Opening Day: The Best Day of the Year

Opening Day in Major League Baseball is my favorite day of the year – and this one had plenty of highlights that suggest that 2011 could be as exciting a season as can be imagined.

  • Red catcher Ramon Hernandez hits a three-run, game-winning homer to beat the Milwaukee Brewers – an at bat that happened, in part, because Brandon Phillips emulated Chad Ochocinco to avoid a Casey McGehee tag two batters earlier.   (McGehee claimed that Phillips left the baseline, but replays suggest the juke was legit.)
  • Jason Heyward launched a season starting homer for the second straight season.
  • Cameron Maybin, newly acquired centerfielder for the Padres, launched a game-tying two-out homer in the ninth, allowing San Diego to trip up the Cardinals in extra-innings.  Albert Pujols didn’t help the cause, becoming the first player to ground into three double plays on Opening Day.
  • The night ended with a remarkable pitcher’s duel between two young guns.  Los Angeles Dodger Clayton Kershaw outdueled San Francisco Giant Tim Lincecum to give Don Mattingly his first managerial victory.

If you didn’t enjoy those games, then you just don’t like Baseball

Transaction Wire:

Nearly everything over the last day or two had to do with decisions on whether or not to put some player on the DL for various knicks, pulls, and injuries.  Those getting to miss the fun for at least a week or so include Jason Bay, Brandon Webb (still), J.P. Howell, Tommy Hunter, Scott Feldman, Cody Ross, Johan Santana, Aaron Cook, Scott Olsen, Brian Wilson, Clint Barmes, Corey Patterson, Brandon Morrow, Frank Francisco, Homer Bailey, Brad Lidge, Chase Utley, Dayan Viciedo, Domonic Brown, David Aardsma, Franklin Gutierrez, Jake Peavy, Johnny Cueto, John Baker, Geoff Blum, Zach Duke, Jason Kendall, Francisco Cervelli, and Andrew Bailey.  (There are plenty of others, and if you have a fantasy baseball team, you are aware of many of these guys…

A new DL move, Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand was listed for today – Rowand has a fractured cheekbone.

Ronny Paulino has a few days left on his steroids suspension, so the Mets placed him on the restricted list.

A couple of days ago, the Phillies had signed Luis Castillo as an insurance policy while Chase Utley allows his troublesome left knee to heal.  That didn’t work out (Castillo is relatively immobile these days and his bat hasn’t been healthy for at least four months now), so the Phillies signed Ronnie Belliard.  Belliard, who turns 36 next Thursday, had an unimpressive season as a utiltiy infielder and pinch hitter for the Dodgers in 2010 (2 – 19 -.216) and a weak spring for the Yankees (.136 in 22 at bats), so this may be his last couple of months in the big leagues unless he can get a few clutch hits.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, seeing that shortstop Stephen Drew wasn’t 100% for opening day, signed former Mariner glove man Josh Wilson.  Wilson isn’t a bad guy to have around, but don’t count on him to hit like Drew can.

On the MLB Drama Network

Not sure if you are following the Barry Bonds trial, but we now have a handful of players who all admitted that they used steroids provided by Greg Anderson, Bonds’ personal trainer who is sitting in jail for his unwillingness to discuss the number of needles he put in Bond’s belly and butt.  Some of them admitted that they did because of the success Bonds was having since hiring Anderson to build up his physique.  A former personal shopper for Bonds says she saw Anderson give Bonds a shot in his belly button (ouch!), something Bonds told her was “…a little something for the road.”

Not that I am plugging my book (but I am):

Today is the day that Rube Waddell died, the result of a long fight against Tuberculosis, a major killer of men and women 100 years ago.  Waddell died in 1914 while convalescing in a San Antonio nursing home.  At the time of his death, he weighed at least 60 pounds less than his playing weight, 210.

Happy Birthday!

Among those celebrating with cake, cards, or remembrances are…

Ron Perranoski (1936) – Dodger pitcher and pitching coach
Phil Niekro (1939) – greatest knuckleball pitcher ever
Rusty Staub (1944) – Le Grande Orange, and one of my favorite players as a kid
Willie Montanez (1948)
Frank Castillo (1969)
Matt Herges (1970)
Will Rhymes (1983)
John Axford (1983) – who gave up that homer to Ramon Hernandez yesterday (ouch)
Daniel Murphy (1985)

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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.

