The Miami Marlins were big spenders this offseason, doling out huge contracts to some of the biggest names in baseball. Coming off a disappointing 72-90 campaign in 2011, the Marlins have undergone a complete overhaul from the stadium they play in and their name to the starting nine they will be trotting out come April. The huge splash of signing shortstop Jose Reyes, giving the Marlins potentially the two best shortstops in the game when paired with Hanley Ramirez, was the Marlins' first blockbuster move.
From there, the Marlins signed closer Heath Bell and acquired two starters: Carlos Zambrano from the Chicago Cubs and Wade LeBlanc from the San Diego Padres. Along with bringing in manager Ozzie Guillen to re-energize the franchise, the best move the Marlins made this offseason was the signing of starting pitcher Mark Buehrle.
The signing of Buehrle, a lucrative but well-deserved four-year, $58 million deal, not only brought some veteran experience to the young Marlins rotation, but it now gives the Marlins arguably the most feared rotation in the stacked National League East.
Buehrle has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the game for the better part of the last decade. With pinpoint control, incredible poise and a flair for the dramatic (e.g., his perfect game), Mark flustered potent lineups—such as in the American League Central—while leading the White Sox to numerous division titles and postseason runs.
Buehrle is a four-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glover and a model of consistency, registering 30 plus starts for the last 11 years. Averaging 223 innings a year over his pristine career, the 32-year-old from Missouri rarely taxes a bullpen. His stuff is not overpowering, but Buehrle has only posted an ERA over 4.00 three times in his career.
With the addition of Buehrle to an already stacked rotation that is comprised of ace Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco, along with either the recently acquired Zambrano or LeBlanc, the Marlins will have the deepest and most talented staff in the division. Josh Johnson, coming off an injury-plagued season in which he was shut down with shoulder inflammation after only winning three times, has some of the best stuff in the game and is a two-time All-Star.
Anibal Sanchez is gunning to become the third starter, and after posting a 3.67 ERA with 202 strikeouts last season, the 27-year-old looks to be settling into his groove after his liable start to his career. Sanchez threw a no-hitter in 2006, but he failed to develop into a dominant force until showing signs last year.
Nolasco is the mediocre-looking cousin to Sanchez, posting a 4.67 ERA with 148 strikeouts. At 29, Ricky is starting to look like he is not going to make too many improvements, but he is still a very good fifth starter. He went 10-12 last year, but he had winning records with good numbers in the previous three seasons. He is looking to bounce back and solidify a power rotation with some more of his own mid-90s fireballs.
As for their competition, the Philadelphia Phillies, with aging Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee anchoring the top of the rotation, are looking more vulnerable than ever. Without Roy Oswalt, the greatest No. 4 pitcher in the history of baseball, the Phillies' rotation is quite unproven after Cole Hamels in the No. 3 slot. The top three are still just as good as any pitchers in the league, and they could take the Marlins in a quick series, but the lack of experienced depth will curse the Phillies overall. Vance Worley was phenomenal in his 2011 rookie season, but he's not experienced like Anibal Sanchez or Carlos Zambrano.
The Marlins acquired Carlos Zambrano this winter, hoping he could reclaim some of his talent and potential in a new setting. After butting heads over and over in Chicago, the Marlins offered up starter Chris Volstad, a serviceable right-hander, and got the Cubs to bite. The Big Z is poised for a bounce-back season, especially being back under the equally fiery passion of his manager, Guillen.
Zambrano and Guillen have a history and have a similar way of playing the game, so do not be surprised if Zambrano serves a number of roles for the Marlins this summer, either out of the bullpen or in the rotation. Guillen could very well get the All-Star back out of Zambrano, making him the best fourth starter in the MLB.
The Atlanta Braves are reeling from the injury to Tim Hudson, who will miss the first month of the season. Jair Jurrjens is an absolute dynamo, but with only unproven prospects Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado surrounding him, the Braves have a rotation that will take some time to blossom. In 2015, I might be writing this article about how incredible the Braves’ pitchers are and how with a little assistance from Jason Heyward, the Braves could be pitching their way to the World Series title. However, for now I worry about the psyche of those young men, going up against the likes of Ryan Howard and David Wright before they are truly ready.
The Washington Nationals will have a much-improved rotation, with Stephen Strasburg pitching with the likes of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and John Lannan. Zimmermann, a homegrown talent, is a power arm that posted a 3.13 ERA last season in quality innings. Gonzalez was acquired from the A’s and was one of the best Athletic pitchers last season. Jackson is well traveled and is an established major league arm, while Lannan, the veteran with five years of Nationals experience, is a solid starter that can beat anybody on any day.
The Nationals are going to be a force this summer, vying for the National League East title long after most expect them to. Furthermore, the Nats' bullpen is perhaps the best young tandem in baseball, with setup man Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen.
Finally, the poor and depleted New York Mets are in a state of utter despair, with ace Johan Santana battling potentially career-damning shoulder pain and a lack of quality arms behind him. Mike Pelfrey is a good arm, while both Jonathan Niese and Dillon Gee have potential. But overall, they stand no chance against the division's top teams. R.A. Dickey is a quality arm, but anyone with baseball knowledge would want the consistently dominant Mark Buerhle over the inconsistent-by-nature knuckleballer Dickey.
Overall, the strongest starting rotation belongs to the Marlins. Quietly, this rotation is going to rack up wins and strikeouts. With the excess depth of LeBlanc, Nolasco, Zambrano and serviceable young arm Brad Hand, Guillen is going to push his pitchers to press the talented hitters in the division. Guillen’s brashness will rub off on youngsters Sanchez and Nolasco, giving the back end of his rotation some of the confidence to take on the powerful bats of the Phillies and Braves.
Johnson and Buehrle’s sheer ability to dominate a lineup—as long as they can stay healthy and loose in the humid Miami summer—will bolster the Marlins to dozens of wins. In reality, it is dehydration the two should be concerned with, as also Nolasco, Sanchez, Zambrano and LeBlanc will all settle into excellent grooves early this season and lead the Marlins to success in what some consider to be the most potent division in the National League.
It is hard to argue against a team that can trot out Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle in four games in a seven-game playoff series. A rejuvenated Carlos Zambrano, two poised fire-ballers in Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco and that could be the recipe not only to an NL East Crown, but a pennant.