2013 Season Forecast – Boston Red Sox

Already out the gate with the best record in baseball for the month of April, let’s see if the start can hold water for an entire season.

Last Five Years:
2012:  69 – 93 (5th, AL East)
2011:  90 – 72 (3rd, Crashed AL East)
2010:  89 – 73 (3rd, AL East)
2009:  95 – 67 (2nd, AL East)
2008:  95 – 67 (2nd, AL East)

In general, the trend is working in the wrong direction, but if Bob McGrath were singing “Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other…”, we’d single out the Bobby Valentine era as the odd ball.  The Sox have averaged about 88 wins a season.  Without checking any of the rest of it, to guess that the Sox could bounce back to 75 – 80 wins wouldn’t have been an improbable prediction.

Runs Scored:  734 (5th in the AL)
Runs Allowed:  806 (13th in the AL – ouch)

Runs in Fenway Park: 842, tops in the AL
Runs on the road: 698, 9th in the AL

So, for 2012, Fenway – always a good hitter’s park, was even more so last season.

Season Recap:

Mixed previews….  Some people thought the Sox would remain competitive, having spent a lot of money to bring in veteran talent.  Many thought the hiring of Bobby Valentine might be an odd way to mix things up following the firing of Terry Francona.  I’ll say…

The team got off to a bland start, but a nice streak of six wins got the team back to .500 as the month of April ended.  Losing nine of ten, the Sox fell out of the race as Bobby Valentine was losing his clubhouse as fast as you can say “Kevin Youkilis wasn’t mentally ready to play.”  To the Sox credit, they battled back to 21 – 21 and a second hot streak got the Sox to 42 – 37 right as July began.

At that point, the Sox fell out of contention. They sputtered through August, first slowly, and then – starting on about 8/19 – they fell off the map.  The Sox would give up ten or more runs in a game every week or more – seven times in the last 38 games.  As August ended, the Sox traded away a bunch of people who were seen as under-producing (Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford) and turned it over to the next wave of Sox players.  The Astros played better in September.  The Sox won just 27 of their last 83 games; and went 10 – 31 in the last 41 games.

Transactions:

Some minor moves before the season – resigning Cody Ross and David Ortiz, and trading Marco Scutaro to Colorado for Clayton Mortensen.  I can’t prove it, but maybe the season went south when they signed pitcher Billy Buckner on 2/29.

Actually, the were proving an interest in Chicago.  The traded Michael Bowden to the Cubs for Marlon Byrd.  Ouch – he was released in June.  The signed Mark Prior to a minor league deal.  The picked up former ChiSox outfielder Scott Podsednik when outfielders were hard to find in May.  Kevin Youkilis was moved to the White Sox in June for Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart.  I don’t see that working out…  They even sold Justin Germano (to the Cubs) and released Bobby Jenks (former Sox closer) – and in a related moved, signed Andy LaRoche, whose dad was a pitcher for the Cubs…  Look – the Cubs stink, and while the White Sox were pretty good, cast offs aren’t going to help…

Here’s a move I don’t understand.  They traded away Podsednik to Arizona, then signed him when Arizona released Podsednik.

I mentioned the big sell off – the Sox traded Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Nick Punto, and CASH to the Dodgers for James Loney, Ivan DeJesus, Allen Webster, and two guys who arrived in October – Rubby De La Rosa and Jerry Sands.

Starting Pitching:

Jon Lester had an off season, falling from ace to league average pitcher.  Clay Buchholz fell from surprise ace to league average.  Josh Beckett fell from famous pitcher who sometimes looks dominating to a shade below league average (and with a 5 – 11 record, looks worse than he really was).  Daisuke Matsuzaka went 1 – 7 with an ERA north of 8.00, Daniel Bard proved he was a reliever in 10 starts, Aaron Cook was given 18 starts to prove he was done (5.65 ERA).  Felix Doubront looked tolerable in 29 starts – I think he can build on that.

Going forward, the Red Sox could make immediate gains if Lester and Buchholz just got back half of what they lost in 2012 – that’s 30 saved runs.  Getting a fourth starter that could be CLOSE to league average to replace Dice-K and Cook could save 30 runs.  Replacing Josh Beckett with Ryan Dempster looks to be a wash – Dempster was awesome in Chicago, but rocked in Texas.  Boston just feels more like his kind of place – I think he can be at least league average in 30 starts, which is still better than 21 Josh Beckett starts and 10 bad Daniel Bard starts…  If Doubront doesn’t fall back and if John Lackey ever gets healthy, who knows.  I like the rotation to be 50 – 60 runs better than last year.

