2013 Season Forecast – Houston Astros

I’m watching Opening Day on ESPN and decided I might as well write while I am getting settled in…  To be fair, with the Florida Marlins having decided to trade away all the talent they had recently acquired, I chose to find a new team to follow closely in 2013 – and that team is the Houston Astros.

Here’s a quick summary of where they are coming from:

Recent Records:
2012: 55 – 107 (Last, NL Central)
2011: 56 – 106 (Last, NL Central)
2010: 76 – 86 (4th, NL Central)
2009: 74 – 88 (5th, NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75 (3rd, NL Central)

This is a team that has hit rock bottom – even that team from five years ago was a bit of a fluke, having given up more runs than they had scored that year.

2012 Summary:
Home:  35 – 46
Away:  20 – 61 (ouch)

Runs Scored: 583
Runs Allowed: 794

There is a simple way to look at this.  A team that scores 100 runs more than it allows is likely to win 90 games.  The converse is also true.  At 200 runs, it’s another ten wins – 100 wins or 100 losses.  The Astros allowed 211 runs more than they scored – hence the lousy record.  So – things have to be looking up, right?

Record by Month:
April:  9 – 14
May:   13 – 15
June:  10 – 17
July:   3 – 24
Aug:    5 – 22
Sept:  15 – 15

The Astros started 3 – 1, were reasonably competitive through 45 games, and not altogether awful heading into the last week of June.  Then, Houston lost the last six games of the month and the first six of July.  After breaking that streak, they lost four in a row, then twelve more in a row – 28 of 30 games were lost…  When the month ended, anyone with any trade value was gone.  August wasn’t much better…  What team has ever had a stretch where they won just eight of sixty games?

Feeling Optimistic?

Beginning on September first and covering the last 30 games, the Astros played .500 ball.  Houston edged Cincinnati, toppled Philadelphia, split with Pittsburgh, edged Milwaukee, and split with Chicago.  Only St. Louis proved troublesome, taking five of six.  They did this without scoring a lot of runs – only 102 runs were scored in that period.  What allowed this to happen was that their pitching staff tossed a number of gems down the stretch, including three straight shutouts over Milwaukee and Chicago at the very end of the season.  In eleven of these wins, the Astros threw six shutouts and allowed just one run in five other starts.

Opening Day Lineup:
CF: Jordan Schafer
2B: Jose Altuve
LF: J.D. Martinez
1B: Carlos Lee
RF: Brian Bogusevic
3B: Chris Johnson
C: Jason Castro
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
SP: Wandy Rodriguez

Regulars by Games Played:
C: Jason Castro
1B: Brett Wallace or Carlos Lee (gone…)
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie (gone…)
3B: Chris Johnson (gone…)
LF: J.D. Martinez
CF: Justin Maxwell
RF: Brian Bogusevic (gone…)

4OF: Jordan Schafer
C2: Chris Snyder
UT: Marwin Gonzalez or Tyler Greene?

SP: Lucas Harrell
SP: Bud Norris
SP: Jordan Lyles
SP: Wandy Rodriguez (gone…), Dallas Keuchel
SP: J.A. Happ (gone…)
CL: Brett Myers (gone…), Wilton Lopez
RP: Brandon Lyon (gone…)
RP: Wesley Wright
RP: Francisco Rodriguez (gone…)
RP: Rhiner Cruz
RP: Fernando Abad

Key Transactions:

OCT (2011):

Lost Jason Michaels and Clint Barmes to free agency…  Michaels spent the year as an insurance policy for the Nationals in their AAA Syracuse affiliate, and likely is looking to become a coach.  As for Barmes, he moved to Pittsburgh and hit like someone who is 33 and running out of seasons.

NOV (2011):

Added Carlos Corporan, Travis Buck as free agents; claimed infielder Brian Bixler off of the waiver wire.

