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April 6, 2011

Painting the Black

Looking Up in South Florida

by R.J. Anderson

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In the world of fantasy baseball, stars and scrubs is a viable fantasy strategy in auction leagues. Take a large chunk of the dollars you have and allocate them toward the league’s finest, then use the remainder of your cash to fill out your roster as best as possible. In real baseball, this strategy falls apart. There has to be some level of complementary talents for the team to win. The most recent example might be the Mariners, who had Ichiro and Felix Hernandez, but finished with the league’s second-worst record in 2010.

The Marlins certainly have the star portion down. Hanley Ramirez is arguably the best shortstop in baseball and one of the game’s best players overall. Josh Johnson shares a similar distinction for starting pitchers. It’s hard to find too many teams who have better one-two punches in star and performance value than the group assembled in South Florida. Where the Fish stood to improve heading into the offseason was the rest of their roster, and despite trading Dan Uggla, they did just that.

Some of the improvement comes from within. Florida outfielders hit .260/.329/.410 last season, anchored by disappointing seasons from Cody Ross, Cameron Maybin, and Chris Coghlan. Only one of those remains in the fold, as Coghlan shifts to center while 23-year-old Logan Morrison and 21-year-old Michael Stanton flank him. Using a player’s rookie season as the baseline for his true talent level is a mistake made far too often in baseball analysis, and given their solid debuts, Morrison and Stanton could experience narratives based on the sophomore slump.

Thankfully, there are projection systems like PECOTA to help curb unchecked optimism coming off fantastic rookie seasons. Despite being younger than Morrison, Stanton’s stats fare better, as his power really plays up over a full season. Stanton’s weighted mean includes 34 home runs, and even his 10th percentile projection—the worst-case scenario—includes 28 homers (for the curious, his 90th percentile has him at 42 long ones). The best tweeter in the big leagues, Morrison, is still projected for a season with more than two Wins Above Replacement Player.

As for Coghlan, his 2010 season is probably the weirdest on the roster—and remember, Javier Vazquez is on this team. Coghlan had 20 extra-base hits in 123 June plate appearances, but had eight in his other 277 trips to the plate before tearing his meniscus. Coghlan has played left field, second base, and third in the majors, but hasn’t appeared in center. Recovering from a knee injury and taking on a more difficult position at the same time cannot be easy to juggle, so it will be hard to blame Coghlan should he endure a lengthier learning curve than other new center fielders.

The Marlins could have asked Coghlan to shift back to third base, but top prospect Matt Dominguez will take over at some point this year, assuming his recently fractured elbow doesn't ruin his season. In the interim, Donnie Murphy surpassed Jack Hannahan as the least likely former Athletic to start on Opening Day 2011. While Dominguez can really field the position, Murphy is the safer bet to hit, if not the better hitter.

The rest of the Marlins’ starting lineup features players who had career years in 2010. John Buck may not walk, but he can launch bombs. Gaby Sanchez hit well enough to change Morrison’s position. And then there’s Omar Infante. As backward as it sounds, Infante’s All-Star selection actually undermines his ability. The selection has made him into a joke, which is unfortunate as he proved a valuable sub to the Braves and should be an okay starter at second base for the Marlins, even if he’s not going to replace Uggla all by his lonesome.

The Marlins left the rotation alone for the most part, only adding Vazquez, who spent 2010 in relative obscurity tending farmland in the Midwest—at least, that’s where his new identity (courtesy of the Witness Protection program) spent the year.  It’s difficult to get a feel for what Vazquez will do this season, but the Marlins have enough starting pitching in their rotation to take the gamble. Only Chris Volstad had a SIERA over 4.10 last season, while Anibal Sanchez (who finally stayed healthy) and Ricky Nolasco (who actually got hurt for the first time in years) had SIERAs of 4.08 and 3.33, respectively.  Health and hittability are always questions with those two, but the Marlins have some depth with Alex Sanabia and possibly Brad Hand should injury or ineffectiveness strike (or if the Marlins attempt to cash in on the starting pitcher trade market to fill another need).

The real retooling came in the bullpen. The Fish had the eighth-worst pen ERA in the National League last season and the second-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio. Only Leo Nunez, Clay Hensley, and Brian Sanchez remain, as Randy Choate (free agency), Mike Dunn (Uggla trade), Ryan Webb, and Edward Mujica (Cameron Maybin trade) join the ranks. PECOTA sees the back end of the bullpen regressing a bit, but the depth and upside appears better in 2011 than it was for most of 2010.

2010 Pitcher

2010 ERA

2011 Pitcher

2011 ERA (Projected)

Leo Nunez

3.46

Leo Nunez

4.06

Clay Hensley

2.16

Clay Hensley

4.66

Brian Sanches

2.26

Brian Sanches

3.89

Burke Badenhop

3.99

Randy Choate

4.21

Jose Veras

3.75

Ryan Webb

5.43

Taylor Tankersley

7.50

Edward Mujica

3.93

Tim Wood

5.53

Mike Dunn

5.02

It’s a different-looking tea, and it’s one that has considerable upside and youth. In the Marlins’ Team Injury Protection, Corey Dawkins and Marc Normandin wrote that younger players are less likely to suffer from aches and bruises, but more likely to blow out elbows and knees. It’s a curious tradeoff, but one that could pay dividends for the young Fish. If the Braves encounter the injury bug, as they did down the stretch last season, or if the Phillies continue on that path, it’s not an impossible thought to see the Marlins top one in the standings and head into the tournament. As of now, our postseason odds simulation has the Marlins with a 26 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. Anything can happen over the course of a 162-game season. The Marlins have shown us that in the past, and they may remind us again in 2011. 

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

Related Content:  Logan Morrison,  The Who,  Clay Hensley,  Chris Coghlan

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