The 2011 season was one the Marlins could not wait to see end. Their best hitter slumped then got hurt, while their best pitcher only made nine starts before injuries shut him down. Their closer ended up getting caught with a false name and their left fielder got demoted for immature remarks and bad priorities. With a new ballpark, new uniforms, new manager, and three major free agent acquisitions, the team is poised to greatly improve on their 72-win season.
The biggest news this offseason for the Marlins was the signing of Jose Reyes. He takes over at shortstop, giving them their first traditional leadoff hitter since Luis Castillo left in 2005. His great 2011 season was aided by a .352 BABIP and he still missed a good chunk of games with injuries, so 6 WAR may be a bit high for expectations, but 4-5 WAR should be attainable. Chemistry issue #1 is the move of Hanley Ramirez to third base. So far, he has had mixed reactions, but it should fit his physical profile better. His offense was the bigger problem, ending with a 96 wRC+ after spending the previous five years between 120 and 150. The change started in 2010, but his BABIP was 50 points higher, hiding the struggles. Second base will have Omar Infante provide below-average offense with good defense, resulting in average production. Gaby Sanchez showed good plate discipline, but the power isn't there to be a great first baseman. Donnie Murphy is a likely backup middle infielder and Greg Dobbs will be a pinch-hitter and corner reserve. John Buck struggled his first year with the Marlins, greatly improving his plate discipline but losing power and having poor BABIP luck.
22-year-old man-child Mike Stanton will be starting his third season in right field. His walks increased and strikeouts decreased, improving on his one weakness. He may end up with more pitches to hit with Reyes hitting ahead of him, making Stanton one of the scariest hitters in the league. Logan Morrison will be in left field, hoping to put his disciplinary demotion behind him. He found his power last year, sporting a .221 ISO, his highest at any professional level. However, his plate discipline also went from great to just above average. His .265 BABIP was quite low for his batted ball profile, so if he gets that up to around .310, he will be a great left-handed complement to Stanton.
Center field is unsettled with a three-way battle between Emilio Bonifacio, Chris Coghlan, and Bryan Petersen. Bonafacio is much like Michael Bourn, an average-walk, above average strikeout speedster. His .372 BABIP is likely to go down, but he could maintain a .340 BABIP. He could also back up at all infield positions. Coghlan struggled last year before his torn meniscus in a post-game pieing incident. A lot of his offensive struggles were BABIP-based, but he also rated poor defensively in center. Petersen has the most experience in center, but his offensive skills are the least of the candidates. Austin Kearns and Aaron Rowand are NRI's, both with a chance of making the club, since Stanton and Bonifacio are the only right-handed hitters who play outfield. This could all change if Yoenis Cespedes chooses Miami, putting him in CF and closing the last hole in the lineup.
The rotation has four solid arms, with Josh Johnson as the ace. After getting off to a great start, Johnson had to be shut down with shoulder problems. If they can get 180-200 innings out of him, he should provide 5-6 WAR. Mark Buehrle signed a four year deal to be the reliable veteran, having never been on the disabled list in his career. He should provide 3-4 WAR, giving Reyes and Ramirez plenty of work. Anibal Sanchez started missing bats last year to the tune of a 24.3% strikeout rate and kept his walks down. He should be able to put up another 3-4 WAR season. Ricky Nolasco has been a notorious underperformer the past three seasons, having ERAs above 4.50 while his FIP has been below 4.00 each year. His BABIP has been at least .315 every year and has struggled with runners on base, the two main causes for underperforming FIPs. The last spot will be the ticking bomb that is Carlos Zambrano. Last year was his first below-average season of his career, allowing his highest HR rate and not missing bats. With the Cubs eating over $15M of the $18M salary, the Marlins just need him to provide above-replacement level innings (and attitude) to be worth the trade. If Zambrano implodes again, Alex Sanabia and Brad Hand are the likely replacements.
The bullpen saw only one major change. Heath Bell replaces Juan Oviedo, the pitcher formerly known as Leo Nunez, at closer. There is no timetable for Oviedo's return, meaning Edward Mujica, Steve Cishek, Ryan Webb, and Randy Choate should stay in their roles, rounding out a decent bullpen.
While the Marlins should be a much-improved team in 2012, they are playing in the second toughest division in the majors. I would rate them the best NL West team and the second-best NL Central team, but they will likely be fighting the Nationals for the third spot in the NL East. Hopefully, the city of Miami shows some enthusiasm for a good team, because this team has a lot of potential.