DEC (2011):

Traded Marc Melancon to Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.  Melancon had been a pleasant surprise for Houston in 2011, but was miserable in Boston and eventually demoted to AAA.  Weiland had an infection in his throwing shoulder that required surgery and hopefully can return in 2013, but I would be leery of high expectations owing to a general lack of control.  I see him as a spot starter/long reliever type.  Jed Lowrie is a pretty good ballplayer, so the trade was a good one.

Claimed Rhiner Cruz off of waivers.  This was, at best, organizational depth as Cruz had just been promoted to AA Binghamton in an eight year career drifting in the low minors.  Putting Rhiner on the major league roster when he has no idea where the strike zone is (his mid-90s fastball has crazy movement and he can’t control his breaking ball) showed how little major league talent the Astros had.  I mean, Cruz walked 45 batters in 71.2 innings in the minors in 2011.

JAN (2012):

Here, the Astros were looking to find as many players who might be able to do SOMETHING as possible.

Signed, as free agents, Livan Hernandez, Zach Duke, Chris Snyder, Jack Cust, and Fernando Martinez (waiver claim).

FEB:

More minor signings…

MAR:

After (and during) spring training, the Astros released Hernandez, Duke and Cust, moved anyone who needed time to the minors, and made one trade…

Acquired LHP Kevin Chapman from the Royals for OF Jason Bourgeois and C Humberto Quintero.  Bourgeois was, like Melancon, a nice surprise in 2011 but is a 30-year-old outfielder with no long-term future.  Quintero is, at best, a backup catcher and the Astros had other options.  Chapman at least represents a future – had 90Ks in 62 innings in 2011, and built on that in 2012.  He still needs work (especially with his control), but at least he has a shot to be a late inning contributor very soon.

JULY:

The Astros, as sellers, moved what they could for prospects:

Carlos Lee (and cash) to the Marlins for 3B Matt Dominquez (good glove, minor bat) and LHP Rob Rasmussen (could be a starter in 2014).

Brandon Lyon, J.A. Happ, and David Carpenter to Toronto for Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Joseph Musgrove, Asher Wojciechowski (decent arm, not overmatched at AA, doesn’t miss enough bats), David Rollins, and Carlos Perez (athletic catcher, decent arm, not much offense).

Brett Myers to the White Sox for prospects Matthew Heidenreich and Blair Walters.

Wandy Rodriquez to Pittsburgh for Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman, and Rudy Owens.

Chris Johnson to Arizona for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

If nothing else, that’s a lot of prospects.  If you see the kids producing in 2014 and the Astros making steady improvement, then these deals worked.  Seeing as the team went belly up in July and August of 2012, this did nothing to help the guys who were left behind to play.

By the way, Ben Francisco only hung around for a month.  He was shipped to Tampa for a player to be named later.  (That player was LHP Theron Geith.)  Despite being a pretty good outfielder, Francisco hasn’t been able to keep a regular job and at 31 seems destined to be a fourth outfielder for a few more years.  Geith, however, has a bright future.  In two minor league seasons, Geith has a 2.66 ERA, 83Ks in 84.2 innings, and just 18 walks.  He will be on the roster by 2014, and maybe next September.

Key Injuries:

Jed Lowrie missed time leaving spring training with a bruised thumb.  Kyle Weiland made three starts and went down with what was then termed shoulder bursitis.

Relievers Fernando Abad (intercostal strain) and Rhiner Cruz (ankle sprain) missed time in May.

June brought minor injuries to Travis Buck (Achilles tendinitis), Carlos Lee (strained hamstring) Marwin Gonzalez (bruised heel), Bud Norris (spraineed knee), Wilton Lopez (sprained elbow), and Justin Maxwell (loose bodies in ankle).

Jordan Schafer, Jed Lowrie, and Francisco Cordero spent some time on the DL in August and early September, Cordero wound up missing the rest of the season with a foot injury just six awful outings after his arrival.  He really wasn’t missed, and – as he turns 37 in May – has already been released.

