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.

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2011 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  96 – 66 (1st AL East)
2009:  84 – 78
2008:  97 – 65 (AL Champs)
2007:  66 – 96
2006:  61 – 101

Runs Scored: 802 (3rd, AL to NYY and BOS)
Runs Allowed: 649 (2nd, AL to OAK)

2010 Recap:

The Rays got off to a great start, winning 17 of 23 in April and extending their hot play into May where, on May 23rd, they went to sleep in first place with a 32 – 12 record.  An 11 – 14 stumble in June let the rest of the league back in the race, but once July started, the Rays went back to the front of the division, going 19 – 7, followed by a 17 – 12 August.  From there, the Rays seemed to run out of steam, but played .500 ball after September 1st as the Yankees collapsed to take the division crown.

In terms of mid-season transactions, the Rays mostly unloaded parts that weren’t working.  They released Pat Burrell and Hank Blalock, for example.  They did get Chad Qualls at the trading deadline, but he wasn’t much help down the stretch.

As a team, they hit homers and drew walks, but went through stretches where they couldn’t hit.  The Rays were on the wrong end of two no-hitters despite being one of only three teams to score 800 runs.  They have pitchers who throw strikes, a rather deep bullpen, and an AMAZING team defense.  These two items, as I have written before, make their staff look stronger than it really is.

Starters:

The rotation featured David Price, who had Cy Young worthy numbers in terms of wins (19), ERA (2.72), and strikeouts (188 in 208.2 innings).  Price was backed by Matt Garza (15 – 10, 3.91), James Shields (13 – 15, 5.18), Jeff Niemann (12 – 8, 4.39), and rookie Wade Davis (12 – 10, 4.07).  However, knowing that the Rays made few errors and turned 14 balls per 1000 into outs more than the average team AND they played in a park that helped the staff, you realize that many of those pitchers aren’t quite as good as advertised.  James Shields was more than 50 runs worse than the average pitcher because he puts a lot of balls into play, and he served up 34 homers.  Niemann was 19 runs worse than the average pitcher, and Matt Garza – the new Cub – was 14 runs worse than the average pitcher.  Wade Davis was also -11.

This isn’t new – I wrote about this a couple of years ago when the Rays made the series.  A good defense can make a bunch of pitchers who keep the ball in the park and don’t walk people look very good.

Looking ahead, Matt Garza moved to Chicago where he might get to serve up 50 homers.  At least he’s durable.  The rest of the rotation returns intact, joined by Jeremy Hellickson, who looked great in his 4 starts last summer.  Assuming Shields bounces back some (he can), Davis and Niemann show more growth (possible), and Hellickson remains tolerable over 160 innings, the rotation should be 30 runs better than last year.

Bullpen:

On the other hand, the bullpen was amazing in 2010.  Rafael Soriano saved 45 games, supported by Joaquin Benoit and his 1.34 ERA in 63 innings.  Dan Wheeler gave them 64 fair innings, Grant Balfour remained dependable, and even Randy Choate and Lance Cormier weren’t horrible.  Most of this staff is gone.  Right now, the closer looks to be Joel Peralta, the former Royal, Angel, and Rockies reliever who had his best season in 2010 with the Nationals last year – fanning 49 and walking just 9 (4 intentionally) in 49 innings.  In front of Peralta is journeyman fireballer, Kyle Farnsworth who has NEVER been as good as Benoit was last year.  Andy Sonnenstine, who has a very hittable fastball, is there, with a bunch of newcomers, including Ceasr Ramos and Adam Russell, who came from San Diego for Jason Bartlett.  Jake McGee, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, converted to the pen in 2010 and made it to the big leagues.  He’s a power lefty with a nice curveball.  Chris Archer is another hard thrower who might get time in the bullpen this year.  If the starters are going to improve by 30 runs, the bullpen cannot – and no matter what Manager Joe Maddon’s magic, this group will be 50 runs worse than in 2010.

Catching:

John Jaso earned his way ahead of Dioner Navarro and Kelly Shoppach by catching well enough and getting on base at a .375 clip.  Teams ran on Jaso some, and the young Jaso has much to learn, but he helps out.  Kelly Shoppach struggled at the plate, but did hit 5 homers in 158 at bats.  Navarro is gone.