Bullpen:

Losing Andrew Bailey, who was brutal, and having to use Alfredo Aceves as a closer was bad.  I know Aceves got 25 saves, but the two combined to cost the Sox six unnecessary runs.  The rest of the pen was a nice patch work of guys like Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Clayton Mortensen, Vincente Padilla, and Matt Albers.  Sure, they had a few sore thumbs (I’m looking at you, Mark Melancon and Zach Stewart), but every bullpen has one or two.

This year, the Sox signed Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan, have Andrew Bailey back, and added Koji Uehara to Tunizawa, Miller, and Mortensen.  This could be a bullpen that is ten runs better than last year.

Catching:

I’m thinking that the Sox missed their captain, the retired Jason Varitek.  Boston gave the job to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with Kelly Shoppach (now gone) and Ryan Lavarnway as backups.  People could run on both Salty and Lavarnway (108 stolen, 21 caught), and as a unit, the team was below average in winning percentage, team ERA, and tended to be error prone.  The only category in which Boston catchers were above average was mobility (assists not tied to caught stealing), and that’s not saying a whole lot.

Shoppach was their best defensive catcher, had the best batting rates (5 runs per 27 outs, the only above average offensive player) – so he’s gone.  I know – Saltalamacchia hit 25 homers, but he batted .222 with a sub .300 OBP.  He hit like Jason Varitek did at the end, but with no defensive positives.  Salty is back, but the Sox did bring in David Ross from Atlanta, who is a fine catcher and should get at least 500 innings of work.

Infield:

Adrian Gonzalez was underperforming, maybe, but he was still hitting .300 with 37 doubles and 86 RBI with a month to go.  And, he was saving them 35 runs with his glove in five months – gold glove play.  James Loney can’t hope to replace that – so the Sox let him leave and signed Mike Napoli to play there.  Napoli is an underrated catcher – I’d let him do that from time to time and try to find a better hitter (Daniel Nava?) to play first.  Dustin Pedroia was productive but his range is falling quickly.  Never GREAT before, he cost the team more than 15 runs because he makes nearly nine fewer plays per 870 balls in play than the average second sacker.  Mike Aviles was a below average hitter – first time in a full season he did that – but ordinary at short.   The Sox will try Stephen Drew there in 2013 – and I think he’s going to be a weak fielder and I fear he may not be that great a hitter anymore.  He has the tools to be, but it’s been a while.  If he hits his 150 game norms, he’s not going to be appreciably better than Mike Aviles overall.  A few more runs on the board for both teams…  The one place Boston may improve is at third, where Will Middlebrooks will get full time duty.  Youkilis struggled last season, so if Middlebrooks can match his half season stats across a full season, that will help.  He is NOT in Youkilis’s league as a fielder, but Youk was fading there last year.

As a whole, this group will likely be 50 runs worse defensively, but break even offensively.

Outfield:

A team that had so many injuries, nine guys played in left, eleven guys played in center, and eleven more played in right.  With Crawford gone, the Sox may try Jackie Bradley (he already got sent back) in left, or Daniel Nava.  They need a full (and productive) season from centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury – who is, at best, a league average fielder but CAN be a crazy good hitter.  Cody Ross is gone; Shane Victorino, who is as productive a hitter and a slightly better fielder will play right.  If Nava can step forward and get on base, or at least be a solid platoon with Jonny Gomes, and Ellsbury can get healthy, there is a chance for 40 – 50 extra runs on the board with little change in defensive value.

DH/Bench:

David Ortiz should be around for 25 more games than the 90 games he played last year, but at his age, he might decline some.  Nava can play all over, Victorino can spell Ellsbury if needed, and Pedro Ciriaco will be the utility infielder.  Not a bad bunch.

On the Farm!

At Pawtucket, the only prospect from 2012 may have been catcher Ryan Lavernway, who hit .295 and played with the big club.  He’s at least a good backup.  The best pitcher was probably Justin Germano, but he is 29 and now a Cub.  He’s no prospect.