Cordero’s was the only injury of signifigance.  Jed Lowrie missed a lot of games, but with small injuries that kept him out a couple of weeks at a time.

[Writer’s Note:  I had pulled much of this together a while ago when I had decided to become a Houston Astros fan.  The Astros got the Rangers in order in the first, but the Rangers did the same to the Astros – in part thanks to a bad call at second on a stolen base attempt by Jose Altuve.  If the Astros are lousy this year, it could just be that I have jinxed them.]

LOOKING AHEAD:

Starting Pitchers:

The rotation appears to be Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Philip Humber, Brad Peacock, and Erik Bedard.

Lucas Harrell is pretty good.  He gets some strikeouts but he walks a few too many guys.  Bud Norris has better stuff, but has been way more inconsistent, especially on the road.  Even at that, he’s marginally below average with a chance to become really good.  Bud Norris is the type of guy you might consider drafting in your fantasy league this year…

Philip Humber is trying, again, to get his career on track.  Humber threw a perfect game for the White Sox, but otherwise was awful.  He CAN pitch, but he can also think his way into oblivion.  If Humber can find his way, the Astros will have found a gem.  The problem is that his track record doesn’t give you a whole lot of reason for hope.

A guy who might, however, is Brad Peacock. The Palm Beach, FL native navigated his way through the minors, getting better every year, until he got a test drive with the Washington Nationals in 2011, where he wasn’t half bad.  Moved to Oakland, he spent 2012 in Sacramento, where he held his own despite being in a league that pounds pitchers.  After a pretty nice spring, he’s going to see if he’s ready for 25 – 30 starts.

Finally, Erik Bedard might be able to help – if he can stay healthy.  Having missed essentially two and half of the last five years, Bedard has been reasonably successful – well, at least until last year when he went 7 – 14 for Pittsburgh.  His walk rate was too high, and his ERA went over 5 (5.01), but there are reasons to think that he can be better than he was last year – starting with the fact that he has always been better than he was last year.

So, just trying to see if the rotation is better, at first glance, the answer is probably no.  Harrell and Norris are the same (though Norris might be slightly better).  I don’t buy that Humber is better than Jordan Lyles was in 2012, and Erik Bedard won’t be as good as a partial season of Wandy Rodriguez.  If one pitcher surprises, it might be Peacock who COULD be as good as J.A. Happ was.  So, let’s go with the team allowing perhaps 30 extra runs here.

Relief Pitchers:

The Astros are going to give the closer job, at least at first, to Jose Veres, who has four career saves.  Veres isn’t awful, but he isn’t a big time closer.  Brett Myers wasn’t awesome last year, so that’s not a big loss.  I was surprised that Wilton Lopez didn’t get a second chance, he pitched well enough, but the Astros went with younger arms – Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Fields, Edgar Gonzalez, and Wesley Wright.

This group will be no better or worse than last year.

Cruz had a 6.05 ERA last year – is that really worthy of a significant role?  Wesley Wright wasn’t half bad for a situational lefty.  Xavier Cedeno was league average and could be better.  Edgar Gonzalez has been around and he’s never been a dependable option.  The guy I like is Hector Ambriz, who fanned 22 in 19 innings in a late call last year.  He could wind up the setup man before all is said and done.

Catchers:

Last year’s catchers were league average in total, but had a few weaknesses, including starter Jason Castro not being too solid against the run.  Chris Snyder is gone, so Carlos Corporan is back as the backup.  He looks like he can throw.  Castro isn’t a bad hitter – he was slightly above average because he showed a little power and a little patience while hitting .257.  Chris Snyder hit .176 and didn’t hit enough to be worth keeping around.  Corporan can hit better than that – maybe .240 with a few homers, so that would be a step forward offensively.  If Castro can be stronger against the run that would help immensely.  This unit should score about 15 more runs than in 2012.

