After a great 11-1 start and subsequent seven game losing streak, the Florida Marlins are 17-15 and in second place in the National League East. They are a half game behind the first place New York Mets.
The Marlins lineup is a good mix of veterans (Dan Uggla, Jorge Cantu, Cody Ross), players just coming into their primes (Hanley Ramirez, Alfredo Amezaga, Jeremy Hermida) and young players getting their first full time chance in the big leagues (Cameron Maybin, Emilio Bonifacio).
While the lineup is good, the starting rotation is what makes this team. One thing I like teams to do is to push their young starting pitchers. If a young starter has success in Double A, and then he should be a quick candidate for AAA and then the majors. Push these guys, give them time and they will respond.
Despite not being the opening day starter, Josh Johnson has emerged as the ace, now 3-0, 2.34 ERA, even beating Johan Santana in a head to head duel on April 12. He has become a New York Met killer, now 5-0, 1.97 ERA with a WHIP of 1.051 against the New York rivals.
The 25-year-old Johnson forms a formidable young top of the rotation duo with 22 year old Chris Volstad, 2-2 with a well-below league average 2.98 ERA. Other starters Anibel Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco, off to tough starts right now, complete the top four in the rotation.
Fifth starter Andrew Miller is expected back soon from a pulled muscle. Sanchez is out two months with an injury and the Marlins promoted Cristhian Martinez from AA Jacksonville to take his spot in the rotation.
The key with the Marlins is that every player mentioned, Dan Uggla is the oldest player at 29! Their 2009 MVP candidate, Jorge Cantu (.294 BA/.368 OBP/.608 SLG/.968 OPS, 8 HR's, 32 RBI's) is only 27. Also, every member of the starting rotation is 26 and under.
The Marlins have performed exceptionally well in drafting and developing players as well as making great trades in dealing overpaid veterans for top, young talent.
For a small market team like the Marlins, those two factors are needed in order to compete with other NL East teams New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies.
Starters Hanley Ramirez and Anibel Sanchez came from Boston, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller and Burke Badenhop (2-1, 3.86 this season) from Detroit, Bonifacio from the Washington Nationals, while the Marlins have hit a few draft bullseyes in recent years with Johnson and Volstad.
The Marlins rid themselves in the off season of potential higher contracts by dealing 1B Mike Jacobs, OF Josh Willingham, RHP Kevin Gregg and LHP Scott Olson. The Marlins wanted to allow younger, more talented players to get their opportunity.
Trade Olsen and Willingham to the Washington Nationals and get Miller in the rotation and let the 22 year old Maybin get his chance in CF; trade your closer Gregg and give the job to 29 year old Matt Lindstrom, obtained in a trade from the Mets. UPDATE: Maybin was returned to the Marlins Triple A affiliate after struggling to a .202/.280/.310/.590 OPS.
The Jacobs trade was to allow 1B prospect Gaby Sanchez to get the job, but while he struggled a little in spring training, the Marlins moved Cantu from third base to first and let Bonifacio (obtained for Olsen and Willingham) take over third base.
With the struggles of Maybin and Sanchez, it is much more difficult for hitters to adjust to major league pitching than for young pitchers to adjust to major league hitters. That is why I would always push young pitchers, but take a more reserved approach with young hitters like Maybin.
The talent turnover and salary dumps are reasons why the Marlins have been looked down upon by many in MLB and the media. While located up the New York area I see and hear much disdain for the "low budget" Marlins, but last I looked the Marlins have two World Series titles in the last dozen years, equal to the Boston Red Sox and only one less than the $200 million payroll Yankees.
People must realize that the talent level is so equal now among most of the teams that a dynasty run like the Yankees had from 1996-2000 will not happen again. Even a big budget team cannot win the World Series every season, especially with three rounds of playoffs in the post season.
Smaller market teams must now prepare to be competitive each year and "go for it" during certain seasons. Only Hanley Ramirez has a long term contract with most others on one year deals.
That will likely change as the Marlins begin to lock up their top starting pitchers for several years and begin the core of a team ready to make a move.
The Marlins have begun their run where they have begun to be competitive. The Marlins continue to produce talent and turnover process will likely continue next year when Uggla and Hermidia will command more money. Uggla could be traded near this season's deadline and Hermidia might be dealt in the off season.
They have the reinforcements.
Preparing to take over for Uggla is 24 year old Chris Coghlan, a lefty hitting high average machine with a great eye at the plate. Only at one level has Coghlan struck out more than he walked and that was during his two months in the Florida State League (FSL) late in 2007.
I really don't know why teams keep putting their top hitting prospects in the FSL, as the pitching rich league combined with the humid Florida air, is not conducive to hitting at all, especially the long ball. Many a prospect have received the FSL treatment and never been the same. If a player hits well in the FSL, they are bound to be a major league star!
Removing his FSL stats and Coghlan has hit .309 in his minor league career. So far this season in AAA New Orleans, Coghlan is at .344/.414/.552/.970 OPS and his career OBP (excluding the FSL) is over .400.
His power number are not quite there yet (a high of 10 HR's in Low A), but the long balls will come as he becomes more physically mature and gets some more loft on the ball.