2010 first round pick Bryce Brentz hit .296 at Portland (AA), showing power, and might make the big club this year.  Jackie Bradley didn’t look overmatched in his 61 games there – he was a 2011 first rounder.  Stolmy Pimentel didn’t look as strong as he had previously.  The reliever with promise may be Aaron Kurcz, who fanned 72 in 50 innings, but is wild.  2008 first round pick Joshua Fields is getting there – better control and 59 Ks in his 44 innings.  Unfortunately, he’s an Astro right now…

Look out for 3B Michael Almanzar, who hit .300 with power at A+ Salem.  He and SS Xander Bogaerts, who is just 20, will follow in the shoes of Jackie Bradley one day.  1B Travis Shaw had Adrian Gonzalez numbers there – but I don’t think that’s what he will be when he gets to the majors…  Keith Couch is looking close to being a prospect after going 11 – 9 with good control in 145.2 innings.  The better prospect might be Matt Barnes, the 2011 top pick, who strikes people out and is building a solid minor league resume very quickly.

Forecast:

Well, when I add up the offensive gains and the defensive gains (pitching) and losses (infield gloves), I see the Sox making strides toward .500.  I see them scoring about 65 more runs, and maybe saving five to ten runs over last year.  That puts them around 800 runs scored and allowed – or 81 wins.  I’m not convinced the hot start is going to stay for the year, but it will be a better season for Sox fans than 2012.

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2010 Season Forecast: Florida Marlins

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 87 – 75 (2nd, NL East)
2008: 84 – 77
2007: 71 – 91
2006: 78 – 84
2005: 83 – 79

Finally people started seeing the Marlins for what they are – a talented team despite the low payroll who, when healthy and getting a modicum of pitching, can hang with anybody.

Runs Scored: 772 (5th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 766 (11th, NL)

Like in 2008, the Marlins edged opponents on the scoreboard but came ahead on the deal in terms of wins and losses.  The reason for this is because the bottom of their pitching is ATROCIOUS, and when they lose they tend to get pounded.

Season Recap:

The Marlins won 11 of 12 to open the season because six games were against the Nationals when the Nationals really stunk up the joint.  I remember sitting in the office talking about this with Jose Gomez – the Marlins were about to play the Pirates and we were talking about how they could be 14 – 1 and heading home.

Instead, they lost a lot – losing 24 of the next 32 games.  This was because only Josh Johnson was winning any starts and Ricky Nolasco, who SHOULD be an ace, needed a trip to the minors to find himself.

When Nolasco returned, that gave the Marlins two decent arms the rest of the way.  Then, Hanley Ramirez and Chris Coghlan started getting two hits every night (or so it seemed) and the Marlins climbed back into the race by the end of August and made a run at a wild card slot before running out of time.

All along, it seemed like the Marlins were just two players away from being as good as anybody in the NL.  They needed one more starter and one more really good reliever.  No – they don’t have ALL the firepower of the Phillies, but with a core of Ramirez, Cantu, Uggla, and Coghlan setting the table, that’s a lot of runs to work with.  The helpers – Cody Ross, both catchers – Ronny Paulino and John Baker, Cameron Maybin, and bench hitters like Wes Helms and Ross Gload – all contribute.

Two more pitchers.

I digress.

Pitchers:

A completely healthy Josh Johnson pitched 209 impressive innings, winning 75% of his decisions and saving his team 33.7 runs.  Ricky Nolasco, as mentioned earlier, found his mojo after a trip to the minors and finished the season by striking out 16 batters and nine in a row in his final start.  If you look at his numbers, you’d never know he had a 5.06 ERA – winning record, solid K/BB numbers, and not hit TOO badly.  He did give up hits in bunches, though, and that was his problem.

After that, Chris Volstad gave up 29 homers in 159 innings, pushing his ERA over 5.00.  Sean West was tolerable but a little green in his 20 starts.  Anibal Sanchez pitched half a season of okay ball – an ERA under 4, but watching him start is excrutiating because he always seems to be pitching his way out of trouble.  Andrew Miller made 14 starts and got worse as the season progressed, eventually hitting the bullpen and then AAA.  Rick VandenHurk made the Netherlands WBC team, and had eleven okay starts.

