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April 4, 2012 at 2:45 pm ET
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2012 Marlins Preview – A First Step, Not A Giant Leap

It’s Opening Day 1.01 – The Night-Time Edition! Tonight, the ‘new look’ Miami Marlins face off against the LaRussa-less (and defending world champs) St. Louis Cardinals in a one-game series to whet the appetite of baseball fans before the real Opening Day (1.1) starts in earnest tomorrow.

Everything has seemingly changed for the Marlins. New players, new park, new manager, new duds, new playthings in the park, but all of that is really cosmetic if the end product is the same ol’ Mediocre Marlins.

While others have expressed great optimism with this new crew o’ Fish, I’m feeling about 80-85 wins and fourth place in stacked NL East. This is one baseball season where the teams will be mostly bifurcated (look it up) between the elite and the stink. Of course, I could be wildly wrong (hey, I used to be a Cubs fan before I moved away from Cubs-land and realized that I could do without the poseurs and the doomer-gloomers so I know about bad predictions) and things could break all in Miami’s direction. But I’m just not feelin’ it, yet.

ROTATION – Josh Johnson is back! Well, he’s going to start opening night! If he’s healthy, he’s someone who can be a legit ace. But I’m betting the under on 200 innings. Mark Buehrle is a solid, if unspectacular, pitcher who is a good #2 and will give you plenty of innings. My questions are about slots #3 through #5 (aside from Johnson). Does Anibel Sanchez have a shoulder owie? (He threw just 9 2/3 innings this spring!) Does Carlos Zambrano have a season’s supply of Zoloft, or will he soon be performing Santeria rites in the clubhouse? And can the Marlins trust what Ricky Nolasco will deliver game-in game-out? For me that’s three days out of five that I’m holding my breath, and then there’s the fourth day of worrying about Johnson. That’s a lot of worry.

BULLPEN – Heath Bell was brought over to be the closer, the stopper, the ace, and of course they’ll use him like a modern-day closer and not a ‘stopper’. That means a bunch of mongrels and mutts will bridge the team over from the starters to Bell. That’s all well and good, and how baseball is now, but you have to identify the right group of mongrels and mutts. Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb and Randy Choate have good recent track records, and Steve Cishek and Mike Dunn had nice seasons last year in the first long-term tests. So on paper it all looks good. But bullpens tend to crumple and fade on paper and the Marlins don’t have any real depth in the minors (besides Wade LeBlanc) if one of those relievers falter. Hold that thought…

OFFENSE – The Marlins have some potent weapons. Giancarlo Stanton will no doubt try to break out all of the window panels in the new stadium. Hanley Ramirez, if healthy and motivated, can be an MVP. However, here’s the rub – the rest of the offense can be outstanding if they duplicate their best season and not perform to their norms. If Jose Reyes goes back to a .350 OBP, that’s a problem. If Emilio Bonifacio’s 2011 was an outlier and his OBP falls by thirty points, that’s a problem. If Gaby Sanchez doesn’t increase his power, that’s a problem. If Omar Infante can’t climb back to his 2010 numbers, that’s a problem. John Buck and Logan Morrison are also question marks – they COULD be great but if they fall to their norms it won’t be good enough to be a championship contributor. I know Lo-Mo is young but he needs to keep moving forward and not take steps backwards.

The Marlins are banking on everyone having career years, and that’s not realistic. They didn’t score a lot of runs last year and improvement may be a bit out of reach unless players can establish themselves at new norms.

BENCH -I hate 12-man staffs, because it leaves a thin bench and allows for endless, mindless pitching changes. The Marlins have taken thin to the ‘ketchup in hot water’ definition. You need to have guys that can fill in at multiple positions competently and also hit a bit. Greg Dobbs had a nice bounceback year but there was a reason Jolly Chollie kept him away from the field most of the time. Austin Kearns is on that slope between ‘irrelevance’ and ‘unemployment’. Chris Coghlan still hasn’t fully recovered from his maladies, can’t really field and looks like a ROY fluke. Their best bench guys (Bryan Petersen and Scott Cousins) are in AAA.

DEFENSE – Hoo boy! The right side is terrific, with Sanchez, Infante and Stanton all good-to-outstanding fielders. The left side, though, is problematic. Hanley’s transition to third could become a laugh riot. Reyes hasn’t been a good shortstop (according to metrics) since 2008. Lo-Mo has a career dWAR of -2.2. The big question for me is if Bonifacio can play center on a regular basis. His career metrics aren’t that great and that could mean a lot of balls hit to left-center could definitely fall for extra bases. The issue is, there’s no one on the team that can help him out?  Coghlan has proven he can’t play center, and Kearns is not anyone’s vision of a CF. The left and left-center portion of this D could fluff up a feller’s ERA.

ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH – It’s…not good. Aside from LeBlanc, and Brad Hand, the other guys in the high minors are wings-and-prayers to make it. There’s a lot of retreads and ‘human interest stories’ in New Orleans (Donovan Solano the latter, Terry Tiffee the former). This team can’t handle more than one injury befalling a starter, I fear, for even a short time without serious repercussions.

MANAGEMENT – Ozzie Guillen is Ozzie. He’ll say one thing and do another. But this may be a team where can ‘really’ run and play ‘small ball’ and I wouldn’t be surprised if Muami leads the league in TOOTBLANs. But the players all seem to love him so that helps for now. The ‘baseball people’ don’t strike me as anyone I’d trust a Checkers Drive-In to, but at least they spent money this year.

So with all that (thanks for sitting through it), it looks like a good first year on the road to recovery. There won’t be any pennants this year in South Florida, but at least the team will be entertaining. Whether that’s entertainingly good or entertaining awful, we shall see.



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