Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria thinks his team has what it takes to make the playoffs and compete for a championship in 2011, their final year in the not-so-friendly confines of Sun Life Stadium. This is not too surprising, since he said the same thing before the 2010 season. The Marlins did not live up to Loria's expectations last year, finishing 80-82 and well out of playoff contention.
Even though the team disappointed, Loria and his front office brain trust of Larry Beinfest and Michael Hill made very few changes over the offseason. Indeed, the biggest move of the winter was the one they didn't make: signing All-Star 2B Dan Uggla to a contract extension.
When negotiations broke down with Uggla (the team refused to increase the 4-year, $48 million contract offered to Uggla), he was shipped to division rival Atlanta for 2B Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn.
The Marlins hope full seasons from sophomore OFs Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton will make up for the loss of Uggla. Throw in perennial All-Star Hanley Ramirez and former Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, and the heart of the Marlins order looks pretty strong for years to come.
Florida's starting rotation is not too shabby, either. Ace Josh Johnson led the National League in ERA last year, and Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez can both dominate when they take the hill. Free agent acquisition Javier Vazquez is coming off a down year with the Yankees, but he is only a season removed from a brilliant year with the Braves in which he posted a career-best 2.87 ERA.
As is the case most years, the Marlins' biggest question is its bullpen, which features four new faces. Improving on last year's bullpen performance would not be too difficult. The Marlins blew the second most saves in the league in 2010 (25), and left many a Marlins fan distraught after blowing far too many late-game leads.
The Marlins face stiff competition in the NL East. 4-time defending division champion Philadelphia added ace Cliff Lee to an already stacked starting rotation that may be the best in recent history. The other division heavyweight, Atlanta, now has Uggla, the Marlin's second best hitter of the last five years. The Mets and Nationals are no pushovers either, but just about every expert has the Marlins finishing third behind the Braves and Phillies.
Loria has already called out his team before the season even started, exhorting his players to "take a look in the mirror" after a nine-game losing streak during Spring Training. If the Marlins struggle at any point this year, he will surely voice his displeasure again, in what has become a rite of summer in South Florida.
No other owner in Major League Baseball has as short a fuse as Loria. If only his passion for winning translated into a competitive payroll (the Marlins once again field one of the least expensive teams in MLB this year).
The team hopes a strong performance in 2011 will convince their notoriously fickle fans to come out to the ballpark when they move into their new stadium in Little Havana next season. Until then, plenty of seats are available at Sun Life, as always.
The Fish open the season against the New York Mets at 7:10 pm at Sun Life Stadium. You can catch it on Fox Sports Florida, or 790 or 710 AM. Josh Johnson will get the start.