Looking forward, that’s the problem the Marlins face with the rotation.  Nolasco will be better, but can Sanchez make 30 starts?  Will West improve?  The Marlins made a late acquisition, picking up Nate Robertson from Detroit – and he HAS to be better than Andrew Miller (also, formerly of Detroit).  If Robertson can make 30 reasonably good starts, this is a step up.  I like the potential of improvement here – but they still require a lot of bullpen help.

Let’s look at that bullpen.  The Marlins tried Matt Lindstrom as a closer, but he got hurt during the WBC and his 100 MPH fastball seemed very flat and hittable.  Leo Nunez, a decent 8th inning guy, became the closer and was okay because he doesn’t really have the control needed.  They combined for 41 saves, but a lot of chewed nails.

The Marlins did find their usual surprise and cheap help in the middle relief corps…  Kiko Calero allowed just 36 hits in 60 innings, but 13 were homers (must have all be solo shots), which led to a very surprising 1.95 ERA.  Renyal (1972 Ford) Pinto is a wild lefty who had more good innings than bad ones.  Florida even has a legitimate long reliever in Burke Badenhop – a guy who looks good the first time through the lineup but gets killed in the fourth and fifth innings – so he becomes a reliever who frequently makes multiple inning runs when the team needs it.  Brian Sanches and Dan Meyer were solid most of the season.  Even Brendan Donnelly came over and gave the team 25.1 good innings.  So, there was a lot of depth in the pen – there just wasn’t a shut down closer and a lot of relievers always seemed like they were living on the edge.

Looking ahead, Calero is gone – in his place will be Clay Hensley.  I’m not sure I get it – he has little control and couldn’t keep his ERA under 5.00 in the spacious confines of Petco Park in San Diego.  The rest of the pitching staff returns with just those two additions (Hensley, Robertson) and two subtractions (Lindstrom and Calero).  So, while the rotation should be 30 or 40 runs better, the bullpen could give half of that back.

Catchers:

John Baker and Ronny Paulino shared the job in 2009 and will do so again – at least until Brett Hayes is ready for a test drive.  Both hit enough and are natural platoon partners; Paulino was tolerable against the run – but otherwise are rather bland catchers.  Neither is known for handling the staff (and who would take credit for last year’s pitching) or avoiding mistakes.

Infielders:

Defensively, not very good.  Offensively, as good as you might want.

Jorge Cantu was solid at first – but then looked out of practice playing third base when Nick Johnson arrived last year.  Johnson has NO range as a first baseman – so he was allowed to play DH for the Yankees.  Cantu will move to third base to give Gaby Sanchez a shot.  Sanchez hits like Pete O’Brien in a good year, about .280 with mid range power.  I just don’t know that Sanchez will be that much better defensively.  He will be better than Johnson, though.

Dan Uggla rips homers, got on base despite a dip in his batting average, and started to look slow defensively.  A late bloomer, Uggla makes more good plays than bad ones, but a slipping range means that he’s a candidate to be moved if the Marlins start to fall out of the race.

Hanley Ramirez is one of the two best players in the NL right now – the best hitting shortstop (heck, as good as anyone except, perhaps Pujols or Braun) in baseball and a tolerable fielder.  He’s very deliberate as a fielder, as if trying not to make throwing mistakes, but he doesn’t have the acrobatic range of the really good ones.  Hitting .340 with power, though, nobody seems to care.  Except, perhaps, the pitching staff.

Last year, Emilio Bonifacio played a lot of third, but he’s really better suited as a bench player.  Wes Helms is a solid bat off the bench and plays third and first well enough.  Mike Lamb comes over to replace Ross Gload as a veteran lefty bat off the bench.  Gload was impressive last year – so he’ll be a challenge to replace (and will be missed).  Brian Barden also made the club, but I don’t know where he’ll play with this lineup.  Perhaps he’ll be a late inning defensive replacement for any of these guys…

Looking forward, I see the defense slipping another ten runs but the offense holding steady.

Outfield:

Chris Coghlan is a hitter, an amazing collection of line drives – patient at the plate and has good enough speed to sneak 30 steals.  He’s just not much of a left fielder.  Eventually, he’ll have to move – but he’ll bat leadoff until he’s 40.

