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2012 National League East Preview: Miami Marlins

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The Miami Marlins blew away the baseball world during the offseason with an attitude (and wallet depth) that we’ve never seen before, but big changes probably should’ve been expected before the season even ended. With the announcement in late September that boisterous former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen would be taking the helm in South Beach, the Marlins showed that they were ready to command the sport’s attention. And with a shiny new ballpark, plus the short-term burst of attention that often accompanies that, Miami showed a clear awareness that this is their chance to matter in a city that already has big-time football and arguably the best team in basketball.

And yet the only way that the Marlins will really have any staying power in that area is by winning some baseball games. Well, more like winning a lot of games. It’s easy to forget that this organization has won more World Series titles than any team other than the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and St. Louis Cardinals over the past 15 years, though, so fielding a successful team in Miami shouldn’t be considered an impossible task. In a division that includes three other teams that could be quite good, and the Mets, we’re not talking about a cakewalk, but we’re talking about a team that could be boasting an awful lot of really good players by the end of the season. And in a world where ten baseball teams make the playoffs, it’s crazier to think that the Marlins don’t have a chance than it is to think that they could have more World Series victories since 1917 than Boston come winter.

Miami’s $100 Million Athletes: LeBron, Wade, Bosh… and Jose Reyes.

New Marlins shortstop Jose Reyes doesn’t have the biggest contract ever handed out to a Miami athlete. He’s not even in the top three. Those gentlemen would be basketball luminaries LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, who you’ve probably heard of by now. But the numbers are close enough that you can squint away the difference. In a city that was probably near ready to just let the Marlins go away, Reyes is the keystone of an effort to matter again. It all starts with the very expensive, very talented shortstop.

Coming into the offseason, the Marlins already had a shortstop that was better than yours. Probably, at least. But that shortstop also happened to be an occasionally sloppy fielder and a reputed lazy player that just lived through the worst season of his career. Even so, Hanley Ramirez wasn’t going to be changing positions any time soon unless the world gave him a mighty good reason to do so. Then the Marlins managed to wrangle Reyes. For a while, we couldn’t tell whether Hanley was amenable to sliding over to third base. He is now, though, and considering how good Ramirez and Reyes have been at their best, few teams have more upside on the left side of the infield.

Mark Buehrle Is Here, But Josh Johnson Is Still The Key

Adding former White Sox starter Mark Buehrle definitely helps the Marlins. He’s familiar with Ozzie, which presumably helps, but more importantly he’s a ridiculously durable lefty that can eat innings at a slightly above-average level. At a time when many teams struggle to find even a few pitchers that can regularly make 30-plus starts, his reliability has major value. But Buehrle, who turns 33 in a few weeks, isn’t a frontline starter, and ultimately he won’t be Miami’s most important pitcher. That honor goes to Josh Johnson.

Supremely talented but plagued by injuries, Johnson pitches like an ace when he can take the mound but doesn’t take it frequently enough to deserve the label. His 2.98 ERA reflects the stuff of a top pitcher, but the 2.14 ERA he’s posted in 244 innings over the past two years is the stuff of a truly dominant player. Since breaking into the league for good in 2006, Johnson has made 20-plus starts just three times and 30-plus starts just once, so if the Marlins want to be a force all season, Johnson at full strength is be a must.

One Goes By Giancarlo Now. We Call The Other LoMo.

Coming into 2012, we were expecting huge things from Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton. Not anymore, though. Now, it’s Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton that’s got everyone buzzing. Between him and fellow outfielder Logan Morrison, known well to many as LoMo, Miami has two hitters that could potentially shape a dominant middle of the order. Mostly, it starts with the 21-year-old Stanton. In his 150 games for the Marlins as a 21-year-old, Stanton hit 34 home runs. Here’s a list of players that have hit 30 or more homers in a season at the age of 21 or younger in the past 20 years:

Albert Pujols
Alex Rodriguez
Miguel Cabrera
Andrew Jones

That’s it. You have two guys that are essentially locks for the Hall of Fame, another guy that’s well on his way, and a fourth guy that probably deserves more Hall consideration than he’s gotten so far. The ability to hit for this kind of power in the majors at such a young age is beyond rare, which speaks to the fact that the Marlins have a special player on their hands.

None of this should be a slight to Morrison, though, who could be an exceptional hitter in his own right. Hardly anyone has Stanton’s power, but Morrison has solid pop in his bat even for a corner outfielder, and there’s some legitimate hitting ability there. Getting healthy, productive seasons in 2012 from these two could be absolutely huge for the Marlins. Toss in Reyes and Ramirez, not to mention first baseman Gaby Sanchez, and you have the makings of a pretty fancy lineup.

So, How’s It Going To Go?

Really, I think I’ve covered the guys that are really going to shape how successful this season is for the Marlins. Obviously, there are going to be a whole bunch of other players that determine numerous wins and losses for Miami, but the players that can ultimately push the team to the top are Reyes, Ramirez, Johnson, Stanton, and Morrison. All five are capable of being top-level performers, but all five also carry question marks that make the likelihood of such performance something short of a certainty. Considering how good the rest of the division is likely to be, the Marlins are going to need their best players to be playing at their best. That’s far from a sure thing, but at least the pieces are in place, and if things do end up going right this season, they know that everyone will be watching while it happens.