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When Josh Johnson takes the mound tonight and throws the first stateside pitch of the 2012 regular season, he will be making his third consecutive appearance as the Marlins’ Opening Day starter. The difference is that, for the first time in those three seasons, Johnson’s team projects to be a contender.

The 28-year-old Johnson had his 2011 campaign cut short by a shoulder injury after just nine starts and watched the Marlins sink to a last-place finish in the NL East at 72-90—five games behind the fourth-place Mets and 30 games behind the division-champion Phillies. But the tide has turned, and PECOTA sees a level playing field likely to result in a three-horse race between the Phillies, Marlins, and Braves for the top spot.

More than any other player in the division, Johnson could be the X-factor that determines the eventual champion. The Marlins bolstered their lineup with Jose Reyes and fortified their rotation with Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano, but Johnson’s health is the key to the team’s success. During the 2009 season, Johnson made 33 starts and was worth 5.3 WARP. He was more valuable that year than Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, or Cole Hamels have been in any single season of their careers.

In an NL East race that PECOTA expects to come down to the wire, the outcome may come down to one number—the number in the games started column beside Johnson’s name. Projecting 23 starts and 154 1/3 innings, PECOTA tabs Johnson as a 2.7-win player for an 88-win Marlins team in 2012. Drop that down to 10 starts and 1.0 WARP, and Miami might find itself looking up at Philadelphia and Atlanta. Bump it up to 33 starts and more than 4.0 WARP, and the Marlins might go worst-to-first.

It all starts tonight against the defending world champion Cardinals, and Johnson talked to The Miami Herald about tuning out the pressure that comes with throwing out the first pitch of the season. For Johnson and the Marlins, though, what matters is not when Johnson throws his first pitch—it’s when he throws his last.

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