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April 22, 2009

On the Beat

Reeling in the Marlins

by John Perrotto

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The Marlins were considered an afterthought in the National League East when the season began. No one doubted that the Marlins would do what they normally do, scrapping and overachieving despite tight-fisted owner Jeffrey Loria saddling them with the lowest payroll in the major leagues at $36 million, and it seemed somewhat far-fetched to think that the Marlins could contend in a division that includes the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Mets with their revamped bullpen, and the Atlanta Braves with their new-look starting rotation.

While just over two weeks of action represents a meaninglessly small sample from a single season, it's large enough for the Marlins, who believe that they can win their first division title in franchise history. (Such is the oddity of modern baseball: the Marlins have won two World Series titles since making their debut as an expansion team in 1993, but both came after they had qualified for the postseason as the Wild Card.) The Marlins don't think that there is nothing unusual about their 11-3 record, the best in the major leagues. The fast start has given them reason to believe they coud be playing meaningful games deep into September.

"We respect the Phillies and the Mets and the Braves," Marlins outfielder Jeremy Hermida said. "They deserve to be mentioned as the favorites in this division, because they've done it before and we haven't. That being said, we believe we can play with anyone in our division. We feel like we can contend. You don't expect to start off the way we did, I don't think anybody thinks you're going to go 11-1 to start a season [before losing to the Pirates on Monday and Tuesday]. At the same time, it's not a total surprise. We believe we have a good team, and that we're going to show over the course of the season and not just for a couple of weeks. We're not some kind of fluke."

The Marlins are fifth in the majors in runs scored per game with an average of 5.9, and sixth in runs allowed with a 4.1 average. "What I like about the way we've played is that everybody has shared the duty," Hermida said. "It hasn't been one guy carrying us, or the just the offense, or the pitching staff. It's everybody doing their part, and that's what we have to do. We don't have many superstars, so we all need to pitch in."

Even if the Marlins did have a batch of superstars, who would notice? No one goes to their games in South Florida, which is understandable since they play in a football stadium and rarely make a national television appearance. While shortstop Hanley Ramirez finished second in the major leagues in VORP last season behind Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, the highest-ranking Marlins player on that list so far in 2009 is first baseman Jorge Cantu, whose 4.9 is 61st.

While the Marlins feel that their offense will generate enough runs, they also realize that their chances of remaining atop the NL East rests with their young starting rotation, with right-hander Ricky Nolasco being the elder statesman at 26 in a unit stocked with such talents as Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, and Anibal Sanchez. Johnson had Tommy John surgery on his elbow, and Sanchez underwent shoulder surgery during the 2007 season and did not return until last July.

Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez believes that this year's fast start actually began with the return of both pitchers. "Having those guys come back last season and prove they were healthy gave both of them a big lift coming into this season," Gonzalez said "They are both on top of their games now. When you add them to the pitchers we already had, it makes for a good rotation. We're an organization that prides ourselves on developing or acquiring good young pitching, and ultimately how well we do this season is going to be determined in large part by how our starters do. I have a lot of faith in our rotation. They may be young, but they're good pitchers, and I feel we have a good chance to win every night because of them."

While some sabermetricians might downplay the concept of karma helping a team to win, the Marlins can't help but wonder if perhaps this is their year just based on what happened last weekend against the Nationals in Washington; they became the first team in major league history to sweep a three-game series in which they trailed in the final at-bat of each game. "I think you put something like that away, and count on it when times get tough," Gonzalez said. "As well as we've played early this season, there is going to be that stretch where we lose five or six games in a row. It's inevitable. It happens to even the best of teams. When we hit that streak, though, we can think back to the weekend in Washington, and that will give everybody a little boost of confidence. We'll know that, regardless of how bad things might become, they can always change for the better very quickly."

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Twenty-one home runs have been hit in the first five games played at the new Yankee Stadium. The House That George Built has looked like a launching pad in the very early going, as no other stadium in major league history has ever had more homers hit in the first five games (Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park yielded 20 in 2003). "It's definitely playing short," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told John Harper of the New York Daily News. "We're trying to get our arms around the reason for it."

Accuweather.com meteorologists told the Daily News that home runs are most likely to be hit when the wind is blowing from the west at 10 mph or more, and those conditions usually occur in the Bronx in the spring and fall. It stands to reason that if that projection holds, home runs should begin to tail off around one-third of the way through the season.

If that's the case, then Yankees manager Joe Girardi believes that the new Yankee Stadium will play much like Wrigley Field in its wind-driven seasonality, the park he called home from 1989-92 and 2000-02 as a catcher for the Cubs. "You managed there differently in April and May than you did in July and August," Girardi said. "That's why I think we should wait and see before we determine exactly how this stadium is going to play."

Indians reliever Jensen Lewis doesn't need any convincing after serving up the game-winning home run to Yankees catcher Jorge Posada last Sunday. "I thought it was a routine pop fly," said Lewis. "In any other ballpark in the country it's an out, but here it gets into that jet stream and it's out. I don't think the numbers lie. You see all these balls flying out of here."

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Rangers manager Ron Washington's days have seemed to be numbered ever since Nolan Ryan became club president prior to last season, but Ryan made it clear this week that Washington's job is not in danger, and he has not considered switching skippers. "That's only through the media," Ryan told Anthony Andro of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "That's something you'll have fabricated. There have been no discussions or anything about that among the front-office staff. When I hear people come up and ask me about that, it has to come from somewhere."

The Rangers are 6-7 this year after going a combined 154-170 in Washington's first two seasons. "I think Ron's fine," said general manager Jon Daniels. "I don't see anything that concerns me. I think he's done a good job. We've had some well-pitched games where we didn't hit and score any runs. Then we had some games where we had a breakdown once we went to the bullpen, or the starting pitching didn't give us what we wanted as far as innings. As a whole, I'm pretty happy with where we are. We're in a good state of mind."

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The Cubs/Cardinals rivalry may not generate the same level of attention from the national media that the Yankees and Red Sox do, but it is always contentious, and the heat was turned up a notch when the teams played last weekend. Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee questioned whether Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright had received the benefit of the doubt from umpire Larry Vanover on a called third strike to the Cubs' Milton Bradley, who became so enraged during his argument that he wound up receiving a two-game suspension from Major League Baseball.

Lee's suggestion that the Cardinals were getting help from the umpires did not sit well with St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, who said, "I don't how the Cubs get away with the comments they make about umpires."

Cubs manager Lou Piniella grew up with La Russa in Tampa, and he laughed off his old pal's remarks. "Tony's a good friend and a heck of a manager, but he is not the commissioner," Piniella told Dave Van Dyck of the Chicago Tribune. "Not yet, anyway."

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Major League Rumors and Rumblings: There doesn't appear to be anything to the rumors that the White Sox might bring Aaron Rowand back to play center field in a trade with the Giants, but there is growing sentiment within the organization to move shortstop Alexei Ramirez to center and call up shortstop Gordon Beckham from Double-A Birmingham. ... The Athletics continue to have interest in free-agent pitcher Mark Mulder, and the Dodgers and Nationals are also considering him. ... The Diamondbacks have offered a front-office job to former outfielder Luis Gonzalez, who spent last season with the Marlins, but he has put them on hold because he's still hoping to sign with someone as a free agent. ... Pedro Martinez continues to sit on the free-agent market and wait for a call from a pitching-needy team.

---

Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups:

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Marlins,  The Call-up,  Marlins Park

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