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Friday, February 18, 2011

MLB Countdown: Florida Marlins

For a team with loads of young talent, 80 wins in 2010 and 2 World Championships in the last 13 years, it's a wonder the Florida Marlins dropped so far down our Team Preview Draft.

It may be the same reason they average around 13,000 fans per home game.

By all accounts, the Marlins have a lot to be excited about: a legitimate Ace pitcher, a Rookie of Year finalist at first base and one of the best shortstops in baseball. But in spite of it all, it's still hard to get excited about the Florida Marlins.

The image I associate with the Marlins is the sea of orange, empty seats you see on Spotscenter whenever someone hits a home run in Miami. And there's always that one kid running around in the bleachers trying to get the ball.
This is an actual crowd at a Major League Baseball game

I suppose that just professional sports in Florida. None of the pro teams in the state have a devout following -- the Marlins, Rays, Dolphins, various other marine creatures. It's the result of the entire state being one big retirement/relocation haven. Too few people in Florida are from Florida, thus their sports allegiances, assuming they have them, lie with their native land. It'd be like moving to the Mars and expecting to all of a sudden cheer for Martians to destroy Earth.  But I digress -- our topic is the burgeoning Florida Marlins, not sports apathy on Mars.

The Marlins finished the 2010 season at 80-82. While they were under .500, they remained in the playoff hunt longer than most clubs and finished 3rd in the NL East behind two playoff teams in the Phillies and Braves.

The Marlins strength is their youth. First baseman Gaby Sanchez was a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate and looks to improve on an impressive first full season that featured 19 HRs and 85 RBI. Mike Stanton in Right Field is yet another first year Fish who hit 19+ HRs. Logan Morrison, while significantly less proven, also shows some promise on the other side of the outfield. Hanley Ramirez, as we know, is a gem of a talent, albeit with some concerns about his attitude. All he does is hit .300, 20 HR and 75 RBI just about every year.

But like most teams contending in the baseball today, the Marlins strength appears to be their pitching. Their rotation is anchored by one of the most under-the-radar arms in baseball in Josh Johnson. He gained significant notoriety last season for sporting an ERA under 2.00 for much of the season. He had a few bad outings late in the year which derailed his Cy Young bid, but he finished the year 11-6 with a 2.30. 11 wins might not sound like much, but it's 7 more than Felix Hernandez had, and he won the Cy Young! Behind Johnson are youngsters Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez. Neither have been dominant, but both show potential to be solid #3 starters.

For a team barely mentioned between November and February, the Marlins had a pretty active off-season. They traded away their best player in Dan Uggla (to a division rival no less), but the trade was likely a good move. Assuming he continues to hit the crap out of the ball and wear his jersey sleeves a little too far up, Uggla was due a large payday which the Marlins likely did not want to give. In return, they got Omar Infante, an "All-Star" second baseman who hit .321 last year. They also signed Starting Pitcher Javier Vasquez, who may be the Marlins biggest X-factor. Vasquez struggled with the Yankees in 2010, but he has historically pitched much better in the NL, sporting an ERA almost 0.6 lower than his time in the AL. The Marlins biggest off-season acquisition however may have come in the form of several relief pitchers. They retrofitted their bullpen, the bane of their existence in 2010, by adding Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb and Randy Choate. A stronger bullpen will no doubt help preserve the leads that Johnson and Co. give the Fish after the 6th inning.

It's funny, if team that featured Josh Johnson, Gaby Sanchez, Omar Infante, Hanley Ramirez and Mike Stanton played in Chicago, Atlanta or even Cincinnati, it would likely be garnering a whole lot more attention. Should this team start winning games, it will likely draw a bit more press, but still nowhere near as much as even a struggling Cubs team. Alas, thus is the curse of the Orange.

The 2011 Flordia Marlins:
C John Buck
1B Gaby Sanchez
2B Omar Infante
SS Hanley Ramirez
3B Wes Helms
LF Logan Morrison
CF Chris Coughlan
RF Mike Stanton
SP Josh Johnson
SP Javier Vazquez
SP Ricky Nolasco
SP Chris Volstad
SP Anibal Sanchez
CL Leo Nunez

Best Case Scenario:
Behind a Cy Young caliber season from Josh Johnson, Javier Vazquez enjoys a rebirth, going 17-8 with a 3.00 ERA. Gaby Sanchez follows a brilliant rookie campaign with an even more impressive sophomore season, belting 30HR and 90RBI. Mike Stanton, Coughlin and Morrison each hit 20+ HR and become one of the more balanced outfields in the National League. Hanley Ramirez runs occasionally.

The Fish fly under the radar until the final two months of the season when they make a late season surge with the help of recently acquired Michael Young. With the Phillies having locked down the division in August, the Marlins set their sights on the Wild Card. Battling the Reds and Rockies for the fourth and final playoff spot, the Marlins come into the last day of the year needing a win to clinch the Wild Card. Behind Josh Johnson's complete game 3 hitter, the Marlins beat the Braves and win the NL Wild Card. In the playoffs, the Marlins pack Sun Life Stadium for their first round playoff series, but are ousted by the San Francisco Giants, who go on to repeat as World Champs. Nonetheless, the Marlins enjoy a taste of the postseason and set their sights on returning.

Worst Case Scenario:
Behind a torrid April from Ramirez, Sanchez and Stanton, the Marlins race out to a 30-10 record. Only two games behind the Phillies at the All-Star Break, they make a trade for Aaron Rowand to replace an injured Chris Coughlan in CF. The Marlins great baseball goes largely unnoticed until the people of Miami realize A. they have a baseball team B. they are good and C. LeBron James is now their starting Left Fielder.

Fed up with the NBA drama and looming lockout, LeBron signs a one-year contract with the Fish, boosting attendance 200% to 11,000 (half of which are in the press box). The Marlins embrace LeBron-mania, mowing an image of LeBron's "Powder Toss" into the outfield grass. Asked about the Marlins continued lack of attendance, LeBron responds, "It's cool. I'm used to playing in front of empty seats at home."

With LeBron somehow murdering the ball despite having never played professional baseball, the Marlins enter the final day of the season needing one win to clinch a Wild Card birth. Their opponent, the San Francisco Giants, already NL West Champs. Down one run in the bottom of the 9th, Hanley Ramirez smacks a two-out base hit. Mike Stanton then doubles, putting runners at 2nd and 3rd with two outs. LeBron then comes to bat amid a frenzied, sold-out crowd in Miami. James lofts a high, routine fly ball to Cody Ross in Right Field. In a seeming act of martyrdom to honor his old Florida home, Ross lets the ball drop to bring home the tieing and winning runs. Sun Life Stadium erupts in ecstasy for a full 5 minutes before realizing that Hanley Ramirez, having assumed the ball would be caught, had walked off the field and was in the dugout by the time the ball hit the ground. Ramirez is ruled out for leaving the base path. The game and season are over.

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