UPDATE: While Maybin was sent down to Triple A, the Marlins promoted Coughlan to the majors. He is 2 for 7 (and a walk) in two games and has showed his versatility by playing both second base and left field.
Right now I wouldn't change him at all, because power is on the way with Michael Stanton, a 6'5", 230 lb. 19 year old who is hitting extremely well in the FSL. Did I mention that if a player hits well in the FSL, he will likely be a star? Well, Stanton has Dave Winfield written all over him.
Stanton was a three sport star athlete in high school and had a full ride to USC as a tight end, OLB or wherever else he wanted to play. He probably could have kicked field goals there, too! But, the Marlins grabbed this first round talent in the second round in 2007, and Stanton hasn't looked back.
He smashed 39 homers to go along with 26 doubles and 97 RBI's last season in Low A Greensboro, and was minor league player of the year. Thus far this season he has 7 homers, 6 doubles, 2 triples and 23 RBI's in High A Jupiter with a .281/.364/.553/.917 OPS. Although his strikeout rate is extremely high (1 of every 3 at bats), he should be pushed sometime mid season to Double AA Jacksonville - where his power production should improve.
In Jacksonville, Stanton will form a nice 3-4 duo in the lineup with 1B prospect Logan Morrison. Currently out until mid-June with a broken thumb, Morrison has hit every where he has played professionally full time. Last season in High A he hit .332/.402/.494/.896 OPS.
Morrison played in the Arizona Fall League last season, and while playing some outfield, hit .404/.444/.667/1.111 OPS with 5 homers and 29 RBI's. Simply a terrific season. When Morrison returns from the injury, look for him to continue hitting and be promoted to Triple A by the end of the season.
Triple A New Orleans is currently the home of the aforementioned Gaby Sanchez. A local product out of the University of Miami, Sanchez is hitting .345/.414/.517/.931 OPS with 4 homers, 16 RBI's in Triple A after putting up equally similar numbers in Double A in 2008. Like Coughlan, Sanchez is a high OBP, low strikeout guy who will fit well into the majors.
He will eventually supplant Cantu at first base, with Cantu moving to third, who will temporarily hold the spot for power hitting prospect Matt Dominguez. Picked in the first round (12th overall) of the 2007 draft, Dominguez had a good season in Low A last season, hitting.296/.354/.499/.853 OPS as an 18 year old.
He has struggled in the FSL this season, but many prospects do. I am sure if the Marlins High A team was in the Carolina League, his numbers would be equal to last season's. Dominguez is also very solid defensively.
Last season's top pick, Catcher Kyle Skipworth is another top prospect with tremendous potential, but it is still too early for comments on an 19 year old catcher in his first full pro season.
Besides the young starting pitching in the majors, the Marlins have a few minor league arms which are ready to contribute. Already this season LHP Graham Taylor has been promoted to the majors from Double A Jacksonville where he was 2-1, 3.24 ERA. He won 13 games last season combined in High A and Double A. The Marlins sure like to push their pitchers—and I like that a lot.
In his two starts in Florida, he suffered control issues, which is interesting because he is such a control pitcher, with a 1.4 BB/9 rate in 420 minor league innings. Likely nervousness and the home plate umpire giving the rookie "the business" of a tiny strike zone.
While other young arms with supposed high ceilings include LHP Sean West, a former 2005 first round pick; Ryan Tucker, another 2005 first rounder and Brett Sinkbeil, the 2006 first rounder; I like to focus on the hidden gems.
West, Tucker and Sinkbeil are bigger names, but have bigger issues, too, namely control and command (which is control WITHIN the strike zone).
Guys to look out for include Johnny Dorn, a 2008 15th round pick out of Nebraska, who as a freshman teamed with Joba Chamberlain to form a great 1-2 top of the rotation.
Dorn actually had better numbers than Joba that season, the year Nebraska made the College World Series. He is currently 4-1, 2.36 ERA at Low A Greensboro. In the pros, Dorn's strikeout rates are higher and his walk rates are lower than they were in college, telling me he pitched away from the metal bats and now attacks hitters using wood bats. He has a really good upside.
Also, keep an eye out for Jarrett Santos at Double A. Although a bit older at 27 years of age, Santos has yet to allow an earned run this season in 21 innings, only giving up five hits and three walks.
He was named Southern League Pitcher of the Month for April. In his six year minor league career, Santos has a career 3.08 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 435 innings. UPDATE: After winning his third game at Jacksonville on May 5th, Santos was promoted to Triple A New Orleans.
Another good sleeper is Kyle Winters, a 2005 5th round pick currently dominating High A with a 1-0 record, 0.87 ERA in five starts. UPDATE: Winters has just been promoted to AA Jacksonville.
I love the fact that the Marlins are quickly promoting their young pitchers.
The Marlins have a young nucleus in young pitching with some solid young position players, a few ready to break out. Behind them are many high ceiling position prospects ready for promotions.
Very few teams have these types of impact position players who could be major league All-Stars. The minor league system is short on arms because the 2005 draft, which included FIVE first-round picks (all pitchers), has produced only Volstad.
The Marlins are currently in second place, but with competition from the Mets and Phillies, it will be tough to stay up there. What they have done is built a foundation to support a nice run over the next 10 years to effectively compete in the tough NL East.