Five For Five: A Mets/Marlins Series Preview With Michael Jong of Fishstripes

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 06: A general view of the new Marlins Ballpark shot throught a fishtank behind home plate during a game between the Miami Marlins and the University of Miami Hurricanes at Marlins Park on March 6, 2012 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The Mets are making their first trip to Miami tonight and that means that it's time for another edition of Amazin' Avenue's Five For Five series preview! Coming off of a series sweep of the Phillies, the Mets get their first look at the brand new lime green walls of Marlins Park. The Marlins currently sit at 16-15, in fourth place in the NL East, and are three games behind the first place Nationals. They have been hot recently, however, winning nine of their last twelve games. I spoke with Michael Jong of SB Nation's Marlins blog "Fishstripes" and here's what he had to say about the team coming into this series:
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SS: Heath Bell has been demoted as Marlins’ closer after a dreadful first month in Miami. Has the team made public what Bell's role will be in the interim and how long he'll be kept out of save situations? Who are the likely candidates to close games in the meantime? Aside from Bell, how has the rest of the pen looked so far?

MJ: Bell right now will serve in sixth or seventh inning, low-leverage situations designed to give him room to work out his problems. If indeed his issues are mechanical, the Marlins want to afford him as much time as possible for him and pitching coach Randy St. Claire to work out those issues and get him back into form. If he begins to perform well in those situations, manager Ozzie Guillen has made it clear that Bell will return to the closer role. For the time being, however, Steve Cishek will be the first man in line for save opportunities. Cishek has been magnificent to start the year, and the Marlins have begun to trust him more and more with these late-inning opportunities. As a result, the Fish will turn to him before looking at other options.

The rest of the pen has been mediocre, but not as good as last season. Edward Mujica has pitched worse as the eighth inning setup man, but he has brought his ERA down at least despite weaker peripherals. Randy Choate is still getting lefties out. Mike Dunn started the season with the team, but struggled his way into Triple-A. The rest of the bullpen has been shuffled as well as a result of Bell's demotion.

SS: We talked about Josh Johnson in our last Q&A but save for his start against the Mets, he’s still getting hit around the park. His strikeout rate has improved but opponents are ripping line drives against him at a near 30% clip. Having seen him pitch more than we have, has he been hit around as badly as the 6.61 ERA and .359 opponent batting average suggest or would you classify this as more of a fluke, considering the extremely high BABIP and lower than normal Left On Base Percentage?

MJ: At this point, all we can consider for Johnson is that he is having a fluky season of BABIP and left on base problems thus far. As we mentioned last time, his velocity is down almost 1.5 mph from his normal of 94 mph from the last few seasons. The Marlins did work out a previous kink in his system which has led to better starts (witness his duel versus Johan Santana in the first game of the last Marlins / Mets series). But as you mentioned, he is still struggling with hits on balls in play. Given that a number of those hits were pretty weak on visual examination, I am still leaning towards "fluke," but the Marlins need for him to regress quickly so that they can remain competitive.

SS: The rest of the Marlins’ starting rotation has gotten off to a strong start and they’re led by the excellent pitching of the perpetually underrated Anibal Sanchez. The righty has a career best strikeout rate of 28.1% and an excellent 2.20 FIP through his first six starts. What has Sanchez done so far this season to help get himself to the next level?

MJ: Interestingly enough, there is not a whole of difference between the Sanchez of now and the Sanchez of old. Despite a career-high strikeout rate, Sanchez is getting the same number of whiffs this season as he did last year (10.1 percent swinging strikes in 2012 versus 10.9 in 2011). The results right now are likely in part due to Sanchez's impressive 14-strikeout game versus the Arizona Diamondbacks, which at this point holds a large percentage of his current performance. Having said that, he has shown better control and more ability to pound the strike zone with his stuff, so it should lead to continued improved numbers. This is also the second straight season that Sanchez has performed well without the aid of abnormally low home run totals, as his xFIP and SIERA are still impressive.

SS: Defensive metrics are iffy in small sample sizes, to say the least, but with that in mind, Defensive Runs Saved has not liked the left side of the Marlins’ infield at all. Hanley Ramirez currently sits at -5 runs, while Jose Reyes is at -8. We know Hanley at third base is a work in progress but Reyes was typically a league average-ish fielder with the Mets. To your eyes, how have they both looked in the field?

MJ: Reyes has more errors than usual thus far this season, but he has otherwise looked solid. It has not been evident that he has done significantly worse aside from the errors. Hanley Ramirez had some early season miscues, but has otherwise handled third base fairly well. If I had to estimate their true talent in defensive runs, I would say that Reyes is about an average shortstop and that Ramirez will be, by the end of the season, a run or two below league average at third base. What may be more concerning is the sudden drop in effectiveness of Giancarlo Stanton, who has always been viewed well by various defensive metrics but who has struggled making proper reads and fundamental decisions on the field in 2012.

SS: Did you ever think you’d live to see the day where Omar Infante led a team in slugging into early May? This is a team that boasts Giancarlo Stanton and Hanley Ramirez in its starting lineup and Infante, who doesn't fit the prototypical slugger mold, has a ridiculous .330 Isolated Slugging! Is any of this power surge for real or did he just get hot and hit a couple of wall-scrapers?

MJ: All of Infante's home runs have been line drives or low-flying fly balls that have gotten out of the park at decent distances, so it is not as if he is just getting by with those shots. But to expect him to continue mashing homers would be silly, as he has never displayed this kind of prowess before. He is hitting homers on 15 percent of his fly balls, which is unheard of for him. Having said that, he has also been hitting more fly balls, which has helped to launch some extra balls deep. Still, Infante's best chances are to hit fewer fly balls and more balls on a line or on the ground, as he does not have the power to sustain hitting balls over the wall at this pace.

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Many thanks once again to Michael Jong of Fishstripes for taking the time to answer our questions! You can catch all of the action between the Mets and Marlins tonight at 7:10 PM on SNY. The pitching matchup should be a good one, as Johan Santana takes on Mark Buehrle.

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