The Phillies might have grabbed the most headlines this off-season, and the Braves might remain the stable contender in the NL East, but it’s the Marlins that are the most interesting team in the division. They have finished second or third in each of the last three years, and are slowly amassing a core of young talent that could soon bring them into serious contention. In 2011 we’ll get to see a number of these players try their hands against major league competition.
The Starting Eight
After a disappointing sophomore season that ended with surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, Chris Coghlan returns in the Marlins leadoff spot. If his numbers fall between his 2009 and 2010 seasons — see the Bill James projection of .297/.369/.430 — he should be fine in that spot. The biggest question about him actually doesn’t center on his plate prowess, but rather on his fielding. The Marlins have him tapped as the center fielder, despite him never having played the position as a professional. All major defensive stats are down on his work in left field during the last two years, which leaves open many questions about his ability to handle center this season. If it gets bad, a change could be in order.
(What kind of change? Michael Jong of Marlin Maniac asks, why not Mike Stanton?)
With Coghlan potentially on base frequently, there should be plenty of opportunities for the heart of the order, Ramirez and Stanton, to produce runs. Ramirez will get first crack, and it’s easy to imagine him greatly improving on his disappointing 2010. Case in point: a .373 wOBA is considered a disappointing season. He produced a wOBA of .400 or greater in each of the three previous years, and we should expect more of the same in 2011. Still, he won’t clear the bases all the time. In those cases he’ll leave the job to Stanton, who enters 2011 as a 21-year-old with gargantuan power numbers. We’ll touch on him in a bit, but for now know this: Mike Stanton is one of six MLB players, age-20, with 350 or more PA, who have a .245 or greater ISO. The others: Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams, and Bob Horner.
After Coghlan the lineup features three relatively fresh players. Gaby Sanchez will be 27, but 2010 was his rookie season. His numbers look a lot better for a third baseman, but as a first sacker he’s adequate. Another year along the lines of 2010 will give the Marlins some flexibility in deciding what to do with their first baseman of the future, Logan Morrison. Slated to start the season in left field, Morrison features a discerning eye that leads to high OBPs. His power is a bit lacking, but with an OBP in the high .300s that shouldn’t matter much. Assuming he can handle left field full-time, he’ll be another middle of the order weapon for the Marlins, perhaps sliding into the No. 2 spot at some point during the season.
The most questionable youngster on the team is the presumptive staring third baseman, Matt Dominguez. His glove will carry him at he position, as his bat hasn’t yet come around in the minors. The Marlins reportedly made changes to his swing mid-season were pleased with the results, which might encourage them to be aggressive with him. Their confidence in him in the long term is evident. They could have moved Coghlan, who has played mostly second base in his pro career, to third and found a different center fielder, but they seem intent on handing the reins to Dominguez instead.
Rounding out the lineup is a pair of veterans acquired during the off-season. John Buck signed a three-year deal as a free agent and will take over as the team’s starting catcher. At the very least this gives them time to develop Kyle Skipworth, but Buck can provide value of his own. He displayed unprecedented power last year, and if he maintains some of those gains he’ll help at the bottom of the lineup. Infante came over in the Dan Uggla trade and will replace him in the field. That’s going to represent quite a downgrade on offense, especially since it’s unlikely that Infante repeats his .340 wOBA from 2010. Chances are he’s just keeping second base warm until the team determines that Osvaldo Martinez is ready.
The Pitching Staff
It’s always nice to start the season with one of the league’s 10 best pitchers on the mound. The Marlins have that privilege this year, with Josh Johnson taking the ball on Opening Day. In the last two seasons only Tim Lincecum has a lower FIP. Despite a minor injury that kept him below the 200-inning mark, Johnson figures to be back full-strength and perplexing National League hitters.
Behind Johnson the Marline feature two potential No. 2 pitchers in Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco. Of these, Nolasco is the more interesting case if for no other reason than the discrepancy between his peripherals and his results. While he has a career 3.91 FIP in over 700 big league innings, his career ERA is 4.51 and he has had an ERA higher than that in three of his four full big league seasons. Last year he fell just short of qualifying for the ERA title, but if he had is K/BB ratio would have ranked third, behind only Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Nolasco’s peripherals catching up to his output stats will go a long way in propping up the Marlins rotation.
Sanchez, the other part of the Josh Beckett trade, has taken strong steps forward since undergoing shoulder labrum surgery in 2008. Despite aggravating his shoulder in 2009 he did pitch well in 86 innings, which he then topped with 195 innings and a 3.55 ERAl in 2010. His FIP matches up well, though he did have a 4.5% HR/FB ratio last season. A repeat performance will give the Marlins two solid backups to Johnson, and perhaps put them in the conversation for the best rotation in the NL behind the Phillies and Giants.
The last two spots are a bit less certain. Javier Vazqeuz had a poor year pitching in the AL East last year, so a move back to the NL could help. Unfortunately, a recovery, even in the NL, will require Vazquez to adjust the way he approaches batters. His velocity was down in 2010 and reports this spring indicate it hasn’t recovered. Since he is a four-pitch pitcher this transition might work for him.
For some reason it seems as though Chris Volstad has been in the league for a while and that he’s older than 24. Yet that’s his Opening Day age. He has had his share of struggles during his two and a half years in the bigs, but his stuff seems to be coming together. He’s going to have to keep his walk rate down, and perhaps get it lower than 3 per nine, because of his lack of ability to miss bats. He makes up for it with ground ball prowess, though. Another step forward in 2011 could move him up the pecking order, which further reduces the reliance on Vazquez’s reemergence.
In the bullpen the Marlins will again turn to Leo Nunez as the closer. He held that role last year, but after failing in a few high leverage spots he lost the job to Clay Hensley. Both of those players will play a large role in holding leads, but this year they’ll have some help. This winter the marlins acquired two reinforcements, Webb and Mujica, from the Padres, and then added lefty prospect Mike Dunn from the Braves. With Randy Choate as another option against lefties — and only against lefties — and Burke Badenhop holding down the long man spot, the Marlins should have an average bullpen.
With a pitching staff with plenty of potential, the Marlins could find their toughest job scoring runs. They lost one of their top producers, Dan Uggla, and replaced him with a light-hitting utility player. That means the team needs another force on offense to keep the runs coring up. Mike Stanton can be that man. He already impressed during his rookie season, and now is tasked with stepping into Uggla’s lineup spot.
It won’t be an easy task for a 21-year-old to replicate Uggla’s production in his best years, but if anyone can accomplish it, it’s Stanton. In fact, his .355 wOBA during his partial 2010 season topped Uggla’s in three out of the former’s five years in the bigs. Stanton’s step forward will go a long way in reviving the Marlins offense and leading them towards contention.
It will take a few favorable breaks, but the Marlins should play a role in the NL playoff race this summer. They have a solid, young pitching staff that could rank in the NL’s top 5 and a young offense that could provide many pleasant surprises. Of course, the team’s youth can also play against it, which makes it tough to peg the 2011 Marlins. Another .500 finish would not surprise, but they have the tools to be better than that and play a factor in the NL Wild Card race.