Florida Marlins 2010 preview

The only free agents the Marlins signed during the offseason received minor league contracts. Most of them, including Mike Lamb and Hector Luna, didn’t even play in the majors last season. Oh well, business as usual in South Florida.

But you should have learned by now, you don’t count out the Marlins. Besides their knack for finding bargains, they have one of the game’s best young rosters, which includes NL batting champion Hanley Ramirez, ace Josh Johnson and N.L. rookie of the year Chris Coghlan.

"Our goal is to always make the playoffs," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I never look at the money thing. I always look at the player. Our people do a terrific job of getting good players."

Three questions

1. Who will man the corners?
Gonzalez said recently that if the season opened now, the Marlins would start Jorge Cantu at third base and Gaby Sanchez or Logan Morrison at first. But there is a month of exhibition games to be played, and they will determine who plays where on April 5 when the Marlins open at the Mets.

In addition to the competition at first, rookie third baseman Jorge Jimenez will get a look. Acquired via the Astros in the Rule 5 draft, Jimenez has the advantage of being a lefthanded hitter on a team lacking lefthanded hitters. If Sanchez and Morrison falter and Jimenez hits, he could end up at third with Cantu returning to first. There also is a chance the club could add a veteran, though pickings are becoming slim. (UPDATE: The Marlins sent Jimenez back to the Red Sox.)

The Marlins expect young Cameron Maybin to win the job in center field.
The Marlins expect young Cameron Maybin to win the job in center field.

2. Has Cameron Maybin’s time arrived?
One of the game’s top prospects since being drafted 10th overall by Detroit in 2005, the 22-year-old enters spring training with the center field his job to lose. He got an opportunity at the start of 2009 but struck out 31 times in his first 84 at-bats and was sent to Class AAA.

Maybin made good use of his time in the minors and displayed improved discipline and pitch recognition in a September call-up. "When we sent him to Triple-A last year, he worked on his swing," Gonzalez said. "First thing you noticed (when he returned), he wasn’t swinging at the pitches at the dirt. He showed us that he had made some improvements."

3. Will the rotation be a strength?
This is certain: The Marlins’ rotation will be young (27-year-old Ricky Nolasco is the senior member) and tall (only 6-foot Anibal Sanchez measures in at less than 6-2 among the main candidates) and will include the same cast as last season. But there is no guarantee it will meet expectations. Excluding Johnson, six Marlins made at least 10 starts last season and, among them, only Sanchez (3.87) posted a sub-4.30 ERA.

Gonzalez said Johnson, Sanchez and Nolasco have secured places in the rotation, but at least five others have a shot at the fourth and fifth spots. Gonzalez added that a season of pitching in a playoff race should pay off in 2010. "Every game was a meaningful game for our starters," Gonzalez says. "I said last year, at worst case, staying in the race like we did would be great experience for the guys. There’s no other way to experience that than doing it."

Projected lineup

1. LF Chris Coghlan. Led MLB in runs (54) and batting average (.372) after break.
2. CF Cameron Maybin. .319 average at AAA, .293 after call-up.
3. SS Hanley Ramirez. Leads NL in runs, hits since ’07.
4. 2B Dan Uggla. Averaged 31 HRs, 90 RBIs since ’07.
5. 3B Jorge Cantu. Only MLB player with 100 RBIs but fewer than 20 HRs.
6. RF Cody Ross. Just 34 BBs in 604 PAs in ’09.
7. C John Baker. Fourth-best OPS (.776) among N.L. catchers.
8. 1B Gaby Sanchez. .302/.392/.485 in 5 minor league seasons.

Projected rotation

Josh Johnson anchors the Florida rotation, but he needs more help.
Josh Johnson anchors the Florida rotation, but he needs more help.

1. RHP Josh Johnson. 209 IP in ’09; 103 IP from 2007-08.
2. RHP Ricky Nolasco. ERA shot from 3.52 to 5.06.
3. RHP Anibal Sanchez. Shoulder always a concern.
4. LHP Sean West. 4.79 ERA as rookie. (UPDATE: The Marlins optioned West to the minors.)
5. RHP Chris Volstad. Not a lock after posting 5.21 ERA.

Projected closer

RHP Leo Nunez. First-time closer was 26-of-33 in save chances.

Grades

Offense: A. Led by Ramirez, the Marlins ranked among the NL’s top five in runs, batting average and on-base percentage in 2009. Their lineup featured three players with 20-plus homers and returns virtually intact. Maybin’s development and the situation at first base are keys to further improvement.

Pitching C. The rotation is young and deep and features plenty of good arms, but it still ranked 10th in the NL with a 4.57 ERA. It is time for someone other than Johnson to emerge. The signing of Mike MacDougal, who was 20-for-21 in save chances after being traded to Washington last season, boosts an already solid bullpen. (UPDATE: The Marlins released MacDougal, who later re-signed with the Nationals.)

Bench: B. Emilio Bonifacio is as fast as anyone in the NL. and can play six positions. Wes Helms provides veteran stability and is a dangerous pinch hitter (17-for-49, .347). Jimenez could stick as a lefthanded bat off the bench. (UPDATE: The Marlins returned Jimenez to the Red Sox.)

Manager: B. The Marlins are known for overachieving, in no small part because Gonzalez knows how to put his players in position to succeed. He has had two winning seasons in his first three years with Florida, despite a payroll that annually ranks near the bottom.

Sporting News prediction: Questions about the Marlins’ rotation — coupled with improvement/better health from the Mets and a tough Braves staff — should knock Florida down a couple notches.

