This is the third post in a series looking at the newly fascinating National League East Division. In the first two installments, the Phillies were given the top spot they deserve until some team dethrones them. They have been the king. The Braves finished a distant second last season with a fade at the end but were found to be capable of winning 95 games if everything goes according to plan. But that's a long shot. The truth is that they still look like an 89-win team. The early post season was dominated by the newly renamed, Miami Marlins. They have a new manager, a new ballpark, a new shortstop, new pitchers and a new outlook on life. Can this team that lost 90 games a year ago compete with the big boys this year? Let's take a look.
The Miami Marlins' quest for legitimacy rests largely on the starting rotation. Carlos Zambrano and Mark Buehrle should provide some stability to what has been a rotation in flux for multiple seasons. Of course, "stability," is kind of a relative term when mentioning Carlos Zambrano. But the thought here is that he will be fine working under Ozzie Guillen, his friend, and living large under the Florida sun. Buehrle, of course, is stability personified and about as consistent as a pitcher gets. He's not spectacular, but if you want quality innings by the boatloads, Buehrle will give you that.
Anibal Sanchez is also a stable force in that rotation. He had a weird season last year when he was among the best pitchers of the first half and then was nearly non-existent in the second half. But make no mistake about it, Sanchez is one tough pitcher with a great arsenal of pitches and loads of talent. He could very easily put together a big season under Ozzie.
The other two rotation spots are worrisome for different reasons. Josh Johnson has to be in the top five of pitchers in the National League with his talent. But he can't seem to stay healthy. If Johnson can get thirty starts, whoo boy, that would be interesting to watch. The guy can bring it. One of these years, he's going to stay healthy. If this is that season, the Marlins will be very tough indeed.
The other is Ricky Nolasco. Every year, Nolasco's FIP is lower than his actual ERA and we all scratch our heads and wonder why he isn't better than he's shown. But he regressed last year and line drives whistled all over the place (23.8 percent) and his BABIP jumped to .331. Perhaps he'll settled down this season. All the Marlins really need is for him to be as good as he was in 2010 and 2011. They would take that kind of performance from their fifth starter in a heartbeat.
On paper, this rotation could put together a big season. But Zambrano has to prove he still has something in the tank, Nolasco needs to be better and Josh Johnson needs to stay healthy.
The Marlins' bullpen should be solid. The addition of Heath Bell slots Juan Carlos Oviedo into the number two spot where he should belong. Mike Dunn showed that he has a big arm and the rest of the bullpen is passable. Bell should make a huge difference. Man, San Diego and now Florida? Bell sure knows how to pick his paradises.
Catching those pitchers isn't a pretty aspect of this team. John Buck is one seriously overrated catcher. His only real positive is blocking balls in the dirt. His offense was a one year fluke up in Toronto and a whole bunch of nothing in most other years and he's terrible at obtaining strikes on close pitches with the way he receives the pitch. Backing him up is the equally ineptness of Brett Hayes. The catching position is a real weakness on this team.
The infield, on the other hand, could be a real strength. Omar Infante is terrific defensively at second base, but slipped pretty dramatically at the plate last season. Projections predict him to bounce back in 2012. That's important and would certainly help. With Buehrle, his defense should really come in handy.
Jose Reyes, of course, was the biggest acquisition of the off season and will be the shortstop. Reyes, when healthy, is one of the premier all-around shortstops in baseball. His energy also lifts a baseball team, something the Mets will surely miss. Naturally, his health will always be a concern. He has to stay healthy to make this deal work and to bring the Marlins to the next level. Perhaps the warm weather in Florida will help him to keep those muscles loose.
Gaby Sanchez is a great defender at first. But he isn't a slugger. He's more of a contact hitter, which makes him somewhat of an anomaly at the position. The good news is that with the Fielder and Pujols defections to the other league, power hitting first basemen will be rarer in the National League. That bodes well for the Marlins. Sanchez is steady and productive if not spectacular.
That brings us to the enigma of Hanley Ramirez. The erstwhile star will move to third, which is good news for the Marlins defensively. The feeling here is that Ramirez will respond to Ozzie Guillen and will rebound offensively. The prediction here is that in 2012, Hanley Ramirez will reestablish himself as a premier batsman in the National League. If he can do that, look out National League!
The Marlins outfield is a bit of a puzzle. We baseball experts made fun of Emilio Bonifacio for years until he shut us all up with a 3.3 fWAR season last year with surprising defense in center with a .360 on-base percentage. Is he really that good? Time will tell. It's still hard to believe. But for now, he's not the butt of our jokes anymore.
Logan Morrison is still a first baseman playing the outfield. He's terrible out there. And his offense took a dive in 2011 as well. The guy has all kinds of talent though and should rebound offensively. Whether he can improve his defense is another whole kettle of fish. It would be great if LoMo could be better known for his play again then his tweets on Twitter.
Everybody loves Mike Stanton and the big kid has proved more than adequate in right field. He also busted out with 34 homers while adding 30 doubles last season. His upside is tremendous and we all look forward to what he can achieve in baseball. In order for him to reach his potential though, his pitch recognition needs to improve greatly and he needs to make more contact. Take that power and add twenty points to his batting average and you have the bomb.
The Marlins' bench is a weakness and the Marlins lack depth. If anyone gets hurt, the team could have trouble. If things don't go well physically, this team could easily fall to a .500 level. But if they stay healthy? If the Marlins push all the right buttons and everyone plays to their ability level, this team could get scary and challenge the existing powers in the division. And hey, it will be fun to see that home run feature going off in center field!