2011 pre-season preview: NL East – Florida Marlins
Florida’s enigmatic shortstop, Hanley Ramirez
Florida Marlins (2010 record: 80-82)
The Marlins finished 2010 with an 80-82 record, in third place in the National League East, and it appears they’re destined to finish the upcoming season in much the same position. They won’t be able to compete with the Phillies and it is unlikely they’ll be able to overtake the Braves, but they are quite a bit better than both the Mets or the Nats… so, third place it is.
They say that pitching and defense wins championships. Last year in Miami, the ballclub had a decent lineup and a pretty solid rotation, but it hasn’t had anything that resembles a competent defense or serviceable bullpen for quite awhile. Fittingly, the poster child for The Fish is Hanley Ramirez – the young shortstop who swings a mean bat, but who will be best remembered as the guy who ambled after a ball he kicked down the left field line last May. The word “lollygagger” is now associated with HanRam in the mind of most people..
Ramirez is widely considered to be one of the best players in baseball, but his character and work ethic have been questioned with some frequency. He caught a lot of flack after the gaffe, and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds in the new season. Will he use the incident as a catalyst for assuming more of a leadership role on the team, or will he continue to leave some of his abundant talent untapped as he settles for being a very good, but not g-r-e-a-t, player.
Catcher: John Buck
The club finished seventh in the league in runs scored last year, but lost its leader in homers, runs batted in and runs scored (2B Dan Uggla). There are many observers who believe the lineup can be better in 2011, but I am not numbered among those people.
Ramirez has four years and nearly $60 million remaining on the six-year extension he signed in ’08. He will make $11 million this year. At 26 years of age, and making that kind of money, it’s time he grows up and takes on a greater leadership role… he will help set the tone for guys like Morrison, Stanton and Dominguez. His talent is undeniable, but his character is debatable.
Sanchez, who turned 27 near the end of last season, finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting after hitting .259 with 19 HR and 85 RBI… but it should be noted that his batting average slipped significantly in the second half (.237), so buyer beware. He beat out Logan Morrison for the first base job. Morrison, 23, was shifted to left field, though some people question whether he will hit for enough power to play the corner outfield in the big leagues (he hit more than 15 homers just once in the minors).
Coghlan, 25, is a former NL Rookie of the Year. He won’t hit with power, but he should provide decent average, get on base and score plenty of runs. There is a potential problem, though… he is being asked to move to center field after coming off minor knee surgery. The transition will bear watching throughout the spring and the early part of the regular season.
The two youngest members of the lineup are Stanton and Dominguez, both 21 years old. Stanton hit .259, with 22 HR, in fewer than 400 at-bats in his rookie season… he will be expected to help offset the loss of Uggla’s potent bat. Dominguez will be a rookie in the upcoming season. He has reached double-digits in home runs in each of the last three years, but his batting average has not been especially good. I have doubts whether he will be able to hold down the job for the duration of the season.
Buck arrives in Miami the owner of a three-year, $18 million free agent deal. He will help offset some of Uggla’s lost production, and help significantly with the young pitching staff. Infante has become a solid offensive contributor over the last few years, though he doesn’t walk enough.
The pitching staff:
Closer: RHP Leo Nunez
Johnson won only 11 games last season in spite of the fact he won his first ERA title (2.30). He has a power arm coupled with good off-speed stuff. He is 26-11, 2.80, in 392.2 IP over the last two years and has evolved into the staff ace.
Nolasco went 14-9, with a 4.51 ERA, in an uneven campaign. He struggled at home but pitched very well on the road. He has an elite strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the results do not match the skill set. The front office gave him a 3-year, $26.5 million contract extension at the end of the season in spite of the fact he has posted a 4.50+ ERA in each of the last two seasons… they must be looking at his xERA (which has been no higher than 3.57 over the last three years).
Sanchez had a brilliant rookie season in 2006, going 10-3 with a 2.83 ERA and throwing a no-hitter, but injuries have largely held him back since. Alas, there is hope! Last year, he showed what he can do when he is healthy (13-12, 3.55). He had an other-worldly home run rate (just 4%) so expect some regression there, but if he holds on to the gains he made in terms of his walk rate and can get back to his 2008 K-rate, he’ll be all right.
Vazquez returns to the NL East after a disastrous season with the NY Yankees. Maybe he has finally learned to accept the fact that he can’t pitch with success in the AL – in five seasons with an American League team he has posted a sub-4.00 ERA just once. He certainly has proven he can pitch well in the NL East, posting a 15-10 record, with a 2.87 ERA, with the Atlanta Braves back in 2009.
Volstad’s record improved last season, but his underlying metrics actually stayed the same or got worse than they were in 2009. The difference between the two seasons was the fact his home run rate, which was extraordinarily high in ’09, normalized last year. Otherwise, there is no growth here.
Nunez is a work in progress as the club’s closer… he recorded 30 saves last year but also blew eight save opportunities (tied for second-most in the major leagues). Still, there was significant growth in a bunch of hit peripherals – his K-rate jumped, his walk rate returned to its previous levels, and he continued to increase his ground ball rate (from 39% to 41% to 54% over the last three years). The bullpen behind him is largely unproven, though RHPs Brian Sanches and Clay Hensley both had excellent campaigns in 2010 and should be able to help shorten the game. I suspect Sanches will ultimately earn the role as Nunez’ primary set-up man.
Prediction for 2011: 3rd place (81-81)
The club will have a different look in 2011 – younger, more reliant of pitching and defense, and considerably less expensive for ownership. I expect the lineup will struggle and produce far less than the league-average in runs – it is too young and too inexperienced. The trade-off is that the pitching should be improved with the addition of Vazquez, the improving health of Sanchez, the maturation of Nolasco and the arrival of the veteran Buck behind the plate.
Florida’s top prospect, Matt Dominguez, needs more time to develop in the minor leagues but will start 2011 in The Show.
Top Five Prospects:
Dominguez will start the 2011 season as the starting third baseman with the parent club, but I believe he is being rushed and that he will end up back in the minor leagues before mid-season. His offensive game is still a work in progress and he will almost certainly struggle to hit major league pitching at this point. The challenge of moving from Double-A to The Show is daunting under the best of circumstances, but in the case of Dominguez he will be asked to do so at a bad time in his development. The organization made several changes to his mechanics last year, and he is still learning how to hit with his new swing. According to Baseball America, the changes will give him “a clearer path to the ball, allowing him to make more consistent contact and drive the ball better.” THAT would be welcomed, since he is a .257 career hitter in the lower minors. In my opinion, he needs AT LEAST one more full season in Double-A and Triple-A before he is ready to face big league pitching on a day-to-day basis.