MLB March Report: Miami Marlins

No team went over a bigger offseason makeover than the Florida Marlins. First off, they’re now the Miami Marlins, a welcome move for a team who struggles to represent its own city, much less the entire state. They got new logo, moved into a new stadium, got a fiery new manager in Ozzie Guillen and then got aggressive on the free-agent market. Now the excitement is brewing in South Beach and TheSportsNotebook takes a look at how Miami stacks up in the four key areas of evaluation—the ability to get on base, power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: The big free-agent acquisition was shortstop Jose Reyes, and the former New York Met will be a table-setter at the top of the lineup. Other than 2009, when he was slowed by thyroid problems and 2010 when he just had a bad year, Reyes has consistently gotten on base at levels appropriate to the leadoff role that Guillen plans to use him in here. And once on base, Reyes can cause plenty of havoc with his speed. The same can be said for centerfielder Emilio Bonifacio. He doesn’t have the track record of Reyes, but he’s coming off a breakout year in 2011 when his OBP was .360. Some of the power hitters we’re about to look at also do a good job taking their walks and not being a lineup drag when the home runs aren’t coming. The only clear liability here is catcher John Buck, and the X-factor is second baseman Omar Infante, who’s been up and down throughout his career offensively.

POWER: Mike Stanton is as a good a young star as there is in the game right now and if Miami lives up to expectations and contends, a lot more people will learn about the 22-year-old rightfielder. He hit 34 home runs last year and popped 22 the year before at age twenty. Logan Morrison is back on the opposite side of the outfield after knee surgery ended what had been a productive 2011 campaign. First baseman Gaby Sanchez hit 19 home runs and played at an MVP level for the first couple months last year, before tailing off. Sanchez needs to hit the ball in the alleys more consistently.

When we talk about X-factors, is there a bigger one in baseball than Hanley Ramirez? One of the game’s best shortstops from 2006-10, his production went by the boards last year and could no longer compensate for the issues he was having with his managers. The signing of Reyes and moving Hanley to third base might get Ramirez’ attention and perhaps Guillen can find the key to relating to his 28-year-old potential MVP. If Hanley bounces back, he does everything well. John Buck had also shown some nice power in 2009-10 in the American League, before losing it last year. Keep an eye on him to see if he can show some pop, because unlike the other players mentioned in this section, Buck is a complete liability if he’s not hitting with any pop.

STARTING PITCHING: This is another area the franchise invested in, and Mark Buehrle was persuaded to follow his manager out of the South Side and down to South Beach. Over 11 years with the Chicago White Sox, the lefthanded starter logged over 200 IP. Sometimes the ERA was very good, other times it was shaky, but most of the time it settled in consistently in the mid-3s. You can expect low 3s now that he doesn’t have to face a DH. Anibal Sanchez seems to be coming into his own after an early career where it seemed he’d throw a no-hitter one night and get blasted off the mound the next two starts. Ricky Nolasco is a decent back-end starter. His ERAs are mediocre, but he chews up innings and saves the bullpen.

Now we come to more X-factors. Josh Johnson is one of the best pitchers in the National League when he’s healthy, but the latter condition has been increasingly hard to meet. In 2010, Johnson was a runaway leader in the Cy Young race before a shoulder injury cost him the last month-plus and the award. Last year he was off to a blazing start with a 1.64 ERA in nine starts when the shoulder again sidelined him for the year. We just can’t assume he’s going to make it through a full year. If Ozzie can get 20-25 starts at his traditional levels, Miami will need to be happy. Then there’s Carlos Zambrano. The temperamental righthander finally talked his way out of the North Side of Chicago, having his worst year with the Cubs. Zambrano hasn’t had a 200-inning season since 2007 and hasn’t been close since 2008. Prior to last season his ERAs had stayed respectable and in the 3s, but this is another temperamental player with a lot to prove.  As an insurance policy for Johnson and Zambrano, the Marlins picked up Wade LeBlanc from San Diego. He’s nothing to get excited about, with a mid-4s ERA while pitching in San Diego the past few years, but he’ll get his share of starts and will at least chew up some innings.

RELIEF PITCHING: More free-agent spending came here, with the Marlins landing San Diego closer Heath Bell, one of the National League’s best, and the rest of the bullpen is solid. There’s some question about former closer and presumed setup man Leo Nunez, who has changed his named to Juan Oviedo (I guess it’s better than Metta World Peace). If Oviedo is able to get the necessary papers to leave the Dominican Republic he can hold down the 8th inning. If he can’t, or his legal issues become more trouble than their worth, Guillen has plenty of candidates for relief work. Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb, Steve Chisek, Edward Mujica and Randy Choate all pitched well in 2011.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 84.5—Miami is a bargain bet at 84.5. I think that’s the low end for this team. Even if Johnson can’t pitch and Zambrano can’t screw his head on straight, the other improvements and the quality of the bullpen are enough to put this team on the plus side of .500, and if they do that, they can probably get 85 wins. And there’s room for getting up around 90 if things go well. Miami is a playoff contender and I’d definitely take the Over in this spot.