MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) — The Miami Marlins were expected to be one of the worst teams in baseball this season, and very likely at least a year or two beyond.
As the 2018 season prepares to begin its second half, it appears the Marlins could be slightly ahead of schedule.
By one reading of the Derek Jeter meter, not much has changed with the Marlins since he took over.
They have by far the worst run differential in the National League.
Their record has been the NL's worst for much of the season. They're a distant last in the majors in attendance.
But within the franchise, optimism is the highest it has been since unpopular owner Jeffrey Loria put the Marlins up for sale in early 2017. Evidence suggests the new ownership group, including CEO Jeter, has the organization headed in the right direction.
Just look at the standings: Thanks to a recent surge, the young Marlins (41-57) are not even last in the NL East. And opponents rave.
"They're better than their record shows," Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw said. "Their lineup is not bad. They've got a couple of guys who can throw a little bit. Their bullpen guys are pretty good — guys who will probably get traded here in the next couple of weeks. They're not just a rollover team."
OK, so maybe that's not a rave. But the Marlins started the season 20-39, so not being a rollover represents progress. By beginning to win, they're beginning to win over skeptics who doubted new ownership's pledge to turn things around.
"Jeter addressed it in a speech in spring training," veteran third baseman Martin Prado says. "Nobody believed it."
After the Marlins traded Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon last offseason, there were predictions the team might be historically bad.
Instead, despite a patchwork rotation and lineup, the Marlins have gone 21-18 since June 5. They won their final two series before the All-Star break against first-place teams Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Lately, they've showed a knack for comebacks and fared well in close games.
Attendance remains awful, but Saturday's crowd of 14,793 was the largest at Marlins Park since April 14. Perhaps word is spreading the Marlins are surprisingly entertaining.
"We've created an identity as to who we are, how we play, what kind of games we're in," manager Don Mattingly said. "I like our spirit. Our guys play hard every day, and when we're in tight games we seem to be getting better and better. The only thing not to like is our record."
And the record is largely beside the point. For Miami, this season is about finding and developing young players to build around.
"We're getting better and better every single day, I feel like," right-hander Dan Straily said. "You start to see guys relaxing and kind of become themselves as players. Younger guys start to realize, 'Man, I really can play here. I really do belong here.' And that's when you start to see more wins."
The offseason trades allowed Jeter to replenish a woeful farm system. The Marlins are now awash in prospects, with predictably mixed results.
Young pitchers Trevor Richards, Pablo Lopez, Jarlin Garcia, Tayron Guerrero and Sandy Alcantara have showed flashes of promise, but rotation turnover has been such that no active starter has more than three wins. While Brian Anderson blossoms in his first full big league season, ranking sixth in the NL with 109 hits, highly touted Lewis Brinson is batting .186 with 94 strikeouts.
Young relievers Kyle Barraclough, Drew Steckenrider and Adam Conley have transformed the bullpen into a strength. But all will draw the attention of contenders as the trade deadline approaches — thus Shaw's prediction about departing relievers.
All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto is also the subject of trade speculation, and if he departs the 2018 Marlins might yet lose 110 games. Or maybe Realmuto stays to provide a cornerstone for a team out of contention but worth watching.
"We have young players who have never had 500 or 600 at-bats in a season," Prado said. "It's going to be exciting to see the second half from this young core."
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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