2012 Previews: The Miami Marlins

2011 Record: 72-90, 5th NL East
2011 Prediction
: 88-74, 3rd NL East

Impact Player: RF Giancarlo Stanton
Impact Pitcher:
RHP Josh Johnson
Best Reliever:
RHP Edward Mujica
Top Prospect:
OF Christian Yelich

Last Year
The 2011 Marlins looked to be a young team on the rise. Josh Johnson had become a legitimate ace, Ricky Nolasco looked to be becoming an excellent number two, they had studs in the lineup like rightfielder Mike (now Giancarlo) Stanton, shortstop Hanley Ramirez and leftfielder Logan Morrison; they looked like a team that could turn some heads and make some noise in the NL.

Unfortunately for the franchise and its fans, that didn’t happen. After an excellent 30-20 start through May 28th, the Marlins took a nose-dive losing 23 of their next 26 games. During that stretch, the team fired manager Edwin Rodriguez and replaced him with Jack McKeon who hadn’t managed in the Majors since he left the Marlins after the 2005 season. Things didn’t get much better under the geriatric hand of McKeon and Florida ended up with just 72 wins, finishing last in the NL East.

The Marlins enter 2012 with a new name, a new look, a new manager, and a new taxpayer-funded ballpark. The savings generously footed by the citizens of Miami and Dade County helped pay for more spending on the Major League roster as the ownership group headed by Jeffrey Loria and David Sampson opened the purse-strings and aggressively pursued Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and; “settling” for Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle. The new acquisitions combined with an impressive young core (and no tangible farm system depth to speak of) signify that the Marlins are in ‘win-now’ mode, but do they have the talent to compete in the deep NL East?

Pitching
The Marlins entered 2011 with a group of starters with as much upside as anyone in the NL and the same is true of the 2012 version of team; perhaps ever more so. Johnson missed most of last season due to arm troubles, which was a major reason for their sudden collapse. He pitched his final game of the year on May 16th and the team was never the same once he went down. If he’s healthy, he should resume being one of the very best pitchers in baseball. In 2010, he pitched to a 6.3 fWAR with a 3.88 K/BB ratio.

The Marlins were able to woo Buehrle away from his longtime home with the Chicago White Sox and he’ll now join new manager Ozzie Guillen in Miami. Buehrle has never thrown an impressive fastball and he routinely will top out in the mid-eighties with it now, but he’s always had terrific command and one of the better changeups around. He has also thrown 11 straight 200-inning seasons and no one has pitched more than him since he came into the league full time in 2001. Even at 33, he should be an effective pitcher who takes pressure off the bullpen ever five days.

Nolasco is one of the most frustrating pitchers to watch and analyze. He consistently has excellent peripherals which suggest he could be an ace or at least something close to it, yet he has posted an ERA under 4.00 only once in his career. He has now posted a walk-rate under 2.00 BB/9 in three of the last four seasons and usually puts up excellent strike out rates. Last season, he saw that k-rate plummet to a career-low 6.47 which doesn’t inspire much confidence in him going forward. He’s still a more-than adequate mid-rotation pitcher.

Anibal Sanchez has significantly lowered his walk-rate in back-to-back seasons and has accumulated 8.2 fWAR over those years. He also saw a jump in his strike out rate last season and has quickly become a much underrated pitcher. Along with Buehrle, Nolasco and Johnson, the Marlins should have no problem winning more than 72 games in 2012 providing they all stay healthy.

The one significant question mark in the rotation is Carlos Zambrano. The Cubs managed to dump him on the Marlins along with all but $2.55-million of his salary for righthander Chris Volstad. It was clear that it was time for Zambrano to move on from Chicago after several tumultuous years and the Marlins hope he can find some of his former success under Guillen, who’s a close personal friend of his. If he can’t, ultimately, the Marlins don’t lose much in the equation. If he fails to be effective enough (or sane enough) to pitch in the rotation, Alex Sanabia, Brad Hand, Wade LeBlanc or Sean West could end up taking his spot.

The Marlins also brought in a high-priced closer this offseason, giving at least three years and $27-million to former Padres reliever Heath Bell. Bell carved out five mostly-excellent seasons with San Diego after failing to do much before that with the Mets, but he’s already 34 and saw a number of his peripheral stats decline last year. A move away from spacious, run-killing PETCO Park along with a declining skill set and he may end up being disastrous for Miami.

Leo Nunez ran into some identity-related problems this winter in his native Dominican Republic and is now known as Juan Oviedo; and oh yeah, he’s also 31, not 28. To top it all off, he’s no longer the closer for the Marlins after the signing of Bell. Oviedo is also a fairly overrated pitcher, providing only one season (2010) with an xFIP under 4.00, but does seem to manage to consistently outpitch his peripherals. Last season, he saw his groundball rate drop from 54% to 32.6% which is not encouraging.

