Will talks with Christina about Florida’s chances in the Marlins Hope and Faith edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, Marlins-brand hope and faith might seem an unusual topic to bring up, especially when so many people were talking about whether they would lose 100 games just one year ago, and especially when this club instead became everyone’s favorite underdog, as well as Exhibit A for both Larry Beinfest’s status as the game’s most underrated General Manager and a straightforward exposition on the easy virtue of free and freely-available talent. But last season’s flirtation with the wild-card pennant race and geographical regrets over not being lucky enough to somehow wind up in the National League Central Division only underscore that there’s a difference between being a human interest story and runner-up, and actually becoming the big kid on the block. What is it going to take to make the Marlins a team that gets into the playoffs, and then hopes to take its ’85 Royals or ’06 Cardinals star turn in October’s spotlight?

1. Miami remains pumpkin-free in the lineup: This basically means nobody takes the steps backwards that would kill this club’s chances deader than Elvis, and PECOTA’s more than a little skeptical. In the lineup, PECOTA’s anticipating a few steps backwards, not because any of last year’s regulars don’t belong-setting Reggie Abercrombie aside-or are about to go Joe Charboneau on us, but because it sees most of these guys taking small steps backwards. If you want to be polite, you’ll call them consolidation seasons, but comparing last year’s performances in the lineup by WARP to PECOTA’s median-projection expectations for them this year:

Player           Age   2006   2007    Net
Miguel Cabrera    24   10.2    7.9   -2.3
Dan Uggla         27    8.2    4.8   -3.4
Hanley Ramirez    23    8.1    6.1   -2.0
Josh Willingham   28    4.6    4.2   -0.4
Miguel Olivo      28    4.0    2.6   -1.4
Mike Jacobs       26    2.8    2.7   -0.1
Jeremy Hermida    23    1.7    4.0   +2.3
TOTAL                  39.6   32.3   -7.3
Age is the player's age in the 2007 season to come, as of July 1.

For a team hoping to move up from 78 wins, this isn’t good news. Basically, for the Fish to have a shot, most or all of that can’t be allowed to happen, and it’s going to take more than a Loria diktat to keep it from being so. What’s really apparent is that this is a collection of hitters in their primes right now. The notable exceptions are Cabrera and Ramirez, the club’s true building blocks, and we’ll get to Jeremy Hermida in a second, but the absence of a thirtysomething is not the same thing as being a genuinely young ballclub. Generally, this is a lineup of ready-now guys without a ton of up-side left to show-but with two superstars in the making in their midst.

So what has to happen here? Hanley Ramirez can’t do something like follow last season’s breakout with a Jhonny Peralta-style low tide after high-he needs to keep being the new Barry Larkin. Uggla has to remain more than just the Rule 5 steal he was last season, and he needs to slug better than .450 again. PECOTA sees that as his expected level of production, but the good news is that it doesn’t look like he’s the sort of guy who’s going to suddenly see his ability to make contact or contact with power go away-last year’s clip of striking out in 18% of his plate appearances wasn’t different than his capacity to be fooled some of the time by some pitchers in Double-A in 2005. Miguel Olivo can’t afford to go into one of the extended funks that have cost him opportunities to stick with the White Sox and Mariners. Basically, every monster under the bed has to sleep through the season.

2. Fredi Gonzalez makes some canny choices with his pitching staff: The really bad news for any sunshine scenario is that Josh Johnson is going to miss a significant portion of the season, with the recently-reported two months representing a minimum, and a possibility that his whole season is endangered. The good news is that by acquiring so much pitching talent from other organizations before last season, the new manager and Beinfest have a number of options to fall back on as far as rounding out the rotation and assembling a bullpen.

While nattering about who’s going to get saves might have more people worked out, I’m far more curious about the shape of the rotation to come. Beyond Dontrelle Willis, there’s still Anibal Sanchez, Scott Olsen, and Ricky Nolasco. Although Johnson’s out of the picture, so is Scuffy Moehler, so beyond seeing the three most-talented kids in the class, there’s an opportunity to replace last year’s bit of inadequate veteran tokenism with someone like Yusmeiro Petit or Jose Garcia (and maybe Gaby Hernandez after a few months at Double-A). Any one of the kids coming up ready spares them from asking this year’s vets, guys like Kevin Gregg or (more ominously) Chris George or Wes Obermueller, to take the ball every five days. Even Sergio Mitre would be a better choice. Sure, it’s young pitching and the relative roll of the dice that’s involved, but this team’s basically going to have to get something like the breakthroughs of the young rotations of the ’91 Braves, ’85 Royals, and somebody becoming a New York-killer a la Jaret Wright in 1997.

