Five Questions: Florida Marlins

Last season, the Marlins were projected to lose over a hundred games by most “expert” analysts, and why not? The Marlins played 22 different rookies at one point or another during the season. The team started out the season just as most predicted, going 11-31 and right on pace to equal the 40-120 record of the ’62 Mets.

There was one important fact that no one factored into the projections—the rookies were extremely talented. As they became comfortable in their surroundings, the talent started to shine through.

The Marlins went on a run that sent sportscasters scrambling to learn how to pronounce the names of players. On Sept. 4, their record improved to 69-68, thus becoming the first team in major league history to be 20 games below .500 and come back over .500 in the same season.

To top it off, they were in the wild card hunt and somewhere along the way, they became the favorite underdog of many. Unfortunately, the long season took its toll on the rookies. Some started wearing down and others suffered injuries. The young Marlins struggled down the stretch and finished the year 78-84.

So what does the 2007 season hold for the Marlins?

Let’s break that question down into the five most relevant questions for the Marlins this season.

Here we go:

1. Will the now second-year position players continue to improve or is a “sophomore slump” in their future?

Certainly no one knows for sure, but this is how I see it. First and foremost, they are talented hitters. Last season they were able to surprise the other teams that had no idea what their strengths and weaknesses were as hitters. For example: Miguel Olivo is an excellent first ball, fastball hitter. With him manning the eight hole, the first half of the season pitchers would try to get ahead by throwing a fastball on the first pitch. Of course this was to Olivo’s liking and he was doing well at the plate. As the season went on, the other teams finally realized that a fastball on the first pitch wasn’t the best approach when facing Olivo. So they adjusted and started throwing breaking balls. Well, much like Pedro Cerrano, the results for Olivo in this change in strategy were not so good.

In other words, the other teams now have videos, scouting reports and experience in facing the Marlins’ young hitters. It will be up to the young Fish to adjust. If they do, a “sophomore slump” is not a problem. If they don’t, it will be a painful learning experience.

2. Will the young pitchers be able to duplicate or better last season’s results?

The young pitchers are the backbone of the organization. The problem for the 2007 season already is starting to rear its ugly head. Can they stay healthy?

Let’s look at each pitcher:

Anibal Sanchez ended last season with 200 innings—his previous high was 136 innings. When a young arm is extended for the first time, as I’m sure you know, it often fails to perform to the same level the following year. Sanchez already has been shut down for a short period during spring training with shoulder issues.

Scott Olsen threw 187 innings in 2006. His previous high was also 136 innings. Olsen ended the season better than he began it, pitching-wise. If he can keep his mechanics in check, he should be fine.

Ricky Nolasco threw only 140 innings last season but ended up hitting the proverbial wall in early September and was removed from the rotation. Nolasco was going to compete for the 2007 closer’s role until injuries to teammates made it necessary for him to rejoin the starting rotation.

Josh Johnson ended the season on the DL and even after a good offseason throwing regimen, he already has been shut down for a nerve injury in his pitching arm and will miss at least the first two months of the season.

Sergio Mitre is finally back with the squad after shoulder inflammation kept him out most of the season. He has looked good in spring training and is building arm strength.

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Bottom line: If they can stay healthy they won’t have any problem matching or bettering last year’s results. But that “if” is really big.

3. How’s the middle relief looking for 2007?

Middle relief has been a real problem for the Marlins for the last two seasons. Management addressed the problem by making two trades during the offseason. It added Kevin Gregg, Henry Owens and Matt Lindstrom. Owens and Lindstrom are rookies who consistently throw their fastballs in the upper 90s.

Taylor Tankersley, who was thought to be the leading candidate for the closer’s role, has shoulder inflammation and is doubtful to start the season with the club. Tankersley’s injury leaves Renyel Pinto as the lefty in the bullpen.

Just as every spring, the standard statement is “the Marlins made some additions this offseason and it really improved the pen.”

We will see. One thing I do know, the bullpen is younger than the 2006 edition and the lack of experience could be a problem. But then again, the added experience didn’t help middle relief much last season.

[Editor’s note: This story was submitted before the Marlins acquired Jorge Julio from the Diamondbacks].

4. Will Miguel Cabrera and/or Dontrelle Willis be traded before the 2008 season?

No. Quit asking.

Every indication from the front office is the Marlins will retain the two through their arbitration years. Both players will become free agents after the 2009 season and the team is happy to go year to year until that point.

What happens after the 2009 season depends on whether the Marlins are able to land a stadium deal. If a stadium isn’t in the works, both probably will be allowed to walk or be traded before the end of the 2009 season. If a stadium is in the team’s future, it will try to sign both of them for longer term contracts.

5. Is a stadium deal finally in the works?

Uh, maybe.

A retractable-roof stadium is funded for all but $30 million. Tax rebate legislation is in both houses of the state legislature to will cover the difference.

The Marlins have been this far before. Last year the rebate actually passed the Senate but died on the floor of the House when the clock ran out on the legislative session.

Everyone is cautiously optimistic but they have been here before and it didn’t happen. Maybe it will this year.

The Marlins are going to face a lot of hurdles and unknowns during the 2007 season. Some of the now second-year players should improve on last season’s output, while others will regress.

The team’s strongest point is that they are very talented. Maybe just as important, they don’t believe they should regress.

The Marlins should finish fourth or even third in a really good year in the NL East, with a record very similar to last season’s. The best guess is that they will end the season around 81-81.

The Marlins are still on the steep part of the learning curve and will be going through growing pains all season. However, as Marlins fans, we can look forward to another fun season with “our unpredictable kids.” The “doing great things” seasons are still a couple of years away. Assuming no career-ending injuries, the “doing great things” seasons will happen.

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