Infielders:

Three-quarters of the infield in use toward the end of the season returns – Brett Wallace at first, Jose Altuve at second, and Matt Dominguez at third.  Jed Lowrie is gone, replaced by Ronnie Cedeno.  Wallace is getting better defensively, Altuve is slightly below average as a glove man, but not problematic, and Dominguez is a solid defensive option – far better than Chris Johnson.   Cedeno may have more experience, but he won’t put up more runs than, say, Marwin Gonzalez.  They are essentially the same guy.  The problem is that neither is a long-term solution, so as we are following this team, look for them to find a better shortstop through the minors.

Carlos Pena was added to back up Wallace at first and be the primary DH – which will last as long as Pena keeps drawing walks and hitting homers.  I fear, however, that he may not hit .220.

As a unit, this team will probably hold the line offensively (Wallace will help offset the loss of Jed Lowrie), but it could be ten runs better defensively.

Outfielders:

This year’s outfield features Chris Carter, the old Oakland As prospect, Justin Maxwell, and Rick Ankiel – a reclamation project of sorts.  J. D. Martinez will be back as a possible fourth or fifth outfielder, sharing the role with Brandon Barnes.

Defensively, Carter can’t be worse than J.D. Martinez was, and he has the potential to put a lot more runs on the board by virtue of his power and patience.  Justin Maxwell is a better fielder and hitter than Jordan Schafer was – it would be nice if he hit, say, .250 rather than .220, though.  Ankiel hasn’t been a good hitter for a few years, but he’s still better than Brian Bogusevic was, and even if he isn’t, J.D. Martinez can hit better.

As a unit, this team could score about 60 more runs and save ten to fifteen in the field.

[As I reach this point in the essay, Justin Maxwell just hit a high drive off the top of the wall in left for a two-run triple, giving the Astros an early lead.  Woohoo!!!]

Down on the Farm:

Most of the guys who did anything at AAA are on the club, and nobody stands out as a prospect.  Moving to the Corpus Christi Red Hawks, the top prospects at AA would include first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who hit .284 with power, 88 walks, and is 21-years-old.  Another option is shortstop Jonathan Villar, a 22-year-old with speed and some hitting skills.  I’m just not sure he can hit in the majors.  A top pitching prospect might be Jason Stoffel, who fanned 57 in 58 innings, walked just 16, in a relief role.  Jarred Cosart made 15 starts at AA and was decent, but not great.  He is ranked highly by scouting organizations.

At A+ Lancaster, right fielder Domingo Santana impressed with power and average, while centerfielder George Springer has all that and speed, too. Both are free swingers.  Coming up in A Lexington is Delino Deshields II – who plays like his dad, but is a few years away (and only 20).  Another guy making marks include shortstop Carlos Correa, a top pick out of Puerto Rico last year.

Best guess on their record?

They aren’t as good as last September.  They aren’t as bad as last August.  I see the team being 75 runs better offensively, and five runs worse defensively, thanks to a slightly worse starting rotation.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed ratio at about 660/800.  Working against that is the move to the offensively charged AL West, which features the Rangers and Angels, a decent Oakland, and an improving Seattle.  The system calls for 66 wins, which seems a tad bit high.  So, I’ll temper that to 64 – 98, hopefully avoiding a third straight year with 100 losses.  If that happens, let’s consider it a a success and watch for some talent to get added to this young team.

As I finish this, I see that the Astros have extended their lead to 4 – 0 in the fifth over Texas.  If they hold on for the win, it would make for a great start to the season.

