By Jeff Saukaitis, TSN Contributor - Archive - Email
Marlins hanging tough through early season problems
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Baltimore Orioles' hot start has them tied for first place in the American League East. If they end up on top, it would perhaps be the greatest worst-to-first run in major league history.

Another major league team that finished last in 2011 is contending for a division crown this season. No, the Miami Marlins winning the NL East wouldn't be as stunning as Baltimore beating out the likes of the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox to claim the AL East, but it would be the first division title in Marlins history. The club was a wild card when it captured World Series titles in 1997 and 2003.

Unlike the Orioles, who did not have too many earth-shattering transactions during the offseason, the Marlins made numerous moves with clear designs on being a playoff contender in their first season in Marlins Park.

After adding expensive free agents Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle, Miami boosted its payroll to an un-Marlin-like $118 million - more than double the club's payroll last year. At least on paper, it looked like the team that finished last in the NL East with a 72-90 record in 2011 would contend this season.

The early part of this season couldn't have gone much worse for the Marlins, though. Among the litany of problems, not even including manager Ozzie Guillen's five-game suspension for having said "I love Fidel Castro" during an interview with Time magazine:

* Ace pitcher Josh Johnson, who was leading the NL in ERA last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, has not been himself. After seven starts, Johnson is still winless. He's allowed a whopping 51 hits in 38 1/3 innings, and his ERA is 5.87. His velocity is down, and Guillen has already speculated aloud that Johnson might not be fully healthy.

* Bell, signed to a three-year, $27 million contract to become the closer, has already been removed from the ninth-inning gig. Guillen really had no other choice, not after Bell blew four of his first seven save opportunities. In his first 11 2/3 innings, Bell has surrendered 18 hits and 13 earned runs for a 10.03 ERA. He also has walked 12 and struck out eight.

* Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 34 homers in 2011 when he was still known as Mike Stanton, didn't hit one out of the park until April 29. He has since gotten on a hot streak, and now has seven homers and 22 RBIs through his first 125 at- bats. When the Marlins' offense was in a major funk during April, though, Stanton's lack of power was the chief culprit.

* Reyes won the NL batting title last season with the New York Mets, but he has put up pedestrian numbers from the leadoff spot: a .261 batting average and .348 on-base percentage through his first 134 at-bats - OK stats, but underwhelming for a big-ticket free agent.

* Hanley Ramirez has handled the move from shortstop to third base quite well, committing just one error at his new position. He also has paced the Marlins with 23 RBIs. However, he is batting a measly .221 through his first 140 at- bats.

* After hitting 19 homers in each of his previous two seasons as the Marlins' first baseman, Gaby Sanchez has just one homer and 10 RBIs through his first 111 at-bats.

* As a team, the Marlins are batting just .236 - 23rd in the majors.

Despite all that, Miami is still in the race, possibly because the other NL East contenders have had problems of their own. The main reason for the Marlins' success, though, has been their pitching.

Other than notable exceptions Johnson and Bell, the Marlins have been outstanding on the mound. Aside from Johnson, here are their other starters' ERAs: Mark Buerhle (2.81), Ricky Nolasco (3.65), Annibal Sanchez (2.28) and Carlos Zambrano (1.88).

Sure, the Marlins' new ballpark looks like it's going to be extremely pitcher- friendly, but those four starters' ERAs would be impressive in any park. That kind of pitching is always going to keep the Marlins in games.

The bullpen - again, with the exception of Bell - has been solid. Edward Mujica, Steve Cishek and Randy Choate should be able to hold the fort as a committee until Bell can straighten his pitching out. There are 27 million reasons to believe he'll get more opportunities to right the ship.

The Marlins' offense should improve, too. Reyes, Ramirez, Stanton and Sanchez should all be able to easily increase their production over the remainder of the season. Only one hitter in the lineup - Omar Infante (.304, six homers, 17 RBIs) - is off to what would be called a career year. Even if Infante returns to his career norm, improvement from the rest of the lineup should do more than make up the difference.

So, what are the Marlins' chances of winning the division? They're 18-17, currently fourth in the five-team NL East, four games behind the first-place Washington Nationals. Their chances seem decent, since the rest of the teams in the NL East have problems of their own.

The defending champion Philadelphia Phillies' offense is in the middle of the pack in the NL East mostly because two key hitters - Ryan Howard (Achilles) and Chase Utley (knee) - have yet to play this season. If they both come back soon and hit like they usually have, the Phillies will be dangerous. Their return to form, though, is hardly a given.

The Washington Nationals are going to be without one of their top players - right fielder Jayson Werth - for three months, following last week's surgery on his broken left wrist. On Saturday, they lost catcher Wilson Ramos, possibly for the rest of the season, with a torn ACL.

And this is a Nationals team that has had to endure injuries to Michael Morse and closer Drew Storen, neither of whom has appeared in a game this season. Ryan Zimmerman only recently returned to the lineup after sitting out more than two weeks with a shoulder injury.

If Morse doesn't return soon, the additional absence of Werth is going to make it tough for Washington to generate enough power, even though 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper is looking like he belongs.

Injuries haven't been a major issue for the Atlanta Braves, aside from the need to give aging Chipper Jones the occasional off day to preserve him for the long haul. The Braves, however, have had to overcome the sudden fall from grace of pitcher Jair Jurrjens. An NL All-Star last July, Jurrjens' poor April led to an unexpected demotion to the minors. It put more pressure on youngsters Mike Minor and Randall Delgado, and they've lacked consistency like young pitchers do.

The pesky Mets, not expected to contend, have done well to keep pace in the NL East despite a season-ending injury to pitcher Mike Pelfrey. They're still without left fielder Jason Bay (rib) and shortstop Ruben Tejada (quad strain). They play hard for manager Terry Collins and their lineup is better than most baseball fans realize, but the Mets are still likely to finish fifth if for no other reason than their almost complete lack of depth.

As for the Marlins, they could easily finish anywhere from first to fourth. First is probably more likely than fourth, though, because they appear to have no serious injury concerns, and their two players who are struggling most - pitchers Johnson and Bell - have track records that make them decent bets to eventually turn things around.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.

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