Florida Miami Marlins (20-18) come to town tonight to as the Indians kick off 2012 interleague play with a three-game series against the Fish at Progressive Field. As we wait for action to get underway at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, I talked to Marlin Maniac Senior Editor Ehsan Kassim about the Marlins’ busy winter, the team’s season outlook, and the general rebranding of the Miami franchise.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: Miami made quite a few splashes on the free agent market this winter. What was your general impression of the team’s aggressive spending?
EHSAN KASSIM: The Miami Marlins promised their fans before the 2012 free agency began that they would go all out and make sure the Marlins would become contenders. I had a feeling that we would go out and sign a guy or two, but nothing to the extreme that we saw happen once the off-season began.
The team’s first move was one of the worst moves of the off-season. I still do not get why the Marlins decided to throw so much money at an obviously declining Heath Bell. Yes, Bell had been one of the premier closers in baseball, but closers are not a commodity that is essential to making the playoffs. Bell’s strikeout rate had been dissipating every season for the past three seasons. The Marlins would have been better off spending that money elsewhere. Steve Cishek proved last season that he could handle the closers role. The Marlins used the whole “he’s too inexperienced” reasoning for why Cishek was not closer, but the Braves had the top closer, arguably, last season, and he was just a rookie.
The Marlins’ next move was something that was expected and was a great move. Even though Jose Reyes has gotten off to a slow start, he was the perfect player for the Marlins to pick up for several reasons. One of them being that Reyes and Hanley Ramirez share a very close relationship. Another reason would be that Reyes’ game fits perfectly into the new Marlins Park and Ozzie Guillen’s aggressive playing style. Reyes has been a key reason why early on in the season, the Marlins lead the entire majors in stolen bases.
After securing Reyes, the Marlins made a hard run at Albert Pujols. The Marlins were always right in the mix for Pujols and it seemed like several times he was headed to Miami. I was never a big fan of the Marlins signing Pujols, as he would cripple the team financially from signing Giancarlo Stanton, Logan Morrison, and other future free agents. The Marlins dodged a big bullet when the Angels decided to jump in and offer Pujols $254 million. I was personally more distraught when the Marlins lost C.J. Wilson to the Angels. He was the guy that I wanted the Marlins to sign the most, heading into the off-season. The Marlins wisely then avoided ever getting into the Prince Fielder sweepstakes.
The Marlins quickly signed Mark Buehrle when they failed to sign Pujols. Buehrle has been a consistent pitcher throughout his career and I see no reason for that to change during his time with the Marlins. Yes, I know he will be getting older, but he also seems to be one of those pitchers that could pitch into his late thirties or early forties. The Marlins did not overpay or underpay for Buehrle’s services. I believe they paid a fair market value.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: The Marlins are off to a hot start, but they’re tied for third place in the tough NL East. Do they have what it takes to make it to October?
EHSAN KASSIM: I believe that this Marlins team is good enough to play October baseball. The Marlins got off to a very slow start in April, going 8-14 in the month. The team’s pitching was fine, the issue was that the Marlins bats had not come around yet. Everything seemed to be going wrong for the team. It did not help that Ozzie Guillen’s comments about Fidel Castro went viral and that was the only talk surrounding the team.
When April ended and the Marlins headed out west, the team’s fortunes turned around quickly. All of a sudden, Jose Reyes was hitting again and Giancarlo Stanton found his power stroke. Reyes is hitting well above .300 for the month and Stanton has hit seven of his eight homers in the month of May. Combine that with the continuance of the Marlins early season dominant pitching, the Marlins record in May is sitting at 12-3.
With all that said, the Marlins, as a team, have not hit their stride in how good they can be offensively. The team’s bullpen and defense have not played up to their capabilities, yet. The starting pitching is as good as advertised, although there will be regression, but if Josh Johnson can regroup, the regression that will take place will not be felt too strongly.
