I was a Marlins season-ticket holder from the inaugural opening day until relocating to Seattle in 2009. And during my time in sweltering SoFla, there were only two previous seasons where I was bold enough to predict a Wildcard berth: 1997 and 2003. The first run was easier to predict, because the team was built to win. The entire region was salivating entering the ’97 season, even though the rest of the country was still saying “Florida who?” Predicting the ’03 success was a bit of a stretch, but when evaluating what the starters were capable of delivering, it was hard to exclude the Marlins from the Wildcard conversation.
On the eve of the 2011 season, there are five reasons to throw the Fish into the playoff pool once again.
- All the young dudes. And not just young players, but good young players. And there is no reason this kiddie corp can’t have breakout seasons together. Mike Stanton (capable of in 2011: .265 AVE, 35 HR, 100 RBI), Gaby Sanchez (.275, 20, 90), Hanley Ramirez (.310, 25, 90) and Logan Morrison (.280, 15, 75) deliver on the numbers in the parenthesis, the Marlins will hit more homers and drive in more runs than the Phillies and Braves top four hitters delivered in 2010.
- Pitching woo. Using the same capability logic above, the Marlins starting five – Josh Johnson (18 win capability), Ricky Nolasco (15), Anibal Sanchez (14), Javier Vazquez (12), Chris Volstad (12) – could deliver 70 wins, which is comparable to the potential of the pre-ordained, all-time greatest Phillies starting staff. But the biggest upgrade for the Marlins is the overhaul of the bullpen, which will surely improve upon its second-to-last in blown saves and third-worst bullpen won-loss in the majors, with the addition of Ryan Webb, Randy Choate, Mike Dunn and Edward Mujica.
- Minister of Defense. The Marlins were tied for last with the worst fielding percentage in the NL last season. Solution? Bring back coach Perry Hill, who has been charged with stabilizing the defensive this spring. Gone are Dan Uggla’s hands of stone, and rookie defensive phenom Matt Dominguez has a legitimate chance to earn the starting 3B role if his torrid hitting continues this spring. Any defensive improvement over last season will lead to a handful of wins in 2011.
- Moving on up. The front office, much derided by fans over the years, has shown a willingness to make moves if the Marlins are in contention at the trade deadline. Larry Bienfest won’t hesitate to pull the trigger and bring in veteran leadership if the young dudes are flirting with a post-season run.
- 10 games better than last year? That’s the biggest question of all. The offensive power is there. The starting pitching is elite. The bullpen is decidedly better on paper. Defensive improvement is all but a given. If so, the Marlins only need to pick up 10 wins over last season’s 80-82 record to have a shot at the playoffs. It’s realistic and doable.