By Mike Steffanos
As I mentioned yesterday, I wanted to do some comprehensive previews of the other NL teams this spring, but work and being in the process of buying a house haven't allowed me that much time. Consider this a "Preview light" (with 40% less calories than regular previews, it's a favorite of Moises Alou) as we look at the NL east, concentrating mainly on all-important pitching.
After getting off to a terrible start last year, the Marlins made a run at a playoff spot in the second half behind some of the best young starting pitching in baseball. What eventually sunk them, as much as anything, was the lack of a bullpen and some less-than-stellar defense. The big question for this season is whether they can improve in relief while maintaining solid performance from their young starters in their sophomore run through the NL.
Rotation: Dontrelle Willis returned to reality somewhat last season after a Cy Young caliber 2005. He still anchored the staff with 34 starts and 224 innings. He's pitched a lot of innings over the last two seasons, and you wonder if that partially explains some of last year's struggles. Still, he's one of the best and most coveted young pitchers in the game. Just behind Willis is fellow southpaw Scott Olsen, a pitcher with great stuff who sometimes lacks maturity on the mound. After that, there are question marks. Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez are both terrific young pitchers, but both have injury question marks coming into the year. Sanchez experienced some shoulder problems in the off-season that merited an MRI, and Johnson has a recurrence of forearm problems that cut short his 2006 season. Ricky Nolasco, who was very solid in the rotation last season, may get a look as the Marlins closer.
Bullpen: The Achilles heel in last year's unsuccessful wildcard bid, the loss of closer Joe Borowski doesn't exactly help going into 2007. There has been talk about Nolasco in the closer role, as well as former Mets Henry Owens and Matt Lindstrom and southpaw Taylor Tankersley, who performed well as a rookie last year. It's not inconceivable that one of the candidates could step up and do a good job in the closer role, but it would be asking an awful lot for this nondescript group to form an effective bullpen. It's likely that the Marlins will watch a lot of games slip away late again this season.
The Marlins offense benefited from last year's youth movement, as Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham and Mike Jacobs had seasons that ranged from solid to spectacular. Jeremy Hermida was a huge disappointment as he struggled with some injuries last year, slugging only .368 in over 300 ABs as the right fielder, but he's still considered a player with a lot of upside. They'll miss valuable backup Wes Helms, who has moved on to the Phillies, but with Miguel Cabrera returning their offense should be fine. Defensively, they'll still be somewhat lacking, particularly in the outfield.
A lot has been made of the departure of manager Joe Girardi, but I think he got a little too much credit for last season. Fredi Gonzalez should be fine in that role. What would concern me more if I was a Marlins fan is the likelihood that some of the youngsters who were huge for this club last year might take a sophomore step back. Particularly for young pitchers, it's a big leap to making 30+ starts and pitching over 200 innings, and as previously mentioned, the Marlins have already experienced blips from Sanchez and Johnson.
It looks fairly good for the Marlins to finally get the stadium they've been looking for in south Florida. Perhaps if it goes through they will stop playing games with their fan base and sign Willis and Cabrera long-term. They have so much young pitching that it's hard not to imagine them being a force in the NL east for at least the next half-decade. However, they're not going to sneak up on anyone in 2007, and I think some of the kids will endure growing pains. Their bullpen and lack of a true centerfielder will also hold them back a little in 2007. I think a .500 season is a reasonable goal this year for the Fish.
Tomorrow we'll pick up with the self-appointed division favorites from Philadelphia.