Coming Wednesday: Braves preview.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

The only free agents the Marlins signed during the offseason received minor league contracts. Most of them, including Mike Lamb and Hector Luna, didn’t even play in the majors last season. Oh well, business as usual in South Florida.

But you should have learned by now, you don’t count out the Marlins. Besides their knack for finding bargains, they have one of the game’s best young rosters, which includes NL batting champion Hanley Ramirez, ace Josh Johnson and N.L. rookie of the year Chris Coghlan.

"Our goal is to always make the playoffs," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I never look at the money thing. I always look at the player. Our people do a terrific job of getting good players."

Three questions

1. Who will man the corners?
Gonzalez said recently that if the season opened now, the Marlins would start Jorge Cantu at third base and Gaby Sanchez or Logan Morrison at first. But there is a month of exhibition games to be played, and they will determine who plays where on April 5 when the Marlins open at the Mets.

In addition to the competition at first, rookie third baseman Jorge Jimenez will get a look. Acquired via the Astros in the Rule 5 draft, Jimenez has the advantage of being a lefthanded hitter on a team lacking lefthanded hitters. If Sanchez and Morrison falter and Jimenez hits, he could end up at third with Cantu returning to first. There also is a chance the club could add a veteran, though pickings are becoming slim. (UPDATE: The Marlins sent Jimenez back to the Red Sox.)

The Marlins expect young Cameron Maybin to win the job in center field.
The Marlins expect young Cameron Maybin to win the job in center field.

2. Has Cameron Maybin’s time arrived?
One of the game’s top prospects since being drafted 10th overall by Detroit in 2005, the 22-year-old enters spring training with the center field his job to lose. He got an opportunity at the start of 2009 but struck out 31 times in his first 84 at-bats and was sent to Class AAA.

Maybin made good use of his time in the minors and displayed improved discipline and pitch recognition in a September call-up. "When we sent him to Triple-A last year, he worked on his swing," Gonzalez said. "First thing you noticed (when he returned), he wasn’t swinging at the pitches at the dirt. He showed us that he had made some improvements."

3. Will the rotation be a strength?
This is certain: The Marlins’ rotation will be young (27-year-old Ricky Nolasco is the senior member) and tall (only 6-foot Anibal Sanchez measures in at less than 6-2 among the main candidates) and will include the same cast as last season. But there is no guarantee it will meet expectations. Excluding Johnson, six Marlins made at least 10 starts last season and, among them, only Sanchez (3.87) posted a sub-4.30 ERA.

Gonzalez said Johnson, Sanchez and Nolasco have secured places in the rotation, but at least five others have a shot at the fourth and fifth spots. Gonzalez added that a season of pitching in a playoff race should pay off in 2010. "Every game was a meaningful game for our starters," Gonzalez says. "I said last year, at worst case, staying in the race like we did would be great experience for the guys. There’s no other way to experience that than doing it."

Projected lineup

1. LF Chris Coghlan. Led MLB in runs (54) and batting average (.372) after break.
2. CF Cameron Maybin. .319 average at AAA, .293 after call-up.
3. SS Hanley Ramirez. Leads NL in runs, hits since ’07.
4. 2B Dan Uggla. Averaged 31 HRs, 90 RBIs since ’07.
5. 3B Jorge Cantu. Only MLB player with 100 RBIs but fewer than 20 HRs.
6. RF Cody Ross. Just 34 BBs in 604 PAs in ’09.
7. C John Baker. Fourth-best OPS (.776) among N.L. catchers.
8. 1B Gaby Sanchez. .302/.392/.485 in 5 minor league seasons.

Projected rotation

Josh Johnson anchors the Florida rotation, but he needs more help.
Josh Johnson anchors the Florida rotation, but he needs more help.

1. RHP Josh Johnson. 209 IP in ’09; 103 IP from 2007-08.
2. RHP Ricky Nolasco. ERA shot from 3.52 to 5.06.
3. RHP Anibal Sanchez. Shoulder always a concern.
4. LHP Sean West. 4.79 ERA as rookie. (UPDATE: The Marlins optioned West to the minors.)
5. RHP Chris Volstad. Not a lock after posting 5.21 ERA.

Projected closer

RHP Leo Nunez. First-time closer was 26-of-33 in save chances.

Grades

Offense: A. Led by Ramirez, the Marlins ranked among the NL’s top five in runs, batting average and on-base percentage in 2009. Their lineup featured three players with 20-plus homers and returns virtually intact. Maybin’s development and the situation at first base are keys to further improvement.

Pitching C. The rotation is young and deep and features plenty of good arms, but it still ranked 10th in the NL with a 4.57 ERA. It is time for someone other than Johnson to emerge. The signing of Mike MacDougal, who was 20-for-21 in save chances after being traded to Washington last season, boosts an already solid bullpen. (UPDATE: The Marlins released MacDougal, who later re-signed with the Nationals.)

Bench: B. Emilio Bonifacio is as fast as anyone in the NL. and can play six positions. Wes Helms provides veteran stability and is a dangerous pinch hitter (17-for-49, .347). Jimenez could stick as a lefthanded bat off the bench. (UPDATE: The Marlins returned Jimenez to the Red Sox.)

Manager: B. The Marlins are known for overachieving, in no small part because Gonzalez knows how to put his players in position to succeed. He has had two winning seasons in his first three years with Florida, despite a payroll that annually ranks near the bottom.

Sporting News prediction: Questions about the Marlins’ rotation — coupled with improvement/better health from the Mets and a tough Braves staff — should knock Florida down a couple notches.

Coming Wednesday: Braves preview.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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