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2012 Season Forecast: Miami Marlins

2011: 72 – 90, Last NL East
Runs Scored: 625 (11th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 702 (10th, NL)

Season Recap:

In late May, the Marlins were near the top of the NL East.  Josh Johnson seemed to be taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning or later in each start, the offense was starting to show signs of life.  When Scott Cousins derailed Buster Posey in San Franscisco by running the all-star catcher over to score a run, the bad karma hit.  Johnson went down with shoulder soreness and never pitched again.  Hanley Ramirez, having survived a very slow start, separated a shoulder and missed most of three months.  Gaby Sanchez, who hit enough to make the all-star team, stopped hitting – and Logan Morrison tweeted his way into the dog house.  When it was over, one of the best teams in the NL suddenly was in last place.

Starting Pitching:

The rotation of Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Javier Vasquez, Anibel Sanchez, and Chris Volstad seemed good enough in April, but once Johnson went down, having two other starters (Nolasco and Volstad) struggle along with anyone who tried to replace Johnson – the Marlins didn’t have a chance.  Brad Hand went 1- 8 in 12 starts because he gave up ten homers and 35 walks in just 60 innings.  Clay Hensley was asked to start and he couldn’t handle that kind of load.  Nolasco was 23 runs worse than an average pitcher, Volstad was 20 runs worse – and they logged more than 370 innings of well below average pitching.

Looking forward, the Marlins have thickened up the staff.  Johnson is back and healthy.  If he makes 30 starts, he could save the team 40 unnecessary runs.  Vasquez was miserable for six weeks, then finished like an ace over the last six weeks.  He will be replaced by former Chicago White Sox horse, Mark Buehrle.  Buehrle was 15 runs better than Vasquez last year – and he becomes the first lefty starter on the Marlins – which will help against the lefty hitting loaded teams in the NL East.  Nolasco needs to bounce back – he’s a durable thrower, but hasn’t been spectacular since 2009.  Sanchez continues to throw well – he could use a little offensive support.  And then you have another former Chicago pitcher to provide additional fireworks – Carlos Zambrano.

Zambrano came to the Marlins in a trade with the Cubs because (a) the Cubs didn’t want him and (b) new manager Ozzie Guillen thinks he can handle the ex-Chicago fireballer.  Zambrano was marginally better than Volstad, but at the end of his contract and pitching for his baseball life, he could be 15 or 20 runs better – and provide a little extra offense.  What you are looking at is a reasonable gain of about 60 runs in the runs allowed column, and possily 70 – 75 fewer runs allowed…

Relief Pitching:

The Marlins spent a small fortune to pick up Heath Bell to be the new closer because Leo Nunez wasn’t cutting it.  And, of course, because Leo Nunez isn’t who we thought he was – his name is actually Juan Carlos Oviedo, and he’s two years older, too.  The pitcher formerly known as Nunez may not be back for a while, and if he does come back it won’t be as a closer.  Bell was just a bit better in terms of runs saved, but he might be better in the clubhouse, where a big personality can keep the rest of the team in check.  The rest of the bullpen isn’t bad – Steve Cishek, Randy Choate, Michael Dunn, Eduard Mujica, Brian Sanches, and Ryan Webb are all decent, but none of them wow you.  Dunn has closer stuff, but needs time.

Another former Padre, Wade LeBlanc, and rookie Tom Koehler are looking to pick up swingman roles on the club.

Catching:

John Buck looked like he was figuring things out as a newcomer to the Marlins and the National League.  His batting average fell, he struggled in the running game (83 of 100 baserunners were succesful stealing), and he needed to learn his own staff.  I like Buck to bounce back some.  Brett Hayes was a bit better against the run and is a dependable backstop.

Infield:

The Marlins will have a slightly new look in 2011.  Gaby Sanchez returns at first, a decent enough fielder (helped statistically by the lack of a left handed starter last year), and a slightly above average hitter.  He’s not shown himself to be a banger, but he makes decent contact, has a bit of power, and a good eye at the plate.  Omar Infante is a solid second baseman and an average hitter.  In 2012, he’ll no longer bat at the top of the lineup, which should help some.  Taking over at short is former Met, Jose Reyes.  Reyes is coming off a career year, but hasn’t dependably played 140 games at his position.  He’s still a step up over having Greg Dobbs regularly in the lineup, so the Marlins could score more runs with Reyes at the top of the order.  And moving to third is former shortstop Hanley Ramirez.  Ramirez has something to prove this year – that he can be a team player and a real leader.  Personally, I don’t think he should be in the infield.  He’s never been a good shortstop – Ramirez cost the team 23 runs.  (Reyes is better, but even he is a below average shortstop.)  But he could be a league average third baseman – and make 35 – 50 throwing errors.

