2012 is a year full of new things for the Miami Marlins: new name, new uniforms, new stadium, new manager, and new faces. But the biggest novelty of all is the newfound buzz surrounding the team.
For the first time since 1997, the Marlins are opening the season with the weight of playoff expectations on them. An offseason spending spree by the front office made sure the team would open its new stadium in Little Havana with an exciting product on the field.
President of baseball operations Larry Beinfest has a reputation for doing more with less (financially, at least), but over the winter he got to open up the company checkbook: dishing out fat contracts to SS Jose Reyes, RHP Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell.
Add those three to an already formidable core that includes Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Johnson and Logan Morrison, and it is easy to see where those expectations are coming from.
In 2011 the Marlins stumbled to a 72-90 finish, undone by injuries to Johnson and Ramirez as well as a sophomore slump from Morrison. The team will need healthy seasons from the first two and a bounceback year from Morrison in order to compete in a stacked NL East.
Luckily, they'll have help. Reyes will start the year atop the batting order. He, Ramirez and CF Emilio Bonifacio give the Marlins a speedy top of the order that could wreak havoc on the base paths (with the assistance of the large outfield gaps at Marlins Park, which is conducive to extra-base hits).
Cleaning up will be Stanton, the young power-hitting prodigy whose tape-measure home runs go viral before they even return to earth. In just a year and a half of big league action, Stanton has notched 56 home runs. It's a very real possibility that he can top 40 this season and garner some MVP consideration along the way.
The back half of the Marlins' lineup is not as exciting, but contains three former All Star selections (John Buck, Omar Infante and Gaby Sanchez) as well as Morrison, the social media expert disguised as a left fielder. The Marlins are built to score a lot of runs, and look to give their newly discovered fan base a reason to fill Marlins Park night after night.
But pitching wins championships, and the Marlins think they have a starting rotation that will remind fans of their 2003 championship staff. Johnson is a bona fide ace. If he can stay healthy, a Cy Young award is not out of the question.
Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez return with Johnson, but unlike Johnson, both hurlers have not quite lived up to the reputations they earned as top prospects. Sanchez put up his best year in 2011, with a 3.67 ERA and 202 strikeouts, but poor run support in part held him to just an 8-9 record.
Nolasco has been even more confounding. He put up a 4.67 ERA and 10-12 record in 2011, but advanced statistics suggest he has been unlucky. More troubling was a drop in his strikeout rate, from 8.39 per 9 innings in 2010 to 6.47 in 2011. He will need to return to form in 2012.
Buehrle and former Chicago Cub Carlos Zambrano round out the rotation. In the past 11 seasons with the White Sox, Buehrle has averaged 220 innings, 14 wins and a 3.81 ERA. A repeat of that line should be enough to please Marlins manager (and also his former boss) Ozzie Guillen.
Zambrano is a bit of a reclamation project, having come from the Cubs in return for Chris Volstad. Since winning 18 games in 2007, his career fell off a cliff. Zambrano's task is to simply be the fifth starter and try not to issue too many walks (he's averaged 4 per 9 innings over his career) or let his legendary temper get the best of him. If he can avoid stuffing Ramirez or Morrison into a clubhouse locker, then his season will be a success.
Former San Diego Padre Heath Bell anchors a bullpen that is largely unchanged from 2011. He takes over the closer role from Juan Carlos Oviedo, who remains with the team but is still in the Dominican Republic sorting out visa issues. Bell saved 132 games in San Diego over the past three seasons, but his falling strikeout rate could be a cause for concern in 2012. Steve Cishek and Edward Mujica are the other arms to watch in the bullpen, they will likely handle the seventh and eighth innings of tight games.
Corralling this bunch will be Guillen, returning to Miami after an eight-year stint as manager of the Chicago White Sox. His task is to deflect attention from his team when they struggle, and if there is one thing he excels at, it's taking the attention off of someone else. Legendary for his blowups at opponents sportswriters, and occasionally his own team, Guillen will add entertainment value at the very least.
The Marlins have not had reasonable playoff expectations in almost a decade. With their offseason makeover complete, they seemingly have all the pieces in place to get the franchise back into the postseason for the first time since 2003. While there is no guarantee the team will win a pennant, the surplus of outsized personalities at least ensures they will be interesting throughout the season.