Five questions: Florida Marlins

The Marlins are clearly a team on the rise, especially with their abundance of talented young starting pitchers, an All-Star shortstop, and outfield prospect, Cameron Maybin. It is hard not to root for these guys. They play in a terrible home ballpark, the tickets are never, ever sold out, and they are a feisty, gritty team that never seems to give up. While it is not likely that they will win the divisional crown, they certainly have the talent in the starting rotation to keep them in the thick of the race. Here is a look at some of the big questions facing the Marlins this season:

1. Will Josh Johnson continue to improve, following his successful return in 2008?

Absolutely. He is further removed from Tommy John surgery, and even when he returned early last year, his stuff was scintillating at times. With a repertoire consisting of a fastball, slider, and changeup, he is able to keep hitters honest. His average fastball was in the 93-94 mph range last year, which was up from previous seasons, when he averaged 91-92. So far, spring training has seen Johnson pitch some lights-out baseball. Not only has he logged 16 innings of two-run ball, but he has also issued only four walks while posting a 1.13 ERA with 14 strikeouts. Wednesday’s outing was very good, as he struck out seven batters in just five innings.

Typically, pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery have difficulty harnessing their control, as they regain their “feel” for the ball and their release point. On occasion, pitchers returning from TJ surgery will have some tingling or numbness in the medial digits of the hand, which can lead to decreased ability to fine tune the grip and release of the ball. Also, the decrease in joint awareness (proprioception) at the elbow due to the removal of the UCL and its receptors that send information on joint position (proprioceptors) is yet another obstacle pitchers have to face.

In 14 starts last season, he went 7-1 over 87.3 innings pitched, amassing 77 strikeouts and walking a mere 27 batters. His BB/9 rate of 2.78 was better than his breakout campaign of 2006 when he held a rate of 3.90. His K/BB ratio of 2.85 was much improved when compared to 1.96 in ’06. He was better than Johan Santana in terms of FIP (3.41 vs. 3.51), and essentially the same in K/G (8.2 for J.J., 8.3 for Johan), all while inducing ground balls 47.6 percent of the time.

Given these numbers, I would expect Johnson to be even better in 2009. Expect him to log close to 180 innings, with 12-15 wins not nearly out of the question. He could end up being the Marlins best starter this year. I would project his line to be something like: 180 innings, 14 wins, 3.40 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 161 strikeouts.

2. Will the rest of the young Marlins pitching staff step up and become the best rotation in the NL East?

The Nationals clearly own the worst rotation in the division, and the Mets have an average to sub-par setup following Santana. The Phillies are going to trot out Chan Ho Park and Joe Blanton, while hoping to get another solid year from the ageless wonder, Jamie Moyer.

This leaves the revamped Braves rotation (offseason additions of Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, and Kenshin Kawakami) and the talented youth of the Marlins as the top two rotations in the division, in my opinion. The young Marlins hurlers have the ability to be very solid in ’09. Ricky Nolasco (1.10 WHIP, 186 strikeouts), Josh Johnson (7-1), Chris Volstad (2.88 ERA), and Andrew Miller all posted FIPs under 4.00, while no-hitter alum, Anibal Sanchez, continues to work into form following rotator cuff surgery. Of these, Johnson, Volstad, and Sanchez all threw less than 85 innings last season. If Miller can continue to improve by maintaining his strikeout rate, lowering his walk and HR/G ratios, we may be looking at the most complete one through four rotation in the division, or one of the best in the entire NL.

3. Is Cameron Maybin going to be successful as a leadoff hitter?

Yes, but only if he can continue to raise his selectivity at the plate and draw more walks. If he reverts back to the form he displayed back when he was rushed to the show by the Tigers, then he will have to be moved from the leadoff spot. His minor league numbers indicate that he should be close to a 1/2 BB/K player, but he will more than likely maintain a 30 percent strikeout rate, meaning that you can bank on 140-150 strikeouts this year.

He is having a tremendous spring training thus far, and if you look at his late-season production from last year (16-for-32, four stolen bases, perfect fielding percentage), you can see the glimpses of what this guy can bring to the table as an all-around player. He is going to get plenty of game action this season, and the Marlins will let him run. And run some more. Especially with Hanley Ramirez likely to be used more sparingly on the base paths, in an attempt to avoid injury to his surgically repaired left shoulder.

In 500 at-bats this season (which he is likely to get), I would put Maybin at around a .270 average, with 15 home runs, 60 RBIs, and about 35 steals. While 100 runs is going to be quite a reach, I would bet on around 80-85.

4. How will the closer’s role pan out?

The 100-mph (averaging 97 mph fastball), flame-throwing Matt Lindstrom is already dealing with a rotator cuff strain, and is sidelined for the next week or so. Ultimately, I foresee Leo Nunez claiming the role and running away with it. Nunez was a solid, if unspectacular pitcher last year with the Royals, but he has the ability to notch seven strikeouts’s per 9 innings. His WHIP of 1.24 in both ’08 and ’07 will probably hold around that level, while his ERA will land somewhere in the mid-3.00s.

Lindstrom has the live arm and the higher strikeout potential, but is generally considered to be wilder with his command and may not be best suited for the big pressure situations late in games where walks will absolutely kill you. He probably will never notch a WHIP under 1.30, but his ERA will stay in the low-3.00s due to his ability to induce the ground ball to get out of jams. Lindstrom will get first crack at the closing duties when he returns from his cuff strain, but I still have a hunch that this is a time sharing opportunity, and that Nunez is going to end up with more saves when all is said and done.

5. Is Gaby Sanchez the answer at first base? What about Dallas McPherson?

If spring training is any indication, then no, neither of them are the answer. McPherson has struck out 11 times in just 37 AB for a .237 BA, while drawing only one walk. He also has no home runs after showing colossal home run prowess in Triple-A last year (42 home runs). Sanchez is also struggling, as he has only six hits in 30 at-bats, for a .226 batting average prior to Wednesday’s 2-for-5 performance. Neither player has shown the willingness to take a walk, though Sanchez’s minor league record shows that he is a very patient hitter who is capable of a solid average and average to moderate power.

After McPherson landed in the Marlins organization last year, he drastically improved his walk rates. If McPherson doesn’t get back on track with his plate approach, he could be playing himself out of more regular playing time. If Sanchez is not handed the first base gig, then Jorge Cantu could also slide across the diamond and play first, while a platoon of Wes Helms and McPherson would be at third. The return of Alfredo Amezaga would further cloud the situation and add more time-sharing possibilities.

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