The best reliever on the team is probably Edward Mujica who threw 76 innings last season and finished with an excellent 3.17 xFIP. He’s expected to be used as a multi-inning reliever more often in 2012 and will be joined in that role by Steven Cishek who quietly had a 2.63 ERA and allowed just one home run in 54.2 innings of work. Ryan Webb was also solid last year after coming over with Mujica in a trade from San Diego, but he needs to improve on his unimpressive 1.55 K/BB ratio.

The two lefties in the bullpen will be Michael Dunn and Randy Choate. Choate is 36 and has been around forever. Last year he posted a 1.82 ERA, but also had a strand-rate of almost 90% and a batted-ball average of well under .200; these numbers suggest considerable regression going forward. Dunn, meanwhile is solid against lefties but walks far too many to be terribly successful.

Lineup
The Fish finished 11th in the NL in runs scored in 2011. The addition of Reyes at short should help things, but unless Ramirez rebounds, things may not improve drastically. The acquisition of Reyes means that Ramirez will have to move to third base, something he appears to be on board with after word that he was unhappy with the move originally. He finished with a dismal .243/.333/.379 slash line last year and finished with a below average wRC+ for the first time in his career. If he can regain his MVP form, the Marlins will score a lot more in 2012.

Reyes, meanwhile, will be a significant upgrade defensively at short over Ramirez, and there’s no doubt he’s a dynamic offensive player, but his hamstring problems continue to hamper him year after year. There’s never a guarantee that Reyes will play enough to be a real difference maker. However, his .337/.384/.493 slash line and 6.2 fWAR in 2011 (despite only playing in 126 games) make him more than worth the risk.

Giancarlo Cruz Michael Stanton will now be known as Giancarlo Stanton, but that doesn’t change the fact that he might have the most impressive raw power in baseball. He dramatically improved on his walk-rate in 2011 making him one of the most dangerous hitters in the NL. He’ll never hit for a terrifically high average, but at 22 he’s already a superstar.

Morrison may be better suited to play first base than leftfield, but Gaby Sanchez is still around and is coming off another solid year. Morrison had a turbulent 2011 season, battling with ownership over his demotion to the minors mid-season. He’s no threat to clubhouse unity, but does speak his mind; something that this ownership regime does not appreciate. When he was with the Major League club, he hit 23 homeruns and had a .344 wOBA. At just 24, Morrison has all the tools to be a perennial All-Star. Sanchez meanwhile, may end up being traded once the team tires of seeing Morrison flail about in the outfield.

The centerfielder, at least to start the year, will be Emilio Bonifacio. Bonifacio had an unsustainable batted-ball average last season and should see a significant regression in 2012. He managed to post a .341 wOBA, a 3.3 fWAR and 40 stolen bases in his first season of regular playing time. Bonifacio is better used as a super-utility player who can play just about anywhere on the diamond, unfortunately, he’s the best option they have in centerfield.

John Buck had an awful first year in South Florida, but is back as the starting catcher. He’ll need to improve vastly on his 85 wRC+ to hold down his starting job. Fortunately for him, the Marlins don’t have much of an option to replace him at the moment. Meanwhile, Omar Infante is expected to be the starting second baseman again this year despite his predictably regressive 2011 season.

Bench
Brett Hayes is the best option at backup catcher for Miami and he might actually be better overall than Buck. If one or both struggle, the Marlins best option is minor-league journeyman Clint Sammons which doesn’t inspire much confidence. Donnie Murphy is back and provides next-to-zero offense but is useful as a slick-fielding utility infielder. Corner infielder Greg Dobbs and outfielders Scott Cousins and Bryan Peterson should also make the team. Both Cousins and Peterson can play centerfield and have a shot at overtaking Bonifacio there if they can hack it at the plate. Former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan could also find his way to the bench, although starting in centerfield seems unlikely after last year’s debacle.

For a more advanced statistical breakdown of the Marlins roster, click here.

Outlook
It’s hard to imagine the Marlins losing 90 games again in 2012 provided Johnson and Reyes stay healthy, Zambrano can keep his head on straight, and Ramirez rebounds, but to say that they’re full-fledged contenders is probably a bit overzealous. They have a solid rotation, but they lack the necessary system depth to overcome injuries and half of their lineup consists of below average hitters. The Marlins are about to find out that throwing money around doesn’t always lead to immediate contention.

2012 Prediction: 84-78, 4th NL East