After a heavy workload in 2003 (220 1⁄3 races started including October), it would not have been surprising if fatigue caught up Carl Pavano the following season. The reality was quite the opposite: Pavano established himself as the ace of the rotation of the Marlins.
Lacking the swing and miss ability typical of star pitchers, the right-hander was successful with a ground-heavy approach. He induced 18 double plays and lined up his position perfectly on 40 occasions, blocking 76.9 percent of all base runners. Pavano earned his only All-Star selection while placing sixth in the NL Cy Young vote.
Beginning in 2005, injuries piled up and robbed Pavano of most of his best years, but he was then the Yankees’ albatross contract.
1. Pudge Rodriguez, 2003
The Marlins knew that Ivan Rodriguez would stay only a year before returning to free agency in search of long-term safety. The 2003 season was a rollercoaster, but everyone involved would do it again without hesitation.
Regular season and playoffs combined, Pudge played in 155 games and scored 102 points. The Marlins pitchers were noticeably better with him behind the plate compared to main backup Mike Redmond. He also starred in one of the most precious moments in franchise history:
That first/last/only dance earned Rodríguez a big payday from the Tigers and solidified his Hall of Fame credentials.