Top NL Centerfielders in 2009

Matt Kemp (LAD):  The best centerfielder in baseball for 2009.  Hit close to .300 in Dodger Stadium with power and some patience.  As an outfielder, he’s graceful and fast – which also helps him steal bases.  And, he’s just getting his career started.  (120.9 Runs Created, 15.4 Runs Saved = 136.27 Total Run Production)

Mike Cameron (MIL):  Now with Boston, Cameron had the same type season he’s had for a decade now.   Hits for decent power, draws a few walks, doesn’t run as much as he used to – and still plays a mean centerfield.  Time may be running out, but he’s been very, very good for a long time.  (91.4 Runs Created, 12.7 Runs Saved = 104.12 Total Run Production)

Nyjer Morgan (WAS):  I mentioned him with the left fielders because that’s where he played in Pittsburgh, but he was equally impressive defensively in Washington as a centerfielder.  And, as a hitter, he was electrifying as a National.  One hopes he returns and leads the team with about 110 runs scored.  (76.2 Runs Created + 26.9 Runs Saved = 103.1 Total Run Production)

Michael Bourn (HOU):  Got a lot of hits and a few walks helping to a .355 OBP.  Steals a lot of bases (61) but for a burner isn’t the same defensively as Cameron.  Still – a valuable commodity on a team that could use a few more players of his production.  (98.0 Runs Created, 1.2 Runs Saved = 99.19 Total Run Production)

Nate McLouth (PIT/ATL):  Even hitting 20 homers with a .350+ OBP, it seemed like an offseason for McClouth.  Missed more than a month of games – so if he gets back to 150 games, he’ll move up two or three notches.  (84.4 Runs Created, 0.6 Runs Saved = 85.0 Total Run Production)

Tony Gwynn (SD):  The only centerfielder with 800 or more innings to make 3 plays per nine, JR doesn’t hit like his dad, but he moves like the younger version of his dad.  In San Diego, that helps a lot.  There’s some room to improve here, but without any power, he needs to get his OBP near .400 to be among the great ones.  (57.0 Runs Created, 25.15 Runs Saved = 82.20 Total Run Production)

Kosuke Fukudome (CHC):  Not really a centerfielder, as the Cubs found out.  Gets on base, but really isn’t that good a hitter, and a mild disappointment to the Bleacher Bums.  On the other hand, new centerfielder Marlon Byrd was less productive than Fukudome in 2009.  (75.7 Runs Created, 1.88 Runs Saved = 77.56 Total Run Production)

Shane Victorino (PHI):  Has become an offensive force with midrange power and speed, but looking at the defensive stats, maybe he should go back to right and let Jayson Werth try his hand at center.  Either that, or he just needs to take charge more…  (102.9 Runs Created, -25.6 Runs Saved = 77.31 Total Run Production)

I mentioned Marlon Byrd.  The new Cubs centerfielder would rank here based on 2009 production…

Cody Ross (FLA):  A fan favorite, but isn’t really fast enough to cover center – a heck of a right fielder, though…  Has some power, swings at a lot of stuff – does it all with a smile that every mom would be proud of.  (79.9 Runs Created, -6.5 Runs Saved = 73.39 Total Run Production)

Carlos Beltran (NYM):  Still ranks highly despite missing 81 games because, well, he’s still an incredible talent.  Was off to perhaps his best start ever before the knees gave out – .325 and maybe 20 homers with a killer OBP and 20 steals.  If he’s healthy, he’s the top player at the position.  A big IF, though…  (68.5 Runs Created, 4.5 Runs Saved = 73.01 Total Run Production)

Andrew McCutchen (PIT):  There’s a lot to love – and one wishes that Pittsburgh could have kept him, Jason Bay, and McClouth in the outfield just to see how many runs they could have produced.  He’s got some learning to do in the outfield, but I liked what I saw in 2009.  Power, Speed, Patience – the three cornerstones of a great player.  (78.2 Runs Created, -13.9 Runs Saved = 64.32 Total Run Production)

