1. Will Ricky Nolasco bounce back from his awful 2009?
There is an argument that questions whether 2009 was all that awful in the first place for Ricky Nolasco. All the major defense-independent pitching statistics were very happy with his performance last season. He struck out 25 percent of non-IBB batters last season and walked just 4.8 percent of those batters. Those rates led to a sparkling 20.3 percent K-BB differential, good for fifth in baseball among qualified starters. For context, Nolasco ended up a smidge behind Dan Haren and Zack Greinke and a bit ahead of such luminaries as Jon Lester and Roy Halladay.
Nolasco’s main issues that led him to post an ERA north of 9.00 at the start of the season were an out-of-line BABIP and strand rate. Even after returning to his prime form after a short stint in Triple-A, Nolasco still ended the season with a .336 BABIP and a 61.0 percent strand rate, figures well off the league average. While there is concern that those rates may have something to do with his poor performances out of the stretch as opposed to the windup, the 2009 season stretched that theory to an extreme. With even moderate regression to the mean, Nolasco should revert to a performance closer to his 2008 season. Both CHONE and ZiPS have him posting FIP of around 3.65, and if he approaches an innings count similar to that of 2008 or 2009, that should be worth close to four wins for the Marlins.
2. What can we expect from Gaby Sanchez?
Gaby Sanchez knows he is simply holding down the fort for top prospect Logan Morrison, expected to arrive by 2011 at earliest. However, with Morrison struggling in Spring Training this month, Sanchez has at least wrapped up a job for this season. Drafted in 2005 as a catcher out of the University of Miami, Sanchez was transitioned to first base in the minors, where his line-drive bat plays less impressively. Still, his minor league track record has been solid; Sanchez has batted .302/.392/.485 in his minor league career, including an impressive .314/.404/.513 season in 2008 that earned him a Southern League MVP award.
The primary concern with Sanchez has always been whether his bat would suffice while playing first base in the majors. To overcome a positional adjustment between –10 to –12.5 runs per 162 games at first base, a first baseman would have to post a .352 wOBA (along with an average glove) to be considered an average player. The major prognostication systems are split on his ability to do this in 2010. CHONE projects a .348 wOBA that would be right around average for a first baseman, while ZiPS and PECOTA are a little less optimistic, projecting him closer to the league average hitter. Sanchez has always shown good discipline (minor league career unintentional BB% of 11.7 percent) and contact (career K% of 12.0 percent) at the plate, but with only decent power (career ISO of .185), can he survive playing at the most offensively demanding position? The Marlins are hoping he can answer that question affirmatively in 2010.
3. Which veteran retread relievers will find success in the Marlins bullpen this year?
It seems like every season, the Marlins bring in junkyard relief arms into their bullpen, throw them into important roles during the season, and watch them flourish for the team. Last year, the Marlins picked up a slew of successful retreads, from bullpen ace Kiko Calero (1.95 ERA, 2.06 FIP) to set-up men Dan Meyer (3.06 ERA, 3.87 FIP) and Brian Sanches (2.56 ERA, 4.14 FIP). While the midseason addition of Luis Ayala flopped (he made 10 appearances and gave up 10 runs on his way back to the minors), Brendan Donnelly’s sub-2.00 ERA and 2.82 FIP shined in 25 innings.
The Marlins once again looked to employ this strategy this season, as the team invited a plethora of fireballing veteran relievers such as Jose Veras, Mike MacDougal, Derrick Turnbow, and Seth McClung to Spring Training to try out for the team. Only one will make the roster, as Veras has impressed enough to win a seventh-inning role, while the others have been or will soon be released. Veras racks up a lot of strikeouts and walks, a quality akin to many other Marlins relievers. The key to his success, along with the entire bullpen’s, is to limit home runs. Unfortunately, the team has only one reliever who has induced more ground balls than fly balls in his career (Burke Badenhop), meaning fans will once again be crossing their fingers every time a fly ball goes up in the late innings. With the team’s bullpen BABIP and strand rates abnormally low last season and much of the 2009 bullpen returning to familiar roles in 2010, regression would call for a decreased performance. Then again, we’ve seen strange bullpen success before from Florida, so it would not be surprising if it happened again.
4. When am I going to see Mike Stanton?
Mike Stanton is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and the power and performance in Spring Training have all been very promising. But let’s get one thing straight: Stanton is not in the same boat as Atlanta Braves prospect Jason Heyward. Heyward has succeeded at every level in his short time in the minors, and while Stanton has been no slouch, he did stumble a bit in the move to Double-A in the middle of last season.
While Stanton may have the ridiculous upside that a high-power prospect can bring, he also brings considerable risk. In his minor league career, Stanton has shown a penchant for the strikeout, striking out in 27.7 percent of his minor league PAs so far in his career. If those strikeout rates continue, Stanton might have a difficult time establishing enough contact in the majors to take advantage of his absurd power tool. Stanton could maintain his OBP in the majors with a halfway decent walk rate (career minor-league uintentional BB% of 9.9 percent), but contact will ultimately determine whether he becomes a hitter like Russell Branyan, a career part-timer with the strikeout stigma, or a consistent star like Ryan Howard. Stanton’s defense in the outfield is positive enough that it should guarantee him decent playing time and solid contributions for the Marlins for the next few years.
That sort of production will probably not happen this year, though. The Marlins have four additional fringe outfielders at higher minor league levels than Stanton, and while none of them are impressive for the long-term, they are capable of holding a major league job temporarily. In case injury or ineffectiveness plague Chris Coghlan, Cameron Maybin, or Cody Ross, one of Brett Carroll, Scott Cousins, Bryan Petersen, or Jai Miller will take over for the Marlins. Stanton should receive a full season of development in Double-A this year and a cup of coffee in September, but something would have to go terribly wrong for the team to call him up for serious playing time during the season.
5. Where will the Marlins finish in the NL East?
The NL East is as tough a division as you will find in the National League. Both the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are very close to the division crown according to the major prognostication systems. The New York Mets need health and some good bounces, but they are not terribly far from competing. Only the Washington Nationals appear out of range of the top two division spots.
The Marlins likely lie somewhere in between the Braves and Nationals in terms of true talent. The projections have the team somewhere between 78 and 82 wins, with most sitting comfortably a bit below .500. My own personal guess puts them at 83 wins, about even to their true talent level as calculated by WAR last season. The team is guaranteed another excellent year from superstar Hanley Ramirez and solid campaigns from its pitching duo of Josh Johnson and Nolasco. The question marks lie in the bullpen, with new faces taking on significant roles and regression likely rearing its ugly head, and the back of the rotation. The last three starters do not invoke much in the way of confidence, as each of Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad, and former San Diego Padre Clay Hensley have their own potentially crippling issues to work out in the regular season (injury, home runs, and not pitching effectively in the majors since 2006, respectively). The offense remains promising, with Ramirez, Dan Uggla, and Coghlan leading the way, but will Gaby Sanchez and Cameron Maybin contribute positively this season after both flopped as favorites entering 2009?
Unfortunately, those questions will have to be answered in the fire of the regular season as opposed to on paper. The Marlins should get enough contributions from their youngest players and newest bullpen faces to eke out 83 wins. With a few lucky bounces and surprising performances (something the Marlins have been known for in the last few seasons), contention for the Wild Card is not out of the question.