Cameron Maybin earned the starting nod last year, got off to a slow start with the bat, and needed a trip to AAA to get his swing back.  He’ll get a second shot – and hopefully he’ll stick.  I see him as the new Preston Wilson, and if he ever puts it together, that’ll be just fine.

Cody Ross is a shaved head bundle of energy and smiles – and can play a decent right field and back up Maybin in center.  He has decent power but you wish his batting average was closer to .280 than .250.  You need guys like Ross on the team…  Fan friendly, contributes in many different ways, and compliments the stars on the field.

Brett Carroll and Emilio Bonifacio will provide bench support.  Carroll is actually a pretty good fielder, but doesn’t appear to have MLB hitting skills.

I like this unit to be much better than last year – possibly 30 – 50 runs better offensively and 20 runs better defensively because (a) Maybin is an AMAZING fielder and will be here every day and (b) Coghlan will be more comfortable out there than last year.

Prospects:

The best hitters at AAA are already on the Marlins – Sanchez, Coghlan, and Maybin.  And, there weren’t a lot of pitching prospects in New Orleans to write home about.

Sean West came out of AA Jacksonville, as did Chris Leroux.  West may stick for a while, but Leroux will probably not be a future star.  He has decent enough control, gets a few strikeouts, but at 25 is not really a young prospect.  Jacksonville must be a tough place to hit.  The top average was Bryan Petersen‘s .297, a 4th round pick in 2007 out of Cal-Irvine.  Look for him to get a shot at AAA, and be a fourth outfielder before too long.

The big prospect at AA was Mike Stanton, whose batting average stunk, but has SERIOUS power and is only 20.  He’ll be among the first guys to get a shot at right field if Cody Ross gets hurt.  Logan Morrison is another first base prospect who has Mark Grace-like skills – good OBP and a little power.

A+ Jupiter featured Stanton (for a while) and another teen – Matt Dominguez who will be a future third baseman on this team by 2012.  Looks like a young Mike Lowell right now, but it’s still early.  Check him out in Jacksonville in 2010.  All of the really good Hammerhead pitchers throw strikes, but few better than Elih Villanueva, who walked just 18 in 158 innings, striking out 110.  He’ll be moved up to AA as well.

Forecast:

For two years, the Marlins played better than the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed would have suggested, and that’s a problem.  It means they could be unlucky this year.  On the other hand, there is room for improvement.  The team should allow 40 fewer runs and possibly score 30 more.  Marlins ownership EXPECTS a playoff team, and I see them on the fringe of that – 89 wins.  My HUNCH is that they’ll be over .500, but closer to 84 wins – but the Marlins fan in me hopes my system is right.

Schmidt Returns With Win; Wang Injury Bug Continues

Yankee starter Chien-Ming Wang’s 2009 disaster season continues…  He was playing catch when he felt soreness in his bicep.  He won’t throw again until Friday, and if I were him, I’d be looking to get in shape for 2010.  [ESPN]

Texas closer Frank Francisco heads to the DL with pneumonia – he’ll be back soon, but he needs his rest and fluids.  C.J. Wilson will close, and Willie Eyre gets the call from AAA.  [ESPN]

Mets starter Fernando Nieve’s injury was pretty severe – he tore a muscle in his quad.  He’s out six weeks.  Welcome back to the bigs, Cory Sullivan, who used to be an outfielder for Colorado.  Sullivan’s stay may be short-lived – the Mets will likely call up a starter (Jon Niese?) to take Nieve’s start in the rotation.  [SI]

Speaking of bad quads, A’s first baseman/DH Jason Giambi’s quad has been problematic, and now he’s on the DL.  Giambi’s been day-to-day for weeks with a variety of quad and hamstring injuries.  [SI]

Cincinatti catcher Ramon Hernandez’s knee now requires surgery – which means an extended DL stint.  Coming up to pick up some innings will be Craig Tatum.  Tatum is hard to read – the Mississippi State grad has some power and tools, but has had periods where he hit .320 (FSL, 2007) and .231 (Southern League – same year).  My take is a low average power guy – .220 with 12 homers in 250 at bats type.  Ryan Hannigan, who has been a nice surprise, will get most of the innings, though.  FYI – Hannigan went to Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, the same college that Rube Waddell attended and occasionally coached back in the winter of 1902/1903. [SI]

