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Every year I pick the Marlins to finish 4th or 5th in the division, and (almost) every year, they surprise and finish 2nd or 3rd. They are pesky, and really quite annoying, as a small market team that always seems to find a way to win despite unloading players year after year. This off-season however, they didn’t unload that much. Despite rumors surrounding Dan Uggla, Jorge Cantu, Josh Johnson and even Hanley Ramirez, the Marlins only ended up getting rid of 4th outfielder Jeremy Hermida and closer Matt Lindstrom. They even re-signed Josh Johnson to a long-term deal (after the commissioner’s office pretty much told them to “spend some f-ing money”). With one of the best hitters (Han-Ram) and best pitchers (JJ) in baseball, they are sure to be pesky and annoying again this year.
It starts with Hanley Ramirez, arguably one of the top-5 position players in baseball. Last season he became the 1st SS in MLB history to hit .340 with 20+ HR, 100+ RBI and 25+ SB. And at 26, he hasn’t even hit his prime yet. Chris Coghlan was the surprise ROY winner, but I wouldn’t count on him hitting .320 again this year. Uggla and Cantu (who should say 3B, not 1B on the roster above) provide adequate run support behind Ramirez and you can add Cody Ross to the “players-who-sucked-but-then-magically-got-good-on-Florida” list that is entirely too long. Without Ramirez, this is a weak line-up, but with him, it’s good enough. I have them ranked as the 8th best line-up in the NL.
Many analysts thought that Florida’s rotation could lead them to the playoffs last year, but most of their rotation (Nolasco, Sanchez and Miller) either got hurt or were disappointing. Somehow, the Marlins still finished with 87 wins last year. If Nolasco bounces back, and Sanchez can stay healthy, their top-3 is one of the best in the league with Josh Johnson leading the way. I love watching great pitchers, and Johnson, if he stays healthy, will be truly great. Johnson’s fastball was the 3rd fastest in baseball last year (95.1 mph) and behind only a handful of pitchers in terms of pitch value on FanGraphs. He couples it with a hard slider. He doesn’t really have a 3rd pitch (throws a change-up just 7% of the time), but if he develops one, he’ll win a Cy Young or two. I have their rotation ranked as the 8th best in the NL – but if they pitch to their potential, they would easily vault into the top-4.
Another band of castaways that have excelled in the no-pressure land of Florida. Remember Brian Sanches? Career 6.13 ERA? He put up a 2.56 ERA last year in 56.1 IP. Dan Meyer? Once the key the Tim Hudson/Braves deal? Career 7.63 ERA? How about a 3.09 ERA in 58.1 IP! The point is that it’s impossible to predict the performance of this group. On paper, they don’t look all that great, and their new closer, Leo Nunez, sports a career 4.67 ERA. But – I’m expecting him to be awesome – because that’s what happens more often than not with Marlins players.
Most Important Player: Ricky Nolasco
Nolasco is their Cole Hamels. Brilliant in 2008, very disappointing in 2009, replaced at the top of the rotation, and now his comeback is vital to their playoff chances in 2010. Nolasco had the 2nd highest ERA (5.06) ever for a qualified starter that struck out more than a batter an inning. The highest was Brandon Duckworth for the Phillies in 2002 (5.41 ERA, 9.22 K/9). This tells me Nolasco still has the stuff he had in 2008, he just needs to locate better. My guess is that he has a Joe Blanton-type year with better peripherals, but if he fully regains 2008 form, the Marlins could be very dangerous.
The Marlins have 2 high-end prospects, and not much else. Mike Stanton is a top-5 prospect in all of baseball and might have the most raw power of anyone in the minor leagues. At 6’5”, 240, he is a massive kid, and he is just a kid, not turning 20 until November. He’s hit 67 HR in the minors over the last two years. Logan Morrison is much further along, and might even be the Marlins 1B by the end of the year.
It’s truly hard to believe that this team won 87 games last year despite all their rotation struggles, duct-tape bullpen, and lack of another great player opposite Hanley Ramirez. But they did – and they usually do. That’s why, even though the Mets look better on paper, I put them ahead of them here. I fully expect the Marlins to be around for most of the year and if their rotation stays healthy and effective, they could be real trouble. As is, I have to think their bullpen will be a crutch this year, but knowing them, it probably won’t. Prediction: 3rd place, 84-78.