Friday, March 6, 2009

The Florida Marlins' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

When you're writing a bunch of previews for Major League Baseball teams, the non-contenders start to run together. There really isn't too much difference between most of the squads that will toil in the obscurity of their division's bottom-half. They all have bright spots and legitimate reasons to cross fingers, but the reality is their flaws are too numerous.

Most of those are in the pitching staff.

In a lot of ways, the Florida Marlins are no different. But the overall youth of the team makes the team stand out from the rest of the probable also-rans.

I knew they'd be youthfully exuberant. I didn't expect this.

There appears to be a 19-year-old kid (Matt Dominguez) in camp with the Big League ball club. That's no big deal, right? Lots of teams invite those young kids to Spring Training just to kick the tires on the draft pick. Give 'em a taste of the Show before the games count.

And that's almost definitely the case with Dominguez. It's probably the case with the jewel offseason acquisition, Jose Ceda (22 years old).

But it's not the case with 21-year-old Cameron Maybin—this is surely the year the Fish give the kid the keys to a starting gig.

It's certainly not the case with 22-year-old Chris Volstad or 23-year-old Andrew Miller. Both are penciled in as important parts of a starting rotation that features nobody older than Ricky Nolasco's 26 years.

All that youth makes Florida exciting regardless of whether they have a shot at the postseason.

That's good because the Marlins will almost certainly spend 2009 fighting to tread water. Everything worked perfectly for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, but they were exception to the rule.

Usually, relying on a bunch of green kids doesn't turn out well.

Even though Florida was surprisingly competitive last year and finished up playing good ball, the baseball gods do not dispense justice. Only fortune and misfortune—it seems to be the latter for Florida in 2009.

Misfortune as in having to compete with the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, and Atlanta Braves for 18/19 games each. That's roughly 60 games against two of the best teams in the National League heading into the season and a third that should be one of the better teams even if not elite.

But don't give up all hope ye who enter here because a lot of the Marlins' youth is quite shiny:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—John Baker
First base—Gabby Sanchez/Wes Helms
Second base—Dan Uggla
Third base—Jorge Cantu
Shortstop—Hanley Ramirez
Left field—Cody Ross
Center field—Cameron Maybin
Right field—Jeremy Hermida

There are some really nice pieces there and, again, none of them are too old. The Marlins also have some intriguing options floating around in contention for the weaker infield spots. Emilio Bonifacio is supposed to be a dynamite speed guy if he can ever put it all together—unfortunately that looks less and less likely; still he'll only be 24 a couple weeks after Opening Day. Dallas McPherson has always mashed in the minors and fizzled in the pros, he could solve some issues by finally coming through on his promise.

Of course, Florida moved a pretty good hitter in Mike Jacobs to open the way for Gabby Sanchez and the Marlins' management typically has an astute eye for young talent. If he can come around from his rough start in the exhibition season, the previous paragraph is moot.

Starting rotation

Ace—Ricky Nolasco (R)
Second spot—Josh Johnson (R)
Third spot—Anibal Sanchez (R)
Fourth spot—Chris Volstad (R)
Fifth spot—Andrew Miller (L)

At one point or another, each of these guys has been touted as an ace-in-waiting. To be honest, each has shown flashes—no matter how brief—of realizing his hype. Of course, each has been typically inconsistent, pitching true to his immature years on frequent occasion. Nolasco is the ace because his 2008 performance was pseudo-dominating and he seems the most reliable, but Johnson used to wear that mantle for Florida and Anibal Sanchez has a no-hitter to his credit so he obviously has ace-stuff.

A lot of teams would kill for this kind of talent in the rotation. The only question will be how much time the young guns spend as a princes and how much as toads.


Closer—Matt Lindstrom (R)
Set-up—Leo Nunez (R)
Set-up—Scott Proctor (R)
Set-up—Taylor Tankersley (L)
Set-up—Logan Kensing (R)

From here on out, it's a little ridiculous. You could have no idea what a baseball even is and predict the Florida Marlins' 2009 season with about the same accuracy as anything I will produce.

The oldest key piece is Matt Lindstrom at 29 years and about a month. And he's only a closer with as short a leash as your gonna find at the MLB level. There is simply no way to claim you know what such unproven and phenomenal talent will do.