Welcome back Carlos Quentin – the White Sox slugger has been out two months suffering from plantar fasciitis.   He took over in his old stomping grounds, left field, and cost Brian Anderson a slot on the big league roster.  [SI]

I watched the Phillies and Cubs last night – and I saw two teams heading in different directions.  The Phillies are marching toward the NL East crown after winning their ninth straight, and the Cubs don’t look like they have any direction at all.  And so many of us picked them to win the NL Central, if not challenge for a World Series title.  And now, the Phillies found out Brett Myers may return in August and pitch out of the bullpen.  [MLB]

Welcome Back!  Jason Schmidt was recalled by the Dodgers and won his first start in over two years.  Andy Finch and I saw him in his last rehab start, and he doesn’t have the great fastball – but he has enough to fool people.  However, he was hit a little even by the Memphis Redbirds, so he’ll need to really be on top of his control to win in the bigs.  I’m rooting for him, but not putting him on my fantasy roster any time soon.

Colorado signed Matt Herges to a minor league deal.  He still has some gas in the tank.  Tommy Hanson returned to the Braves (and looked great), and J.D. Martin joined Washington for a start last night.  Cleveland fans might remember Martin – he was once hailed as a top prospect back in 2002, and was a 2001 first round pick out of high school.  Injuries cut into his development, but he’s never really pitched poorly.  He’s got good control, strikes guys out, and at times has looked dominating.

Hurry Back!  Houston’s Darin Erstad and San Diego’s Edgar Gonzalez were both put on the 15-day DL.  Florida’s Andrew Miller was sent to AAA to find his command.

2009 Season Forecast: Florida Marlins

Florida Marlins
2008: 84-77 (3rd NL East, 7.5 games back)

At some point, the people who regularly pick the Marlins to finish 71 – 91 are going to finally understand that General Manager Larry Beinfest knows what he’s doing.  Florida has fielded a competitive team every year but one in the last six seasons.  This year, management feels like it has a young staff that rivals the team that won the World Series in 2003 (Burnett, Beckett, Willis, Penny), and returns the core of a batting order that features three players who might all hit 30 homers.  This year, the outfield will be more mobile, the infield will have more experience, and the young arms will have a chance to shine.

Looking Back on 2008

The Marlins were one of the surprise teams in baseball (again), getting off to a solid start in April and May, and finding themselves in first place for a good chunk of the spring.  A weak June, where the hitting slowed and the starting pitching struggled mightily, sent them back to third place.  However, the Marlins wouldn’t fall to the bottom.  Instead, they rifled through July to hang near the top of the division.  After the all-star break, the bats slowed – Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham, Jorge Cantu, Mike Jacobs, and Jeremy Hermida all tanked – just as the rotation was overhauled.  So, despite replacing Rich VandenHurk, Burke Badenhop, Mark Hendrickson, and Andrew Miller with Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, and Anibel Sanchez (to go along with Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen), giving the Marlins a strong rotation and having the best single month ERA, the team struggled to win 11 games.  The bullpen didn’t help either – Kevin Gregg’s balky knee and Reynal Pinto’s return to earth appeared to end Florida’s chances.

Even then, the Marlins wouldn’t die.  In late September, the Marlins won nine in a row and looked like they might suddenly repeat the Rockies Run of 2007 only to lose to Philadelphia and finish in 3rd with 84 wins.  With the strong finish and the improved rotation, the Marlins looked forward to 2009.

Tell me about that offense

If nothing else, the Marlins hit a LOT of homers.  They have one or two guys who can run, they have one or two guys who might hit close to .300, but they have a lot of guys who put the ball in the seats.

The infield offense was a single Jorge Cantu homer away from being the first to have all four starters hit 30 homers.  Hanley Ramirez is an offensive force, a 30/30 man who added 92 walks to his stat sheet, and scored 125 runs.  Dan Uggla had an unbelievable May that was so good (12 homers, .347 average) that it made up for two months of nothing (July, August).  The new Kansas City Royal, Mike Jacobs, hit for power but not much else.  Jorge Cantu looked like the hitter he was for Tampa Bay in 2005 and might be heading into his prime.  No other infield, including Philadelphia’s three MVP candidates, had such a broad impact on the offense.