The pen’s a bit more flexible. Gregg might make a nice fit in the stolid veteran middleman gig, providing a worthwhile arch between the vagaries of a young rotation and that closer to be named later. Maybe Taylor Tankersley wins the money-shot job, and maybe Randy Messenger surprises people and has that moxie people want from the guy at the end of the game. Maybe Henry Owens proves to be this year’s lightning bolt in the proverbial bottle. There’s talent here, but bullpen assembly is on the manager as much as the talent. If Gonzalez can wind up on the right side of a fine line between creative competition for specific roles and everyone not knowing what they’re supposed to do and getting frustrated, there’s a chance here for the Fish to add their pen to their showcase of unheralded talent.

3. Miguel Cabrera continues his pod person-like growth into the new Pujols: Not that the Cardinals need worry about Miguel’s making the old one go away, of course, but the Fish basically need for Cabrera to continue growing into his claim as one of the game’s best hitters-to-be. I know, it’s unfair to ask Cabrera to basically move up from being one of the group of guys who’s that one rung below the league’s best hitter, but Cabrera’s young. If he delivers eighty-plus extra-base hits while having to call Miami home, that’s not merely incredible, it’s the sort of talent that, like the great Albert, can win a series for you by himself.

4. Jeremy Hermida stops being a cipher, and does us all proud: Say Cabrera just remains a demi-god, and doesn’t move all the way up to the top of the heap. What about the one guy a lot of us in the performance analysis community panning out? PECOTA’s a little rosier on his potential this season than it was last, forecasting a .282/.376/.475 season that means a hundred-point jump in his SLG. Add in a happy ending to last season’s defensive problems, and he might provide the club with that third-wheel star in the making.

5. A center fielder! My art collection for a center fielder!: Trade for Jeremy Reed before he gets stranded in a reserve role in Seattle. See if you can get Cory Sullivan from the Rockies for a bucket of pre-soaked balls. Anonymously spread nasty rumors about Gabe Gross or Franklin Gutierrez, and then trade for them. Ask the White Sox to pay freight on Scott Podsednik. Basically, do something, anything, that does not involve drinking the Alex Sanchez-brand Kool-Aid or taking another spin with Reggie Abercrombie. And no, no trading for Joey Gathright either. We’re looking for solutions, not variations on a theme.

All of that has to happen, but beyond that, bad things need to happen to good teams. The Mets‘ rotation situation has to become a season-long handicap, where you’re counting on Willie Randolph and Rick Peterson getting frustrated and changing horses so often that nobody behind Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez gets into a rhythm and establishes himself. Similarly, the Braves have to wind up without the sort of rotation support for another potent lineup, and another few extended absence from Chipper Jones wouldn’t hurt. The Phillies have to trade the wrong starting pitcher for an even more wrong-for-them outfielder, and let’s face it, a 1990 model Joe Carter isn’t available (the Twins wouldn’t give up Rondell White anyway, no matter how nicely Pat Gillick asked). These things aren’t impossible, and the Marlins’ hope and faith isn’t handicapped with anything like the Nationals‘ necessary combination of Biblical disasters and a decision by more than half of the MLBPA to retire and take up surfing, but it’s going to involve everything breaking even better with the kids this year than last.

Get to the dance, and the Fish have a shot as plausible as last season’s Redbirds. In Willis, they have a Chris Carpenter-like starter with series-dominating potential, and in Cabrera, they have that game-breaking slugger that can make his opponents seem puny. Add in some good choices from Fredi Gonzalez, Beinfest finding a league-average cener fielder, and the talent blossoming, and you’ve got a team with a shot.

Will talks with Christina about Florida’s chances in the Marlins Hope and Faith edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3
(4.1 MB)

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