Infield:

A couple of years ago, the infield was a solid Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and Carlos Pena.  Now, only Longoria – an MVP candidate – remains.   Longoria can hit and field with the best of them and even stole 15 bases in 20 tries.  Bartlett’s bat and glove has fallen off in recent years since he injured his ankle in 2009 and will be replaced by Reid Brignac, who is younger, just as good a hitter, and more mobile.  Sean Rodriguez got a chance to play the infield and hits for some power, can run the bases, and is solid in the field.  Mr. Everywhere, Ben Zobrist, backs them both up.  Carlos Pena is gone, to be replaced by either Dan Johnson (a patient power hitter who, like Pena, failed to hit .200 last year), and possibly Johnny Damon.  I think the offense will remain solid, though it could lose 20 runs at first base overall if Johnson can’t improve in 2011.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford had an MVP-type campaign in 2010, fielding as well as any left fielder, and generating nearly 130 runs of offense with the bat (average and some power) as well as his feet (47 steals).  He’s in Boston now, with Johnny Damon taking over.  Damon is okay, but not anywhere near what Crawford can provide – and he’s going to need time off.  Options include Matt Joyce or Sam Fuld.  In center, B.J. Upton is still frustratingly productive.  He is an above average offensive performer – quick bat, power, speed – but frustrating in that he strikes out a LOT, keeping his average under .240.  Defensively, he remains above average but, again, doesn’t seem to be as good as he could be.  In right, Ben Zobrist fell off from his 2009 season in terms of average and power, but still was productive because he plays solid defense and gets on base.  (I’d let Joyce play left all year and see if he can hit 30 homers knowing he’s a better fielder than Damon, too.  Damon can DH and back up three positions, even providing some production.)

DH:

Pat Burrell couldn’t cut it and Hank Blalock wasn’t the answer.  Willy Aybar fell off last year, though Matt Joyce might have been a decent answer if they let him do it.  Looking ahead, though, the Rays took a cheap flyer on the craziest great hitter of the last two decades, Manny Ramirez.  Say what you will about him, Manny can STILL hit.  He missed a lot of time last year, but when he left Los Angeles, he was hitting .311, with a .410 OBA, and a .510 SLG.  He didn’t hit as well with the White Sox, but he had a .420 OBP.  He won’t do that in Tampa, but he could certainly go 20 – 110 – .285, with walks and doubles.  Johnny Damon could platoon some with him, letting Matt Joyce play left field.

Down on the Farm:

Jeremy Hellickson we noted – the new fifth starter for the Rays – as he went 12 – 3 with 123Ks in 117.2 innings for AAA Durham.  Desmond Jennings, a potential Carl Crawford clone, fell off in terms of his batting average, but he still gets on base and he can FLY.

Jake McGee made it from Montgomery in AA through Durham before getting a cup of coffee with the Rays.  In AA, McGee fanned 100 in 88.1 innings, showed good command (getting better, anyway), and looked awesome in 11 AAA appearances (27Ks, 3 walks, one ER in 17.1 innings).  Alex Torres and Alexander Cobb were solid for Montgomery, winning records, good strikeout rates.  Cobb has better control, but both are young and will spend 2011 in Durham.

Former #1 pick Tim Beckham finished his season with A+ Charlotte and seems to have stalled, but having watched him in the minors, he sure is the one guy on the field you can’t help but notice.  He’s still only 21, so there is time for a step forward.  The best of Charlotte is the young staff, led by Matt Moore, who fanned 208 in 144.2 innings with his powerful fastball and curveball.  Joe Cruz showed solid command, going 13 – 6 – 2.85 in his 142 innings and will start 2011 in AA.  Then you have reliever Zach Quate, who fanned 90 in 72.1 innings, saving 25 games, with great control.

Forecasting 2011:

I don’t see how the Rays are going to repeat winning the AL East crown in 2011, but they won’t be bad and they should take a Wild Card spot.  The rotation may be slightly better, but the bullpen will be well off from last year.  The defense will be better at short (Brignac is better than Bartlett), but worse in left (Damon or Joyce instead of Crawford) and I’m not sure Johnson is better than an aging Carlos Pena at first.  The catching might improve a touch, and more Jaso is better than more Dioner Navarro offensively.  The Rays are better at DH.

