There is a lot to like about the Florida Marlins who are loaded with young talent. But is it enough to push them above the .500 mark they narrowly missed in 2010 and make them a contender for an NL wild card in 2011?
The cold, hard fact is the NL East is the Philadelphia Phillies' to lose. A stacked rotation gives Philly a huge upper hand over the rest of the division, meaning the rest of the division is essentially playing for a wild card slot, either that or hoping that at least two of the Phils' Big 4 in the rotation succumbs to injury.
A drop from 87 wins in 2009 to 80 last season led to some major changes to the team. Fredi Gonzalez was jettisoned from the dugout's top step midseason, with the interim label removed from Edwin Rodriguez' title after leading the team to a 46-46 record following his installment as manager.
The club has replaced half of its starting infield from 2010, trading second baseman Dan Uggla to the Braves and losing third sacker Jorge Cantu to free agency. There will also be new faces in left, center and behind the plate, as well as in the rotation and bullpen.
Change is not always a bad thing, but expecting so many new pieces to come together right away is probably asking too much.
New kids on the block
Shortstop Hanley Ramirez might be the only recognizable name and face among the position players for casual fans. He turned 27 during the offseason and is coming off a fourth consecutive season hitting at least .300. But he was also in the doghouse a lot for former manager Gonzalez over a perceived lack of effort.
Ramirez knows his first baseman very well, with Gaby Sanchez putting up solid rookie numbers in 151 games (19 HR, .273 AVG, 85 RBI).
Omar Infante, over from Atlanta in the Uggla deal, is penciled in at second, and should provide the Fish with a solid stick, though one that lacks much power or speed on the bases. Third base is a real mystery, and the reason why Infante is not the set second baseman quite yet. The club will give minor leaguer Matt Dominguez the chance to win the job at the hot corner this spring. If he can't cut it, then it could go to Infante, Wes Helms or Emilio Bonifacio. If Infante is the man most of the time, then Bonifacio will be at second.
Florida started last season with an outfield trio of Chris Coghlan in left, Cameron Maybin in center and Cody Ross in right. None of that trio will be in those positions this Opening Day. Coghlan is expected to take over in center, slugger Mike Stanton will be in right and Logan Morrison is in left.
Coghlan's shift to center will be on-the-job-training during the spring. Stanton comes off a 22-HR rookie campaign, and the 20-year-old will now be asked to contribute extra pop in the lineup hole left by Uggla. Morrison is a gap-hitter that should develop power, but even without the long ball in his repertoire remains an on-base machine.
The Marlins inked John Buck to take over behind the plate and also provide some pop following his 20-HR season for the Blue Jays in 2010.
Johnson anchors pitching staff
The National League ERA leader in 2010 with a 2.30 mark, Josh Johnson is set as the ace of the rotation. An imposing figure on the hill at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, Florida will need at least 32 starts from his right arm if there's any hope for a postseason berth.
Behind Johnson are four more right-handers, including veteran Javier Vazquez who returns to the NL after a disastrous season in the Yankees rotation. Vazquez knows the NL East well having spent his early years with the old Expos and a superb 2009 campaign with the Braves when he won 15 games and sported a career-best 2.87 ERA.
Ricky Nolasco, Chris Volstad and the oft-injured Anibal Sanchez round out the rotation heading into camp. Sanchez actually shook his injury trouble in 2010 to lead the Marlins with 32 starts and 195 innings.
Leo Nuñez returns as the clubs closer, despite some shaky stretches last season. Clay Hensley is back as his primary setup arm following his outstanding '10 that included a 2.16 ERA, 77 strikeouts in 75 frames and a 1.10 WHIP. Brian Sanches has proven to be a solid 7th-8th inning arm as well, and the club picked up three new relievers in separate deals, adding Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica from the Padres in the Maybin trade and left-hander Mike Dunn as another piece in return from Atlanta for Uggla.
2011 schedule includes AL West interleague matchups
One thing I always alert MLB futures bettors on is to look at the schedules of the teams they're planning to wager. Florida's 2011 slate will include an extra trip to the West Coast for interleague games against Oakland, plus they battle AL Champions Texas in the Lone Star State.
The Marlins' remaining interleague schedule includes a home-&-home series with the Rays, plus three-game home matchups with the Angels and Mariners.
Outside of their 72 games against NL East rivals, the Marlins will play the NL Central 40 times and the NL West 32 times. Florida will host the Cubs for two games while playing four at Wrigley Field.
A team in transition
Florida is in a transition season both on its roster and on the diamond as the Marlins prepare to move from Sun Life/Landshark/Pro Player/Joe Robbie Stadium to their new digs in 2012 when the team will also switch to being known as the Miami Marlins. The as-yet-to-be-named new ballpark in the Little Havana area of Miami will be nearly half the size as the current stadium (roughly 37,000 seats compared to 68,000) and include a retractable roof.
Season win totals are still under wraps, with the only futures out right now listing Florida 40/1 (at Bodog) and 45/1 (at TheGreek.com) to win the World Series.
My simulation runs the past couple of weeks had the Marlins averaging 79.4 wins this season based on their current roster. I see them a little higher than that, assuming the starting rotation can stay relatively healthy. Put me down for Florida to finish with 81-82 wins, battling the Mets for third in the NL East.