It should take some time to develop, but it could all arrive at once a la Tampa.

John Baker has less than 200 career at-bats, but he's shown the ability to Punch and Judy his way to around a .300 average while working an on-base percentage almost 100 points higher. That's not too bad considering how offensively woeful a lot of starting backstops are. He's 28.

Pretty much all that anyone knows about Gabby Sanchez was covered above—he's a great prospect who's getting his first serious taste of pro pitching. The jury's out on the 25-year-old.

The exact same can be said of Cameron Maybin—although transcendent speed is always an advantage when you're learning the game.

We keep hearing that Jeremy Hermida is gonna breakout, but he has yet to do it. Shockingly, the dude's only 25 so he's still got some time to make good. But he has yet to do so.

You'll get another jolt to the system when you check out Cody Ross' final tally from last season's campaign—a .260 average, 29 doubles, 22 home runs, 59 runs scored, 73 runs batted in, a .316 on-base percentage, and an .804 OPS. Those aren't astonishing except they came from Cody Ross.

Ross would be another elder statesmen (at 28) who figures prominently.

Jorge Cantu (only 27, how is that possible?) is there to hit and avoid killing anyone at third base, including himself. Cantu rediscovered his stroke in '08 to the tune of a .277 average with 41 doubles, 29 HRs, 92 runs, 95 RBI, a .327 OBP, and an .808 OPS. It's a good thing because the man is not employed for his leather.

Like I said, there are some nice pieces. However, the real heavy lifters for this offense are Hanley Ramirez (25) and Dan Uggla (soon to be 29).

Not only does Hanley play a slick short, he chipped in a .301 average with 34 doubles, 33 bombs, 125 runs, 67 RBI, 35 stolen bases, a .400 OBP, and a .940 OPS. The truly frightening part is, considering Ramirez' age, the smart money is on him getting better.

Uggla doesn't offer the same kind of defense, although it's better than he showed in Yankee Stadium. However, similar to Cantu, Dan's not there for his glove—he's there for his .260 average, 37 doubles, 32 taters, 97 runs, 92 RBI, .360 OBP, and .874 OPS. As long as he rakes, it's all good.

The serious question marks are, as usual, in the rotation.

It's safe to put Ricky Nolasco down as an asset in ink. A year that sees 212+ innings pitched, 15 wins against eight losses, a 3.52 earned run average, a 1.10 WHIP, and 186 strikeouts against 42 walks earns you that respect.

But you'd better use pencil for the rest.

Josh Johnson was once a stud and has shown surprisingly little erosion from his pre-Tommy John days. Who knows how long that will last? At only 25, the episode may be completely behind him or it could rear its ugly head with no warning.

Anibal Sanchez is also only 25, but has less of a track record than Johnson so there's less reason to be as optimistic. He's working his way back from a labrum tear and has struggled to regain the form that saw him no-hit the Arizona Diamondbacks as a rookie.

That last sentence, though, is enough reason to keep an eye on him.

Chris Volstad and Andrew Miller are the two biggest mysteries in the rotation. Volstad was impressive in his short run while Miller was anything but. Still, neither has enough of a sample size from which to draw firm conclusions. Nor are they old enough.

It's more of the same in the 'pen. The aforementioned Lindstrom looks like a beast and showed affinity for the role in '08, but he's never been THE guy at the end of games. Leo Nunez had a very nice year for the Kansas City Royals, but who knows how the new year/league will treat him. Taylor Tankersley was a great lefty once upon a time, but had arm issues last year so he's up in the air. The same could be said about Logan Kensing from the right side.

I was once a believer in Scott Proctor, but he was brutal last year. Meanwhile, the Marlins might not want to rush the youngster Ceda into the Bigs. We'll see, but he's no sure-thing in 2009.

All in all, there's a ton to like and a ton that makes you uneasy. My brain tells me this team is a year or two away from sincere contention and my gut agrees. I think the Florida Marlins mess with some teams this year, but spend the majority of 2009 sorting things out for the future.

But hey, lightning might strike the Sunshine State in consecutive years. Crazier things have happened and Florida's known for nothing if not the whims of Mother Nature.

Maybe she'll blow that Tampa luck in the Marlins' direction for 2009.

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