Colby Rasmus (STL):  The Cardinals think he’s the real deal and he’s certainly off to a great start.  I don’t think he’s as fast as McCutchen and in a few years, the power will even out.  As such, I think McCutchen will be the greater star.  McCutchen had the better batting average, OBP and slugging numbers – but Rasmus looked a little more polished in the field.  (62.5 Runs Created, 1.4 Runs Saved = 63.91 Total Run Production)

Aaron Rowand (SF):  May have lost a step, and his offensive numbers (as expected) have slipped some since arriving in San Francisco from Philadelphia.  No better than a run-of-the-mill outfielder these days.  (66.2 Runs created, -3.5 Runs Saved = 62.67 Total Run Production)

Angel Pagan (NYM):  Beltran’s usual replacement, hit .306 with some power and a little patience.  Isn’t quite in Beltran’s league as a fielder, but the Mets certainly could have done worse.  He could start for a few other teams.  (63.5 Runs Created, -4.7 Runs Saved = 58.82 Total Run Production)

Gerardo Parra (ARI):  Played a few hundred innings in center – not too badly.  He’s the third rookie of this group (Fowler, below, would be fourth) and he might not be too bad either…  (56.0 Runs Created, -2.5 Runs Saved = 53.49 Total Run Production)

Dexter Fowler (COL):  Scrappy hitter, steals a few bases, but otherwise is about a league average offensive performer – not as much range as you would like.  Fowler was nowhere near responsible for the return of Colorado to the playoffs.  (62.0 Runs Created, -9.1 Runs Saved = 52.93 Total Run Production)

Rick Ankiel (STL):  Now plying his trade in Kansas City, the oft-injured Ankiel’s story seems to be heading in the wrong direction, wouldn’t you think?  Batting average fell, power has fallen since being tagged as a steroid user, and his OBP was .287.  Fielded better than other years, but missed a lot of innings…  Lord help the Royals.  (43.7 Runs Created, 7.9 Runs Saved = 51.59 Total Run Production)

Carlos Gomez, the Twins centfielder who takes over for Mike Cameron in Milwaukee, would rank here.

Elijah Dukes (WAS):  Got some time here – not horrible, but not really what the Nationals had in mind.  Could still work out as a corner outfielder or fourth outfielder.  (48.8 Runs Created, -1.4 Runs Saved = 47.47 Total Run Production)

Willy Taveras (CIN):  What happened?  Suddenly lost his batting stroke and finished at .240.  Ouch.  Will find a job as a fifth outfielder, pinch hitter, but probably will never be a regular again.  Unless Kansas City calls.  (36.0 Runs Created, 10.8 Runs Saved = 46.78 Total Run Production)

Chris Dickerson (CIN):  Played the fourth outfielder role, but should be the starter in center for 2010.  Gets on base, runs, covers ground in the outfield.  Not quite a leadoff hitter, but not a problem there or in the two spot.  (38.2 Runs Created, 7.8 Runs Saved = 45.98 Total Run Production)

Willie Harris (WAS):  Can play all three outfield positions, gets on base even with a low batting average and has pop in the bat.  Valuable bench guy for any team…  (48.4 Runs Created, -4.3 Runs Saved = 44.11 Total Run Production)

Chris Young (ARI):  This is what happens when a .240 hitter goes into an extended slump – his whole game suffers.  Hits for power on those occasions he makes contact, but was a zero in every other way.  (39.6 Runs Created, -8.0 Runs Saved = 43.02 Total Run Production)

Ryan Spilborghs (COL):  If he played in center, instead of Fowler, they’d lose nothing defensively and if his bat returns, would get some more offense, too.  I don’t PROMISE that, but I do believe that.  (40.0 Runs Created, 0.0 Runs Saved = 40.01 Total Run Production)

Jordan Schafer (ATL):  Injured after earning a spot in the lineup, spent too long trying to play through a wrist injury and killed his first shot at a regular position…  Now has a fight to get his job back now that McLouth is in town.  Can fly in the outfield – will get a job somewhere.  (16.3 Runs Created, 7.7 Runs Saved = 24.03 Total Run Production)

Cameron Maybin (FLA):  Another burner in the outfield – has some power but needs to make more contact.  Will be the starter in Florida for 2010, but needs to hit in months that start with something other than S.  (21.7 Runs Created, 2.2 Runs Saved = 23.95 Total Run Production)

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.