The New Orleans Zephyrs returned from this season’s Pacific Coast League All-Star break intent on making a run and getting into contention in the American Southern Division.
The Zephyrs were 42-48 before the break. However, instead of beginning an ascent, the bottom fell out of the Zephyrs’ season. It was a clear reminder of their position as a Triple-A team, as injuries to the parent Miami Marlins and trades of players who didn’t pan out took a heavy toll on the Zephyrs.
Heading into Monday’s final game, after Sunday’s 9-2 loss to Colorado Springs, New Orleans is 57-86, the franchise record for most losses in a season. Other Marlins farm clubs, Double-A Jacksonville and Single-A Jupiter, also finished with losing records.
“I think everybody in the organization feels we got the rug pulled from under us,” Zephyrs second-year manager Andy Haines said. “Not just in Triple-A. Just the organization from top to bottom. We were here fighting, but we just couldn’t put the pieces back together.”
It was a season of high hopes for the Marlins. The parent club, feeling it was close to contention in Major League Baseball, made trades that brought in third baseman Martin Prado, second baseman Dee Gordon, and pitchers Mat Latos and Dan Haren. In obtaining those players, the Marlins traded promising minor-leaguers.
“Some of those trades worked out very well for us: Gordon and Prado and guys who held up at the major league level,” said Marty Scott, the Marlins’ vice president of player development. “But at the same time, it just decimated the overall depth of the organization. We lost 15 top (prospects) either via trade, claimed off the waiver wire or through the Rule 5 draft.”
With a good starting pitching staff, the Zephyrs were showing promise six weeks into the season at 25-24 and in second place. Although the bullpen faltered, including blowing eight of 20 save opportunities, New Orleans led the league in fielding at .985. The infield consisted of shortstop Miguel Rojas, who was playing like a PCL MVP candidate, second baseman Derek Dietrich, a Marlins starter for three seasons, and veteran Juan Diaz at third base. The outfield was manned by speedy Isaac Galloway in center field, Austin Wates in left, and wall-banger Cole Gillespie making plays all over right field.
“We started swinging the bats and swinging them together, which often happens in baseball,” Haines said. “I really thought we’d be there (in contention) at the end.”
However, the Marlins began having injuries up and down the lineup. Ace pitcher Jose Fernandez was already out after having Tommy John surgery in 2014. The team’s second pitcher, Henderson Alvarez, had right shoulder surgery on May 23. And the team’s best player, slugger Giancarlo Stanton, was lost to a left hammate fracture on June 27. Catcher Jeff Mathis had a fractured right ring finger, and Gordon later dislocated his thumb.
From June 12-27, the Z’s lost Dietrich, Rojas and Gillespie, never to return. As good as they are defensively, that also took three of the team’s top hitters.
However, the biggest hit started right after the All-Star break and continued for more than a month. With injuries to the Marlins and the trades of Haren and Latos on July 21, Miami brought up from the Zephyrs All-PCL pitcher Adam Conley, Andre Rienzo, hard-throwing Jose Urena, Chris Reed, Brian Ellington, Chris Naveson, Kendry Flores and top prospect Justin Nicolino, all starting pitchers. They were largely responsible for the Zephyrs tying a franchise record with 12 shutouts just past the midway point.
“I saw that when we called up (pitcher) Erik Cordier (Aug. 17), there had been 27 players who spent significant time with the Marlins who had worn Zephyrs’ uniforms this season,” Scott said. “When you have that kind of lack of continuity, it’s very difficult to win.”
Instead of charging out of the blocks after the All-Star break, New Orleans lost eight consecutive home games, including a demoralizing four to Colorado Springs, which was in last place in the American North Division. Then began wild streaks of six wins, then six losses. With the entire starting pitching rotation in Miami, the Zephyrs went on a franchise-record 15-game losing streak from Aug. 8-23.
“I looked in the dugout, and there were only five guys who began the season with us,” said Vinny Rottino, who played first base, catcher and outfield.
Players called up were replaced by many not ready for Triple-A, Scott said, calling it “a trickle-up effect.”
When intact, the excellent pitching staff had masked some of the team’s woes. Heading into Monday’s final game, the Zephyrs were second-to-last (14th) in hitting with a .258 batting average and had 68 home runs, setting a franchise low, which was 77 in 1997. The Zs also had the fewest doubles (233) in franchise history, and the fewest RBIs (476).
They also didn’t run well, stealing just 45 bases, last in the league, and another franchise record, with the previous mark at 58 in 1997. They also led the league in hitting into double plays (135).
However, they finished tied for first in fielding (.982), committing a franchise-low 94 errors. And even after the pitching staff was depleted in the second half, New Orleans was second in earned-run average (3.73) and finished with a franchise-record 15 shutouts.
For Haines, though, it meant a losing record in both his seasons, after the team went 70-74 last season. The Marlins review their organization and make decisions between the end of September and mid-October. However, Scott said Haines, who had excelled at the lower levels, can’t be blamed for this season.
“Andy and his staff kept a level head, kept their professionalism and their work ethic,” Scott said. “They didn’t have the big guns in the lineup; but every game, the players played like they felt they would win through some difficult circumstances.
“And as far as preparing players for the Marlins, the ones who went up contributed.
“We had a good draft last year and a good one in June. So I think next year, we’ll be strong depthwise from Jacksonville on down. One more year, and another good draft, and those players will filter up.”