The outfield, however, struggled to keep up.  Josh Willingham had only one good month.  Jeremy Hermida, coming off a 2007 where it looked like he might live up to his first round draft pick status, lost his way after the all-star break.  Cody Ross was a pleasant surprise and should have played more.  The usual centerfielder was the amazing Alfredo Amezega, who doesn’t do much other than hit a few singles.  The fifth outfielder, Luis Gonzalez, hit like a player who used to hit well.

Behind the plate, Matt Treanor struggled with injuries, Mike Rabelo played indifferently and was sent to AAA.  Part of the team’s success was finding John Baker, who hit .299 and reached base 40% of the time during the last two months of the season.

Defensively:

In 2007, the defense was the weakest part of the Marlins game.  In 2008, they battled it to a draw.

The catching was below average and mistake prone, and neither Baker, Rabelo, or Treanor could stop the running game.  Baker was the worst of the throwers, but his bat makes him the first choice to start in 2009.

The infield was slightly better than average.  Uggla and Ramirez were both slightly better than average in terms of range.  Uggla was especially good making many more good plays than bad, and helping turn two.  Ramirez cut down on his errors and made a few more plays.  If you watched both Jacobs and Cantu, you’d think they weren’t very mobile.  They’re not.  But the statistics show that they weren’t awful.  Cantu was dead even average in terms of range but makes a few too many errors, while Jacobs was just slightly below average at first and not helping in terms of being dependable.  Of the backups, only Andino (at second base) looks like a truly better defender, and since everybody who started hit, the defense provided was gravy.

Amezega is a surprisingly good outfielder; when you see him every day you realize just how skilled a fielder he is.  Cody Ross is mobile enough to play center, and solid in left or right.  Jeremy Hermida is mobile but awkward.  The primary backups, Luis Gonzales and Josh Willingham aren’t mobile, though Willingham gives good effort.  Putting Maybin in center, who looks truly amazing, and moving Ross to right will make what was a reasonably solid outfield even better.

Now Pitching…

The rotation featured only two guys who didn’t miss starts, Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen, and rotated out weaker starters once Josh Johnson and Anibel Sanchez got healthy and Chris Volstad was ready to go.

Nolasco started getting his curve over for strikes, becoming the staff ace and winning 15 games.  Scott Olsen kept the ball in the park, appeared to mature on the mound, and kept his team in games.  While Nolasco was 22 runs better than the average starter in his 212.1 innings, he gave up a few homers.  What helped was having stunning control (only 42 walks against 186 strikeouts).  Olsen, on the other hand, was just a good number four starter.  He wasn’t special but he was steady.

The rest of the rotation improved when the Marlins switched out Andrew Miller (-22) and Mark Hendrickson (-18), and no longer needed to use Burke Badenhop (-9) when Josh Johnson (+9) Chris Volstad (+14), and Sanchez joined the rotation.  Sanchez was not nearly as solid (-8), but was still a step up over Miller or Hendrickson.

The bullpen was tolerable.  Kevin Gregg was great for four months, and not so good down the stretch, but Matt Lindstrom picked up some of the slack in September.  For three months, Reynal Pinto avoided problems caused by his lack of control until it caught up to him in August and September.  As good as Joe Nelson and Doug Waechter were, they were negated by Ryan Tucker, Taylor Tankersley, and Eulogio De La Cruz, who were scary bad in major league tryouts.

Forecasting 2008:

There is a lot of optimism in Florida, and I would tend to agree.  Let’s start with the pitching.

Josh Johnson is great, but has never made it to 160 innings.  He potentially could be twenty runs better than average.  Realistically, he’ll be five runs better than average for every 50 innings he pitches.  Nolasco was amazing last year – let’s hope he stays equally solid, but he might fall back just a little from last year.  Volstad could be a pretty solid third starter.  If he keeps his quality for 180 innings, he would be solid and likely 15 runs better than average.  It’s the bottom slots featuring Sanchez and Miller that make me nervous.  Miller hasn’t been that good and seems to be off his game until the third inning.  Sanchez was good as a rookie and seems to have mound savvy, but before his injury wasn’t very good and at the end of last year, he wasn’t all that great either.  Either could improve, but I’m not confident both will.  If both pitch 180 innings, they’ll cancel each other out.  Granted, there will be no Hendrickson, which is a huge benefit, and if they only need to get 10 starts out of Badenhop or someone else, that’ll be good.  The optimist says an improvement of 30 runs over last year.

