I asked my MVN colleague Alex Carver, of the blog Marlins Today, to answer five questions about the outlook for the 2009 Florida Marlins, whom we'll face today. He thinks they're a playoff team.
1. The Marlins had surprisingly good years from a couple of unlikely sources, including Ricky Nolasco, Jorge Cantu, Cody Ross, and Chris Volstad. Talented Mr. Roto Matthew Berry is even predicting Nolasco will be a top-10 NL pitcher by the end of the year. Are these guys legit, or are they due for a setback? Are there any other breakout candidates? (Jeremy Hermida, say?)
Nolasco is a bit of a red flag headed into 2009 after by far, his most extensive year of action in 2008. Will Carroll projects him as a high injury risk. If he can stay healthy though, Nolasco has said he wants to improve his control and walk less than 25 hitters, a feat that only one modern-era pitcher, Greg Maddux, has accomplished.
With a plethora of young outfielders such as John Raynor and Scott Cousins bound for a big league berth and with their salaries projected to increase drastically, Cody Ross and Jeremy Hermida will be playing to prove their worth to the rest of the league as they enter free agency so I'm expecting decent things out of both of them.
As for a breakout candidate, I'm looking at Andrew Miller, who projects as the fifth starter. Until this year, Miller has never entered a major league season 100% healthy. This year, with his new delivery and improved mechanics, I think he'll finally show us some of the talent that he used to set records at the University of North Carolina.
2. As usual, the Marlins had a lot of roster turnover, losing Josh Willingham, Scott Olsen, Mike Jacobs, and Kevin Gregg. Who will take their place, and how much will they miss those guys? Who are the other new names we'll see this year, and who should we keep an eye out for?
Everyone the Marlins parted with this offseason was expendable. Willingham because of his struggles with back injuries, Olsen because of the return of Josh Johnson, Jacobs because of the team's surplus of power (because of how many times he struck out and because of his shoddy, to put it nicely, defense, Jake may have hurt the team more than he helped it last year) and Gregg because of Matt Lindstrom fulfilling his destiny as a closer.
No matter who wins the battle in spring training, either Dallas McPherson or Gaby Sanchez, you'll be seeing a new name at first base this year. Sanchez is one of the organization's highly touted prospects and posted good cup of coffee numbers last September, which made the job his to lose this spring. And that's exactly what he's doing. While McPherson, who lead the minors in homers last year, has posted decent numbers at the plate and has is one of few Marlins that has yet to commit an error so far this spring, Sanchez has gone just 3-16 (.188) and has committed three errors. On the mound, you should get a good look at veteran Scott Proctor as the Marlins will likely feed him a lot of innings. Leo Nunez, formerly of the Royals, will be the setup man.
3. Cameron Maybin -- is this his year? How good is he? He certainly made an impression in September, 16 hits in 32 at-bats. Is he ready for prime time? Is he the next Hanley Ramirez? Speaking of Hanley, we've been hearing he's improved his defense -- just how good will he be in 2009?
This guy's the real deal. However, like Hanley, because of his power, he's not a lead-off hitter. While I do think he is ready for the show this year, I don't think we'll see all that he can do in terms of RBIs. Unfortunately, he's the best option the Marlins have to hit lead-off right now. With Chris Coghlan, a great lead-off candidate, due up from the minors next year to replace Dan Uggla, we will have to wait until then to see the real Maybin.
If Hanley's defense has improved, he hasn't shown it yet this spring as he has committed three errors or in the WBC where he made an error that eventually caused the Dominican Republic to lose their first game to the Netherlands. While Hanley is a lot of things, he's nothing more than an average shortstop defensively. I'm not expecting him to post anything better than those kind of numbers this year. In fact, I'm waiting for these errors, all of which have been made on fairly routine plays, to stop. If they haven't two weeks from now, I'm going to be a bit concerned.
4. What are the team's biggest holes? What would need to go right for the team to contend in 2009? How likely do you think that is, and how much do you trust Fredi Gonzalez to make the most out of what he's got?
Even though they vowed to work in the offseason to improve it, the Marlins' biggest hole this year is still their defense. With Mike Jacobs off the team and with Jeremy Hermida switching from right to a less demanding left field, I expect it to improve a little bit but there's no such thing as making good defenders out of average, at best, defenders. The Marlins will still be a top five team in errors this year.
As for Fredi Gonzalez, he needs to learn to manage a bullpen. The misuse of Taylor Tankersley last year (using a LOOGY in a mopup role) was downright sickening. If he can learn to do that, I'll have no problem with him sticking around for the length of his new contract.
5. What was the most surprising thing about the Marlins' 2008? What will be the most surprising thing about the Marlins' 2009?
Whenever the Marlins do well, the rest of the baseball world is surprised. They were surprised last year when the Marlins led the NL East into the break and then finished with 84 wins. So when they make the playoffs this year via the wild card, the rest of the league is going to have a collective heart attack. However, with a potent lineup that, thanks to the dumping of excess power and the arrival of some much needed base hittability, is capable of hitting for a .270 average but with still enough juice left over to knock out 170+ homers (especially if McPherson is on the team), one of the best young pitching rotations in baseball (provided it can stay healthy for a full season), and the fact that they've been working closer to them for three years now, Florida making the playoffs in '09 shouldn't come as much of a shock.
Frankly, if the offense and pitching isn't good enough to make the postseason this year, I myself will be the surprised one but, without having to look at a single stat, I know where and who to point the finger at: the defense.