I see the offense being good, but a touch worse – maybe 770 runs.  And the runs allowed number will likely go up by 30 runs to about 680.  That puts the Rays at 91 wins, which some will see as a surprise – but not me.

2010 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 84 – 78 (3rd AL East)
2008: 97 – 65
2007: 66 – 96
2006: 61 – 101
2005: 67 – 95

Runs Scored: 803 (5th AL)
Runs Allowed: 754 (7th AL)

Season Recap:

Optimism reigned supreme on the heels of an amazing run into to the World Series.  I warned you, however, that while the team looked good there were reasons to suspect that the Rays might under-perform.  The Rays were good, but couldn’t catch any breaks on the road and, as such, couldn’t keep up with the Yankees or Red Sox when the race got going.

The Rays were never really out of it despite a 9 – 14 April, and after a fantastic June (19 – 7) were in the thick of the race.  Unfortunately, the Yankees blew the doors open in July and August while the Rays suddenly got flat.  Scott Kazmir, unhealthy and unproductive was sent to Anaheim.  Carlos Pena, leading the AL in homers at the time, broke his wrist.  Troy Percival was injured and eventually hung up the spikes.  When September came calling, the Rays were far enough out to throw in the towel – and they did, fading from 13 over .500 to just six over at the end.

Pitching:

In 2008, backed by a sure-handed and mobile defense, the pitching over delivered.  In 2009, the defense slipped and a few holes were discovered in the rotation.  Matt Garza became the ace and James Shields – usually dependable – gave up 239 hits in 220 innings, 29 of them homers.  Scott Kazmir made just 20 starts and finished with an ERA just shy of 6.00…  Andy Sonnestine, as warned, was eminently hittable, finishing with a 6.77 ERA and earning the Anti-Cy – the pitcher costing his team the most runs with his below average pitching.

Two good things came out of the experimenting required by Joe Maddon.  Rookie David Price showed flashes, winning 10 games, and Jeff Niemann was even better, making 30 starts, winning 13 games, and showing good control and command.

In the bullpen, Troy Percival made just 14 appearances, eventually having to be replaced by J.P. Howell at the back end of the bullpen.  However, Maddon used a committee as required, as Randy Choate (5), Grant Balfour (4), Joe Nelson (3), and four others wound up with saves.

Looking ahead, the Rays should have a decent enough rotation.  Shields should bounce back some, Garza is back, Niemann returns, Price will get 30+ starts, and rookie Wade Davis should pick up 20 – 25 starts.  If Davis is even 10 runs below average, he’s saving the team 25 runs over last season.  15 more starts of David Price will be worth another 30 runs.  I like the rotation to be at least 50 runs better than in 2009.

The bullpen adds closer Rafael Soriano from Atlanta and returns the core of what has been a very dependable bullpen – Howell, Choate, Balfour, and Dan Wheeler.  I like the bullpen to be at least 15 runs better than in 2009 as well.

Catching:

Dioner Navarro is back – hopefully lighter than last year, as his bat slipped mightily in 2009.  He’s essentially a league average backstop – right on the average against the run, has a decent reputation with handling the pitchers but isn’t as mobile as you would like.  Kelly Shoppach was signed from Cleveland to back up Navarro – and he is good enough to take up the slack if Navarro slips some more.

Infield:

In 2008, the infield defense was a big reason that the Rays won the AL East.  However, Carlos Pena showed signed that he might not be as mobile as he had been as a gold glove caliber first baseman.  Additionally, his batting average fell to .227, though he did continue to get on base and knock out homers.  Pena has had an up and down career and, nearing 32, his prime seasons are nearly over.

Akinori Iwamura went down to a horrible knee injury, but returns to play for Pittsburgh.  The reason Iwamura was allowed to move was the remarkable season of Ben Zobrist, who fielded his position very well and broke out with 27 homers and a .407 OBP.

Jason Bartlett hit better than expected – finishing at .320 with a .490 slugging percentage – but ankle injuries affected his range and he went from someone worth of a gold glove to someone challenging Derek Jeter for the worst range at short.  One hopes he finds his old mobility, but if he produces 103 runs of offense, nobody will notice.