If it’s me, I let Bonifacio (just about a league average shortstop) play short, move Reyes to third, and put Hanley in center field or left field.  Even with the new alignment, the Marlins could save 10 runs defensively, but it SHOULD be 20 runs better if Hanley were in the outfield.

Offensively, a healthy Ramirez and Reyes could be worth 100 extra runs themselves to the team.

Outfield:

Giancarlo Stanton returns (nicked up this spring) and seems to want to use his tremendous power to all fields.  You hope that by broadening his approach he doesn’t dilute his strength – which is his strength, but he’s SO strong that if he makes contact, he hits the ball harder than anyone else in baseball.  If he steps up a little bit, he’s going to put 125 runs on the board.  And Logan Morrison can hit better than he did in 2011.  He really isn’t an outfielder, but he has a great approach to hitting and should be worth 100 runs, which is 30 more than last year.  Then you have the void that is centerfield.  Emilio Bonifacio is tolerable there (I’d just rather see him at short).  Chris Coghlan, Aaron Rowand, Bryan Peterson and possibly Austin Kearns will be battling for innings as a defensive replacement for Morrison in late innings and pinch hitting at bats.

Bench:

A bench of Dobbs, Coghlan, Peterson and Rowand give the Marlins plenty of options.  Hayes is a capable backup catcher, and with Bonifacio able to play six positions, you can mix and match to give people time off.

Prospects:

At AAA New Orleans, Matt Dominguez and Ozvaldo Martinez showed they have major league gloves but not yet major league bats.  They are still young – Dominguez will be 22 this year; Martinez 24.  Jose Ceda was unhittable in AAA, but hasn’t turned it into a regular MLB job.

2008 #1 pick Kyle Skipworth made his way to AA Jacksonville, but didn’t impress with the stick – just .207 in nearly 400 at bats.  He’s still got time.  The best hitter was Jim Negrych, but he’ll be 27 this season and has people ahead of him on the depth chart.  Pitcher Jhan Marinez needs to gain command, but fanned 74 in 58 innings.  Undrafted Omar Poveda is figuring things out, finishing 8 – 6 last year, but with a 4.32 ERA.  He needs to find a better strikeout pitch.

Kyle Jensen showed great power while hitting .309 at A+ Jupiter, but he’s a bit of a free swinger.  I saw him – I’d like to think he can make a step forward and challenge Gaby Sanchez in 2014.  2009 First Round pick Chad James struggled a little – 5 – 15, with a 3.80 ERA, but he’s just 20.  Let’s see what he can do in 2012.  Down at A- Greensboro, 2010 #1 pick Christian Yelich showed he is a player with promise by hitting .312 with 15 homers and 32 stolen bases.

2012 Forecast:  

You have a new stadium and management finally spending some money to give the fans checking out the new stadium an exciting product.  The question, of course, is can the Miami Marlins break through what looks to be a competitive NL East.  I think the answer is yes.  The Marlins could easily score 150 runs more than last year with healthy and improving performances from the outfielders as well as a healthy Reyes and rebounding Hanley Ramirez.  If Josh Johnson makes 30 starts and the rotation holds steady, the team will likely allow 75 fewer runs.  That puts the Marlins at about 775 runs scored and 625 runs allowed –  a combination good for 93 wins.  The question is whether or not 93 wins will be enough…  The Phillies, Braves, and even Washington will be in the hunt – so every win will matter.

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.