Insider: Marlins poised to make some noise

Marlins expect Matt Dominguez's glove to do some talking. (AP photo)

In yesterday’s post, Sun-Sentinel sportswriter Juan C. Rodriguez gave us a glimpse into the life of a beat reporter for the Florida Marlins. In part two of our conversation, he offers insight into the Marlins’ chances in 2011.

TTFB: Defense has been a concern over the past several seasons, but it looks like the tide is changing. How much of an impact will the return of coach Perry Hill have on the team?

The main problem, in all honesty, is the Marlins didn’t have great defensive players. They weren’t a bad defensive team due to a lack of effort. Far from it. They probably took pre-game infield more than any team in baseball during the regular season. Ideally, you get the fundamentals down during spring training and you have infield practice once a week or every 10 days during the season. The Marlins, on the other hand, were taking formal infield practice before every home game. There’s no doubt, they worked hard. Fact is, they were as good as they were going to get defensively. After last season, the Marlins brass said, “Hey, we’ve been talking about emphasizing pitching and defense, so let’s get the personnel in here that will make it work.” So, they go out and get Omar Infante, an above-average defender, to play second. They know Matt Dominguez may struggle offensively, but they are willing to live with that given the superior defense he provides at third base. When you start putting quality defenders on the field, the players around them get better. Hanley Ramirez may improve, too, now that he has two really good defenders surrounding him. And the acquisition of catcher John Buck was made with an eye toward improving the defense, as well as getting a guy back there who works well with the pitchers. The Marlins are finally making the moves to get better defensively. Pitching and defense was the formula that won it for them in 2003, and that’s what they’re trying to get back to.

TTFB: But this team isn’t just about pitching and defense. There are some pretty big bats, too.

Definitely. When they traded Dan Uggla, fans were wondering how they would replace those 30 to 35 home runs. But look at who is in the line up now. First, Mike Stanton. I won’t be surprised if he leads the league in home runs within the next few years. He’s an absolute beast the way he crushes baseballs. He’s a potential 40-plus homer guy. Logan Morrison is definitely built to hit homers. He’s not quite an all-or-nothing guy like Stanton; he’s a very patient hitter who will muscle out 15-20 homers initially, with the capability to hit even more down the road. Gaby Sanchez came to camp in better shape and looks much stronger this spring. After hitting 19 homers last year, it’s not a stretch to see him hit 20 or more this year. And then there’s Hanley, who is capable of hitting 30 home runs. All of these guys benefit by having good table setters at the top of the lineup in Infante and Chris Coghlan, who get on base consistently and are capable of hitting 15 or so homers, too.

TTFB: Power, pitching and defense are ingredients for an elite team. Given how young the Marlins are, is this a perennial playoff contender in the making?

It’s certainly possible. A lot will depend on the rotation. Josh Johnson is a legitimate All-Star ace, and he’s locked up for the next few seasons. In the off season, they signed Ricky Nolasco to a three-year extension. He’s the guy who maybe hasn’t put it all together yet, but as far as pure stuff, he’s phenomenal. Great strike thrower. I really love watching him pitch because he’s always around the zone. Most guys throw 63% to 65% strikes, but Ricky is generally around the 70% mark, sometimes higher. He has so many ways to come at you, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he has an 18-win season in his future. Signing Javier Vazquez is significant, too, because the Marlins have lacked veteran presence in the rotation the past few seasons. The depth you add by getting someone like Vasquez can’t be understated. In addition to allowing younger starters to develop in triple-A versus the big leagues, it helps preserve the bullpen. Having another starter capable of delivering 175 innings will keep the bullpen fresh and help the entire staff in the long run.

TTFB: What are your thoughts about Chris Volstad? He has all the tools, but it’s a matter of consistency with his sinker.

Interesting case. When he came up, the heavy sinker got him a ton of ground balls. But for whatever reason, his ground-ball rate got worse over the last few years. He’s not getting guys to pound the ball into the ground like he used to. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens if he can’t rely on the sinker. How effective will the rest of his pitches be? But you’re right; he has the tools and the potential. He was a first-round pick for a reason. If they can get 160-plus innings from his spot in the rotation, it will be a good sign.