Evan Longoria remains the best third baseman in baseball – he looks like the new Mike Schmidt.  A 40 homer season wouldn’t be out of the question, as he finished with 33 homers in 2009 and had 44 doubles, too.

Backing this unit up is Willie Aybar, who can play third and first and hit well enough.  Reid Brignac is a prospect who appears to have hitting skills but hasn’t shown range in the field.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford returns in left field, as good a fielder as there is out in left and a very productive hitter.  Crawford is known for his 60 stolen bases, but he added 51 extra base hits while hitting .305.

B.J. Upton will be the wild card of 2010.  Battling shoulder and leg injuries, Upton’s range numbers in the outfield were problematic and he finished at .241 and didn’t slug .400.  For a while, Upton was at the top of the lineup and getting in the way.  If he bounces back and shows the form he displayed in the 2008 World Series, the Rays will get 30 extra runs of offense and 20 extra runs of defense.  If not, the Rays may not be able to compete.

Gabe Kapler and Gabe Gross shared right field (with Ben Zobrist, until he moved to second base).  Both are acceptable in the field, but don’t add much to the offense.  Matt Joyce, formerly of Detroit, may get the nod in 2010.  He’s got young legs and potential at the plate – 30 homer power though he might not make it if he doesn’t curb the strikeouts.  Desmond Jennings, a prospect at Durham, might sneak in and take over as well.

Backing these guys up are Zobrist and Aybar, as well as DH (and disappointment) Pat Burrell.  Burrell’s 14 – 64 – .221 season meant that the Rays will give former Ranger Hank Blalock a shot at the DH role in 2010.

Prospects:

Looking at AAA Durham, you see people who have already gotten a shot…  Justin Ruggiano has some power and speed but is a bit old as a prospect.  Reid Brignac and Matt Joyce are already Rays.  Among the pitchers, Wade Davis is going to make the roster after going 10 – 8 for the Bulls with a 3.40 ERA and a 140/60 K/BB ratio in 158.2 innings.  Jeremy Hellickson will likely start at Durham in 2010, but was 6 – 1 in nine starts at the end of the season last year with 70 Ks in 57.1 innings.  Hellickson is the ace in waiting for now.

Hellickson had 11 starts for AA Montgomery, winning three of four decisions with 62 Ks, 14 BBs, and only 41 hits allowed in 56.2 innings.  Only reliever Paul Phillips looked ready for AAA.  Aneury Rodriguez is young (22) and pitched okay for the Biscuits but could stand to improve his control.  The best hitter in AA was Desmond Jennings, who finished at .316 with 37 steals (caught just five times), earning a nod to Durham where he hit .325 there with 15 more steals.  Jennings could take over in centerfield if Upton gets hurt.

A+ Charlotte has a few pitchers to watch in AA next year to see if they can continue to command the strike zone in Jeremy Hall, Alexander Cobb, and Darin Downs.  All three had good ERAs, good strikeout and walk numbers, and winning records.

Bowling Green (A) featured Matt Moore, a live-armed kid who fanned 176 but walked 70 in 123 innings.  Josh Satow was the closer, getting 20 saves, strikeing out 65 and walking just 15 in 63 innings.  Andy Finch and I saw Tim Beckham and Kyeong Kang when touring the midwest last summer.  Beckham has the air of stardom and is still a teen.  Kang looks to have a little power, hit .307 and had a .390 OBP.

The Rays have a young roster, and they have PROSPECTS.

Outlook:

I like the Rays to be very competitive.  Unlike 2009, where I thought the team might take a step back from the World Series peak, I see reasons for optimism.  I think the starters, absent Sonnestine and Kazmir’s poor performances, will show improvement.  I like B.J. Upton’s chances of having a breakout season.  And, I’m optimistic that the Rays can close games better than in 2009.  Working against that is the fact that I think Zobrist may slip, Pena might age, and Bartlett may have peaked as a hitter.

I think the Rays will score a few more runs – maybe 810 – but allow a lot less, possibly as few as 680 runs.  If so, the Rays will win 95 games.  Working against this is the strength of the division, which includes what should be an improving Baltimore club.  So, despite what the system tells me, my hunch is that they might fall a few wins short of 95, and it might mean barely missing the playoffs.  Still, the system says 95 and that’s what I am putting on my board.