Marlins Starting Pitching Is A Sleeping Giant In The N.L. East

JUPITER, FL- As I watched the New York Mets defeat the Florida Marlins in a sloppy 11-2 affair on Monday, I couldn’t help but ponder how different the two N.L. East rivals are.

Much has been written about the New York Mets recent under-achieving, particularly 2009 where they finished 70-92 with the National Leagues highest payroll.  The Mets ended up a full 17 games behind the second-place Florida Marlins (87-75), who had the lowest payroll in baseball, just a quarter of what the Mets paid their 25-man roster.

The Marlins franchise is certainly not without baggage.  Area fans still haven’t forgotten former owner Wayne Huizenga’s fire sale of the 1997 World Champs, when the franchise was just about to stake its place in local lore.  The Marlins annually finish last in attendance despite fielding competitive teams and residing in a thriving Miami area that is anything but “small market”.   Having lived nearby for three years, I’ve recognized great passion for baseball throughout south Florida and am stunned at how few have transferred such emotions to the Marlins.

Nevertheless, none of that matters when they hit the field in April.  It’s mano a mano times nine and it doesn’t matter whether your opponent makes more money or has better fan support.  It’s about three strikes, three outs, and whoever wins the race to the bag.

I will “go out on a limb” to argue that the Florida Marlins are better-equipped than the Mets to contend in 2010, poised to give the Philadelphia Phillies a run for their money in the N.L. East. Why?  Very simple, it’s their starting rotation.

The Marlins are blessed with young power pitching that has only scratched the surface of their potential.  The “hextet” of Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Chris Volstad, Sean West, Anibal Sanchez, and Andrew Miller were collectively effective in 2009, but each and every one of them are capable of improvement.  All six are potential 15-game winners.  Even more encouraging is that at age 27, Ricky Nolasco is the oldest.

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Josh Johnson has already established himself as one of the game’s best starting pitchers and I believe he’s a perennial Cy Young candidate.  Johnson is not only a hard thrower (often 95-98 MPH throughout a start), but he has plus command of his fastball, able to throw strikes both high and low, inside and out.  He’s a pleasure to watch.  There are plenty of flamethrowers in professional baseball, but precious few who can locate it like Johnson and this is what gives him a chance to win 20 games.  His curve and change are also at times plus pitches, but the fastball is his bread-and-butter.  His 15-5, 3.23 ERA, 191 K, 209 IP season in 2009 is no fluke. The 6’6”, 230 lb. righty should be good for 200+ innings now that his medical issues are behind him.

The #2 starter Ricky Nolasco slumped a little bit from 2008 to 2009, but still put together a solid 13-9 record with a 5.06 ERA in 185 IP. Nolasco is a big, strong 6’2”, 230 lb. righty with good stuff across the board and an idea on how to pitch.  Next to Johnson, he’s the second-most likely to win 20 games in the future and 15-17 is a good possibility in 2010. Nolasco has the strength and the mechanics to eat up innings.

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The remaining quartet of Volstad, West, Sanchez, and Miller are not as proven, but they all have leading man potential.  At the worst, I expect three of the four to become solid 10-12 win, 180+ inning pitchers, which is enough to give the Marlins a strong rotation in 2010. The exciting wildcard is their potential to do much more.

Perhaps Sean West has the most upside.  The 6’8” lefty throws 93-96 MPH in the early innings and flashes a plus hard slider; he just needs to keep pitching and grow into his mechanics to throw with consistent command.  He had a growth spurt late in high school and it usually takes time for the coordination to catch up.  The Marlins have to be thrilled with his 8-6, 4.79 ERA rookie showing in 20 starts. Chris Volstad is a 6’6” former 1st-rounder with a power arm and a plus change-up. Anibal Sanchez has shown spurts of brilliance, including a no-hitter as a rookie in 2006.  Lefty Andrew Miller is another former 1st-rounder whose raw stuff was once comparable to Steve Carlton’s though his velocity and slider suffered much in 2009.

I believe that whichever quintet the Marlins settle on will make for a better rotation than either the Phillies, Mets, or Atlanta Braves, the three teams who stand in their way to the N.L. East flag.

The Phillies rotation is perhaps more exciting at the top, with Roy Halladay and lefty Cole Hamels.  But #3 starter Joe Blanton is more a solid innings-eater than a shutdown guy; he’ll keep you in games more times than not, but is not a dominant arm.  Lefty J.A. Happ figures as the #4 man; he had a fine rookie season.  Wunderkind 47 year-old finesse artist Jamie Moyer will probably round it off barring the emergence of a youngster like righty Drew Carpenter.  Pretty good rotation for the Phils, but I’ll take my chances on the Marlins.

The Mets have an ace in lefty Johan Santana to rival Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay, but their rotation falls off steeply compared to their division rivals. Are Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, John Maine, etc. going to do any more than they did last year, which was collectively well below-average?

The Braves? The days of Smoltz/Maddux/Glavine are long gone, but they do have an impressive staff even after dealing Javier Vazquez to the Yankees.  Righty Tommy Hanson (11-4, 2.89 ERA) was a shot in the arm as a rookie while 24 year-old Jair Jurrjens registered an outstanding 2.60 ERA, going 14-10 over 215 innings. Veteran righties Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson (back after Tommy John surgery), and Kenshin Kawakami (technically a rookie in 2009) round out a deep and solid front five.

In fact, the Braves have the deepest and most reliable rotation in the N.L. East, at least on paper.  I’m sure the statisticians would pick the Braves quintet because of their proven record.  Still I believe the Marlins are the most exciting and have the most upside, top-to-bottom, and this should be the year they come through.  They have issues with their bullpen (will Leo Nunez and Matt Lindstrom hold onto leads?) and their lineup is not in the league of the Broad Street Bashers in Philadelphia, but don’t underestimate the value of having a potential shutdown pitcher going to the mound every day.   All of their starters possess that potential and ability to improve upon last season.

New Marlins pitching coach Randy St. Claire has his work cut out for him in 2010, but a chance to make something wonderful.  Fired by the division rival Washington Nationals after seven years last summer, St. Claire has never had this many great young arms to work with and the Marlins’ championship dreams revolve around their development.

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