TTFB: With two weeks to go, what has been the biggest surprise so far this spring?

Not a huge surprise, but Dominguez, because he has made the most of his opportunity. Two years ago with Sanchez and last year with Morrison, both players were given a chance to make the roster, but they struggled in the spring. It was there for the taking, yet neither was able to secure a starting spot when the team broke camp. I expected the same from Dominguez, especially offensively. But he has looked good at the plate, and the Marlins have made it very clear they don’t expect him to hit .400. They just want him to show he can handle big-league pitching, and he’s certainly done that. The defensive skills have been as advertised. So, I think Dominguez making the best of his opportunity has been the storyline so far.

TTFB: Gaby Sanchez was quite vocal about the team’s errors in a game last week. Is there a chance he steps into the role of on-field leader?

He certainly has the personality for it. Even though he’s a second year player, he’s older and he plays the game the right way. A lot of guys in the clubhouse already look up to him. For all of Wes Helms’ contributions, and he makes a ton of them, he’s not on the field everyday. There are limits to his leadership. When an everyday player starts being the voice of the club, or delivers a kick in the pants when things aren’t going good, that’s always a good sign. There are quite a few players in the clubhouse now who could take on that role. Take Buck, for example. One reason the Marlins signed him to a three-year deal is his makeup and leadership – the ability to be a stabilizing force with the pitching staff. Hanley said all the right things when he arrived at camp this season. I don’t want to say he can’t be a leader, but he has a reputation to repair after what happened last year. If he goes out there and plays hard, I think he can develop into a clubhouse leader, too. Where Hanley does have a big influence is with other Latin players, especially the pitchers. You’ll see him settle pitchers down when things aren’t going well. He’s an emotional player who wears his heart on his sleeve, so you see that come through from time to time.

TTFB: Centerfield has been a revolving door the last few seasons. With Cameron Maybin out of the picture, Coghlan is shifting to yet another new position. Is this experiment going to work?

I think Coghlan is going to surprise people. He’s not going to look like Andruw Jones in his prime out there, but he’s the epitome of a ballplayer. You can put guys like that anywhere on the diamond, and they’re going to find a way to make it work. Knowing the work ethic and what Coghlan has put into it so far, it wouldn’t surprise me if he turned himself into a serviceable centerfielder, much in the same way he did when he transitioned to left.

TTFB: Despite the limited experience, the Marlins have a chance to contend when you consider the potential. Is it a reach to think playoffs this season?

It’s possible, if everything lines up. It’s hard to say how good they’ll be because they have so many young players in the lineup. There’s an element of the unknown in the bullpen, too. Ryan Webb and Mike Dunn both have great arms, but they are very young. Will they take a step forward or a half-step backward? The Marlins have a lot of second year guys – Morrison, Stanton, Sanchez and even Coghlan after missing most of last season – and the sophomore season can be tricky for hitters because opposing teams have a book on you now. It’s all about the adjustments you make to avoid the valleys that are sure to appear in a long season. My gut tells me it’s probably unrealistic to think all these young guys are going to get better at the same time.

TTFB: So, making the playoffs is unrealistic this year?

Absolutely not. They have all the talent in the world to reach that high. When you factor in the moves to improve the bullpen and bench, there is a solid foundation for success. The Marlins have a way of staying in the conversation come September. If they’re within striking distance at the trade deadline, it wouldn’t surprise me if management made moves to help the club. September success always comes down to pitching, and I’m not sure – right now – how far this rotation can carry them. The problem for the Marlins and other small markets, and I hesitate to say small market because South Florida isn’t a small market, is they don’t have as much room for error as the bigger-budget teams. If the Marlins get a lousy season from Nolasco or Anibal Sanchez, it will be hard to recover. They simply don’t have the depth in their system. So, my short answer is they can contend because they have the talent. I’m just not sure every player on such a young team will perform at their full potential for the entire season. But there’s no doubt they will be fun to watch.


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