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.
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.
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.
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.