The bullpen will feature some lively young arms.  Lindstrom hits 100 once in a while, but his fastball is flat.  If his slider stays strong, he’ll be okay.  Former Royal Leo Nunez might be okay here, and Kensing might help.  Badenhop should be better as a long relief option – his pitches moved so much he had a hard time finding the strike zone, something that hadn’t been a problem in the minors.  He may start the year in AAA.  Scott Proctor was signed to a one-year deal.  Last year with the Dodgers, Proctor suffered through elbow tendinitis, having his first off season as a professional, but it was after two strong seasons where he appeared in 83 games each year.  Still, Gregg wasn’t bad and a few othes were really good (Joe Nelson, Doug Waechter, and Arthur Rhodes, all of whom are gone).  Just like 2008, though, there will be a few undependable arms, so the net result will likely be no change.  Jose Ceda looks like Lee Smith, but he’s a year away.

Defensively, there is a chance for improvement just by getting Maybin in the lineup and Willingham or Gonzalez off the field.  Also, if Gaby Sanchez plays first instead of Jacobs, the infield could be even more airtight.  The gain could be an additional ten run improvement.

Offensively, the Marlins have a formidable lineup.  Ramirez, Hermida, Cantu, Ross, Uggla, and Baker will hit.  Sanchez looks like a Mark Grace type, but for all the power Jacobs provided, he hit .243 with a low On Base Percentage.  So, it will be a wash at that position.  The potential for Hermida to improve will probably wash out with any decline by another player (Cantu?  Uggla?), and if Maybin is slightlyover matched as a hitter, it’s not going to be a huge loss since Amezega isn’t a run producer anyway.  I’m not as convinced that the bench hitting will be as strong.  The 2008 Marlins had some depth, while the 2009 Marlins look a little thin offensively.  Emilio Bonafacio and Jay Gibbons are around (Gibbons got a Non-Roster Invite to spring training), Wes Helms is still here.  If the Marlins get someone else – perhaps Dallas McPherson – to contribute, it might be okay.  But I think the offense will lose ten runs from last year.

All things considered, though, it’s a team that should win 85 games and be in the hunt for a wild card spot, and that shouldn’t be a surprise anymore.  They have been in the hunt more often than not over the last six seasons.  (I see that Peter Gammons finally agrees with my assessment, telling a Baseball Tonight preview show audience that they will be in the hunt into the final week of the season as his long shot pick.  It’s a safe long shot pick.)

Down on the Farm…

The Marlins moved their AAA franchise a bit closer to home, leaving Albuquerque for New Orleans.  That means when a prospect hits .300, he’ll be a legitimate prospect.  In New Mexico, everyone hits about .320 with some power.  The best hitters there were guys who had failed in previous trips, including Brett Carroll, who is not an awful fifth outfielder.  Only Eulogio De La Cruz really pitched well there and earned a trip to the bigs.

The AA Carolina Mudcats provided the real home for prospects, such as Gaby Sanchez (17 – 92 – .314) and Cameron Maybin.  Chris Volstad made the roster after a strong start, but Ryan Tucker (5 – 3, 1.58) and William Glen (9 – 4, 2.01 87Ks in 94 innings) actually fared better.  One of these guys will replace somebody in the rotation if he gets a strong run in AAA.  Chris Mobley fanned 70 in 58 innings as the closer and will eventually make a roster in the future.  This year’s AA franchise will be a bit closer to home, moving to Jacksonville, FL.

Logan Morrison was the top hitter for the High A Jupiter Hammerheads (13 – 74 – .332).  Teen Michael Stanton (39 homers) and Bryan Peterson mashed the ball for the Low A Greensboro Grasshoppers, but so did a lot of guys (and the pitchers were equally mauled).  The best lower level pitcher may be Georgia Southern grad Andrew Battisto, who fanned 101 in 81 innings and walked only 11, winning eight and losing just one for the Grasshoppers.  What made that season especially impressive was a strong ground ball/fly ball ratio – so not only did he strikeout a lot of batters, but the batted balls were kept in the park.