Overall, by the end of the season, the Marlins should have one of the top offenses and pitching staffs in baseball. The team is going to win a lot of ball games, I do believe they are good enough to be playing baseball in October, but the rest of the NL East is no slouch either. If the Marlins want to be a playoff team, they need to start by beating their NL East opponents, against whom they are only 4-8 so far this season.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: How have the fans reacted to the new ballpark and branding of the “Miami” Marlins?
EHSAN KASSIM: I think for the most part, the fans love the new stadium. The Marlins are on pace to break attendance records their first season, and after a slow start to the season and the Miami Heat playing playoff basketball, it’s only going to improve as the season wears on. The key for attendance is and always will be winning in Miami. That horrendous looking home run sculpture is now adored, as the Marlins made the perfect adverising pitch for it, starve the team of home runs in the early season, so when they start hitting them, the fans will love the “Thing.”
As for the branding, Marlins merchandise has been one of the hottest sellers around the nation, ever since the team introduced their new looks. A lot of people around baseball still give the Marlins a hard time about the uniforms, but the Marlins fans have really started to like them. They are not the same traditional baseball uniforms you see every team wearing, no the Marlins wanted to be unique and make a statement, “We are Miami.”
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: Who’s pitching for the Marlins this weekend, and what should Tribe fans look for from them?
EHSAN KASSIM: The Indians will be getting to face the Marlins’ two best starters this season in Carlos Zambrano and Anibal Sanchez, and then the guy who is supposed to be the Marlins ace, Josh Johnson. Each of these pitchers are coming off of solid starts their last time out, but I will give you a bit of a scouting report on each.
Zambrano: Big Z has turned things around in his short time in Miami. Zambrano has moved away from using his fastball and that has made him a better pitcher. Zambrano has replaced his fastball usage by introducing his split finger pitch. With this new pitch, Zambrano has found a whole new way of getting hitters out. Zambrano has a 1.88 ERA early on and has only allowed one earned run in his past three starts. Zambrano is striking out 21% of the hitters he faces and has a better walk rate then his career averages. Zambrano has one career start against the Indians and he fared well in that game, going 6 innings and allowing just two runs. Only one current Indian has any at-bats against Zambrano, and that would be Casey Kotchman.
Sanchez: I will continue to stress this, Anibal Sanchez is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. Sanchez is ranked eighth in baseball in strikeouts, though he has made two less starts then the leader, Felix Hernandez, and only trails him by ten strikeouts. Sanchez has been a top ten pitcher since the beginning of the 2010 MLB season in terms of ERA and FIP, equivalent to pitchers such as Cole Hamels and Zach Grienke, both considered to be top free agents after this season, ahead of Sanchez. Sanchez has given the Marlins a quality start each time he has taken the mound. Sanchez does not light up the radar gun, but he has several pitches that can get hitters out. Sanchez is following up his career best 2011 season with an even better season, so far. Sanchez has never faced the Indians and only Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman have more then three career at-bats against Sanchez.
Johnson: JJ’s velocity has decline in 2012 and he is not the same pitcher that the Marlins called an ace, just a few years ago. Teams are making better contact off of Johnson, as he struggled to put hitters away. Hitters have a .385 BABIP off of Johnson in the early goings of 2012. Johnson’s velocity has been sitting between 91-93 this season, off of his usual 94-95 stuff. It has been a major problem for the Fish. Johnson has been much better his last two starts, posting back-to-back quality starts, but still not at the level of where he was just a season ago, before injuries ended his season. Johnson has also never faced the Indians in his career.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: What’s your prediction for the series?
EHSAN KASSIM: I would love to say sweep, as the Marlins did pick up two series sweeps on their last road trip, but the Indians are a good team and deserve credit. I will say that the Marlins will take two out of three games, but I cannot say which ones right now. Games 1 and 3 seem like toss ups to me, as Justin Masterson and Josh Johnson are both better pitchers then they have displayed in 2012. Game two, I can say with certainty, is one of the games that the Marlins take. I just feel extremely confident every time Anibal Sanchez takes the mound. Either way, this will be an entertaining series and both teams will be fighting all nine innings, every game.