*From Protect the Plate
Despite having the league's lowest payroll, the Florida Marlins were competitive last year, falling just 5.5 games short of the wild card. They seem to overhaul their roster before every year, and 2009 is no different. With young stars, impressive rookies, and a new focus on defense, the Marlins hope to get the most out of the least once again.
Shortstop Hanley Ramirez has established himself as one of the most dangerous offensive forces in the game and is regarded by many as the clear-cut top pick in fantasy baseball. Ramirez set career highs in home runs (33), walks (92), and on-base percentage (.400) last season, but saw his RBI drop by 14, stolen bases drop 16, average fall 31 points, and he hit 14 fewer doubles.
If he stays healthy, Ramirez is a virtual lock for another 30-30 season, but it seems unlikely he'll ever steal 50 bases in a season again. He has scored more runs than any player (369) since the start of 2006, but expect him to drive in more and score less hitting third instead of leadoff this year.
Much like Ramirez, who was acquired in the Josh Beckett trade, Cameron Maybin has immense pressure on him to become a star. The five-tool prospect was the headliner in the deal that sent Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers last offseason.
The 21-year-old center fielder showed flashes of his potential in eight games with the Marlins last year, going 16-for-32 (.500) at the plate with nine runs scored and four stolen bases. He has a .299 average over 299 minor league games and stole 21 bases to go with 13 homers in Double-A last season. Maybin is expected to start in center and hit leadoff for the Fish.
BEST KEPT SECRET
Marlins ace Ricky Nolasco may be the best pitcher casual baseball fans have never heard of. Take a look at the National League leaderboard and you'll realize just how good he was in 2008. Nolasco ranked second in the league in WHIP (1.10), seventh in innings pitched (212.1), eighth in strikeouts (186), ninth in batting average against (.239), and 12th in both wins (15) and ERA (3.52).
Plus, the only pitcher in the NL to throw 200 innings and walk fewer hitters than Nolasco was Arizona's Dan Haren. Not bad for a guy who started the year in middle relief.
WHEELIN' AND DEALIN'
The Marlins made three significant trades in a two-week span this offseason. The day before Halloween, Florida sent power-hitting first baseman Mike Jacobs to Kansas City for reliever Leo Nunez, who posted a 2.98 ERA in 45 games last year. On Nov. 11, starter Scott Olsen and outfielder Josh Willingham were shipped to Washington for a package highlighted by speedy infielder Emilio Bonifacio.
Just two days later they traded former closer Kevin Gregg to the Cubs for Jose Ceda, who had a 2.08 ERA and 12.5 K/9 in his first stint in Double-A.
Josh Johnson had an impressive first season in the majors, going 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA while finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2006. The 6'7" right-hander was robbed of an opportunity at sophomore success, pitching just 15.2 innings in 2007 before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Johnson returned to the mound quicker than most and looked like his old self in 14 starts last year, going 7-1 with a 3.61 ERA. At just 25 years old, Johnson still has plenty of time to get his career back on track.
Second baseman Dan Uggla has averaged 30 homers, 90 RBI, and 105 runs over his first three years in the majors...Corner infielder Jorge Cantu hit 29 home runs to go with a team-high 95 RBI...Flamethrower Matt Lindstrom is expected to start the year as the closer after picking up five saves last September.
Starting catcher John Baker made his Major League debut as a 27-year-old last year and hit .299 in 61 games...First baseman Gaby Sanchez is competing for the starting job this spring after hitting .314 with 17 home runs and a .917 OPS in Double-A last year...Dallas McPherson is still trying to break into the bigs at 28 years old. He hit more home runs (42) than anyone in the minors last year and has 150 career homers in the minor leagues.