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Can HanRam and the young Marlins make waves in the NL East?
This time firing the manager during the season didn’t lead to a World Series title. Unlike 2003, when Jack McKeon took over for Jeff Torborg in mid-May and led the Marlins to their second championship in seven seasons, the Edwin Rodriguez-for-Fredi Gonzalez swap last June couldn’t inspire more than a distant third-place finish in the National League East. The Marlins, who retained Rodriguez on a one-year deal, will get plenty of chances to see Gonzalez again this season now that he’s been hired as Bobby Cox’s successor in Atlanta. They’ll also see Dan Uggla across the way after trading their All-Star second baseman to the Braves when a $23 million contract gap could not be bridged with Uggla closing in on free agency. No matter. The Marlins also seem to find a way to fill in around those who leave. Their commitment to pitching remains, and the hope is that with the subtractions of Uggla and former stone-gloved third baseman Jorge Cantu, the defense will spike back to respectability as well.
The Marlins figure to open the year with no lefthanders in the rotation, but after the subpar work turned in by Nate Robertson, Andrew Miller and Sean West in recent seasons, maybe that’s just as well. West could still reclaim a spot at some point, but for now it’s Josh Johnson (fifth in the Cy Young voting last season) at the top, with Ricky Nolasco, Javier Vazquez, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad lining up in a solid grouping behind him. All have the potential to hit the 200-inning mark and keep pitching coach Randy St. Claire from having to get as creative with his rotation as he did in 2010, when the Marlins ran through 10 different starters. Johnson signed a four-year, $39 million extension before last season, then went out and won his first ERA title (2.30) despite winning just 11 games due to poor run support. Nolasco, who has overcome some early-career hiccups, has developed into a reliable innings eater with a deep repertoire of pitches. The Marlins rewarded him with a three-year, $26.5 million extension during the offseason. Vazquez takes the ball every fifth day as well as anybody in the game, and he’s working on a one-year, $7 million deal that should keep him highly focused.
Leo Nunez became the eighth different Marlins closer to post a 30-save season, but he also blew eight saves along the way, tied for second-most in the majors. Among those setting up for Nunez will be a handful of new faces as the Marlins seek to improve a group that went a collective 17–25 last season and blew 25 of 64 saves chances (61 percent success rate). Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb got plenty of outs in San Diego the past couple seasons and came over in the Cameron Maybin trade. Young lefty Mike Dunn, a revelation as a Braves rookie, came south in the Uggla trade. And veteran lefty specialist Randy Choate, who did solid work for the Rays the past two years, signed a two-year deal as a free agent at age 35. Holdover righties Clay Hensley, Brian Sanches and Burke Badenhop are durable and more effective than one might think. Hensley even picked up seven saves in September after Nunez hit a speed bump. Sanches, in particular, has found new life with a split-change that has enabled him to keep lefties in check.
Hanley Ramirez still has four years and $57.5 million left on the six-year contract extension he signed during the 2008 season. For the first time in his career, he will be paid eight figures in a single season ($11 million). It’s time for Ramirez to grow up. Most fans sided with Gonzalez when he benched Ramirez for several games last May due to poor effort on the field. The two patched things up, but it was still Gonzalez who got fired the next month. Edwin Rodriguez, working on a one-year deal, needs better cooperation from his most talented all-around player. Uggla’s 30-homer seasons will be missed. The hope is that Omar Infante, who came from the Braves in that same trade, will build on the slick-fielding, gap-pop résumé he began to build in Atlanta the past few years. While Uggla worked hard to polish his defense during his Marlins years, the defensive improvement should be obvious and just as helpful to the pitching staff.
After two failed attempts to secure a starting job in spring training, Gaby Sanchez knocked the door down last year. With his advanced batting eye and underrated defense, the former Miami Hurricane put down roots at first base and forced the shift of hot prospect Logan Morrison to left field. The hope is 2007 first-rounder Matt Dominguez can do the same on his first try at winning the job at third base. His bat showed signs of a breakthrough last year at Double-A, but the Marlins are hoping he can justify the hype over his glove. Yes, Rodriguez regrettably compared the kid’s defense to Brooks Robinson’s, but scouts have been saying “Mike Lowell” when discussing Dominguez for years. That should be more than good enough.
The Marlins gave Maybin plenty of time to become their long-term center fielder. Didn’t happen, so Maybin and his vast potential were dealt to the Padres. Former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, coming off minor knee surgery, will try to make the move over from left to center while holding down the leadoff spot. Potential superstar Mike Stanton hit a combined 43 homers last year between Double-A and the majors. However, he also racked up a combined 176 strikeouts. Morrison, a smooth-swinging product of the same junior college that produced Albert Pujols, hit .342 in 73 at-bats against lefties. His defense needs work after moving from first base.
The Marlins haven’t believed in a catcher as much as they believe in John Buck, at least contractually, since they gave an identical three-year, $18 million deal to Paul Lo Duca after the 2004 season. One year later, Lo Duca was shipped off to the Mets, and it’s been a revolving door behind the plate ever since. Buck is a sturdy defender who can handle a pitching staff, and his experience with Nunez, going back to their Royals days, should come in handy.
Wes Helms, a stabilizing force in the clubhouse, is entering his fifth season with the club in the past six years. He’s a solid option off the bench who started 50 games at third a year ago. Speedster Emilio Bonifacio is growing into the super utility role once held by Alfredo Amezaga. With former starter John Baker recovering from reconstructive surgery on his throwing elbow, glove-first farmhands Brett Hayes and Brad Davis will battle for the primary backup catcher role. Baker could make the club as a lefty bat off the bench.
Thanks to a little goosing by the players’ union, the Marlins jumped their payroll to the $55 million range last year and figure to be close to that again in 2011. They locked down Johnson through 2014 and got a three-year deal done with Nolasco, but couldn’t bridge the $23 million gap with Uggla before ultimately dealing him to the division-rival Braves. Recent deadline deals have been fairly modest under Jeffrey Loria’s ownership. Even since backing away from the Manny Ramirez opportunity in 2008, the Marlins have forced their fans to settle for a Nick Johnson here, a Will Ohman there, while teams like the Phillies and Braves load up for the stretch drive.
Rodriguez did a solid job as interim manager following the June 23 firing of Gonzalez and was retained with a one-year deal. Whether he gives way to former Marlins coach Ozzie Guillen as the team moves into a new stadium in 2012 will depend on whether he can guide a young club to marked improvement. These Marlins have plenty of young talent, as always, but the lack of depth figures to keep them in a holding pattern and home for an eighth straight October.