The Florida Marlins are on a tough run right now, having dropped three in a row at Citi Field in New York over the weekend, then coming back and losing a heartbreaker at Philadelphia on Tuesday night (rained out last night). The Marlins have been passed by Washington in the NL East standings and have slipped three games under .500. But in spite of being in last place, they are in striking distance, 5.5 games back of Atlanta. Can they make a push in the summer months? Let's take a look.
Florida's biggest weakness is heavy dependence on a few producers at the very top. They're already a rare team in that they rely on their middle infield to carry the offense, and Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla are again getting the job done. The latter has 13 home runs and both are complete offensive players. Cody Ross is also having a good year in right field, although the
club will have a key decision to make regarding the outfield. They just brought up highly touted rightfielder Michael Stanton, their answer to Stephen Strasburg and after Stanton debuted with three hits in Philadelphia, he will surely be in the lineup regularly. Ideally, it would be preferable to move Ross to center, but defensively that's probably not realistic. So the guess here is he bumps Chris Maybin from the left field job. Whatever Stanton can do his first year, it won't take much to be an improvement.
Beyond this, third baseman Jorge Cantu hits for good power, but could up the OBP a bit. Across the diamond at first, Gaby Sanchez isn't bad, but needs a little uptick across the board if the offense is going to survive the summer months. There is just not a lot of depth in this lineup. The pitching staff is similar, where Josh Johnson is lights out (6-2, 2.10) and in any league or season that didn't have Ubaldo Jiminez, he'd be a Cy Young
frontrunner. Anibal Sanchez--who along with Ramirez was acquired from Boston in a deal for Josh Beckett prior to the 2006 season--is shaping up to be a solid #2, sitting on 5-3, 3.18. But someone among Chris Volstad, Ricky Nolasco and Nate Robertson has to step it up. And the bullpen--stop me if you've heard this before--is good, but not deep. Leo Nunez is closing out games, with Clay Hensley, Brian Sanches and Reynel Pinto setting up. But Pinto's got a hip problem. He may return this weekend, and if he does all is well. If he doesn't, it's a big dropoff to the next arm on the ladder.
Florida's got a nice team and the possiblities for contention are there. The most likely avenue for improvement comes in the starting pitching, where any of Nolasco, Volstad and Robertson are capable of stepping it up. But this isn't a team that's going to take on a contract at the trade deadline while the Braves, Phils and Mets all will if necessary, and the lack
of depth will wear them down.
One of the most underreported phenomenas in baseball today is the complete collapse of talent at the shortstop position. It's worse in the American League, where only Derek Jeter plays at an All-Star level (yes, I realize I gave away my choice before the complete examination is done, but is there really any doubt?), but the National League suffers the same problem. Only Ramirez and Colorado's Troy Tulowitizki look like All-Stars. Only Stephen Drew in Arizona is even a respectable middle-class player. The league has been hurt by Jose Reyes' sudden fall-off, along with a poor year from Ryan Theriot. Beyond that, the best you can look at is Orlando Cabrera in Cincinnati, a has-been, and Alcides Escobar in Milwaukee, perhaps a never-will-be, if I might borrow a line from Major League.
In addition to being far and away the best two hitters at the position, Ramirez and Tulowitzki are also near
the top in defense, sparing the need to look further down the offensive ladder for a competent defender at a key spot. Their numbers are almost dead even--in fact in OBP, they are even, at least at this writing on Thursday. Tulowitzki has a slight edge in slugging and on defense. But he also plays in the more hitter-friendly park and with more support around him. For that reason, I'm giving the slightest of nods to Hanley as the NL All-Star at this spot, in a race close enough that it could swing back and forth daily between now and when the final votes have to be cast. It might be a weak position, but it's an exciting race.
Tomorrow we'll eschew the usual team and All-Star analysis and take a look at the whole concept of interleague play as another round starts up.