Scouting the competition: The Marlins

Here's a look at the Florida Marlins, who fell back into last place this season in the National League East.

The Florida Marlins battled injuries and inexperience this season, and Fredi Gonzalez's first season as a big league manager was a tough one. The Washington Nationals even bypassed the Marlins to send Florida back to last place in the National League East.

The starting rotation was destroyed by injuries. Josh Johnson, who won 12 games in 2006, made only four starts this season and had Tommy John Surgery in August. He'll miss the entire 2008 season. Ricky Nolasco was 11-11 in 22 starts last season, but this year he battled right elbow inflammation and pitched in only five games. And Anibal Sanchez, who was 10-3 a year ago, had a torn labrum in his shoulder and had surgery in June.

Dontrelle Willis had a disappointing season, and he presents the top question for the Marlins this offseason. His numbers have declined the last two years while his salary continues to rise. He made $6.45 million this season and the Marlins have to wonder if now is the time to try to trade their star pitcher.

If they do, the Braves could inquire about the southpaw, who would make an interesting third starter behind John Smoltz and Tim Hudson. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is no longer around to offer the Marlins, but the Braves could perhaps offer some young pitching (Jo Jo Reyes?) and an outfielder (Matt Diaz?). The Marlins really don't need an infielder, which is the Braves' strength, so it might be difficult to make a deal, especially if the Marlins want more from an intra-division rival.

The Marlins might want to peddle Scott Olsen instead of Willis considering all the troubles he caused this season. Olsen fought with his teammates, got a DUI, and exchanged words with team ownership. Olsen is still cheap, however, with another year to go before he's eligible for arbitration. So he instead could assume the role of the ace if Willis is traded this winter.

Sergio Mitre emerged as a solid starter with 27 starts in 2007. The Marlins love Rick Vanden Hurk and have him penciled in as a starter next season.

The Marlins tried to get rid of Byung-Hyun Kim but got him back anyway. Now he's eligible for free agency. Will the Marlins bring him back to provide some leadership in the rotation? They need a veteran to be in there with Olsen, Mitre, and Vanden Hurk.

The bullpen was a tremendous surprise for the Florida team. Kevin Gregg was signed as a free agent after being discarded by the Angels. He had over 30 saves and was one of the top breakout players of the season in the game.

But Gregg's setup men were outstanding. Lefty Taylor Tankersley was great against lefty hitters. Matt Lindstrom, Lee Gardner, Renyel Pinto, and former Blue Jay Justin Miller were all very good. Armando Benitez is a free agent, and the Marlins might let him go and bring in another veteran to compliment the young arms in the pen.

The focus on the position players is in the infield, where second baseman Dan Uggla, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, and third baseman Miguel Cabrera are terrific players. They might be close to a decision on Cabrera, who made $7.4 million this season and will be due more through arbitration this winter.

Left fielder Josh Willingham and right fielder Jeremy Hermida are good corner outfielders, but the Marlins might want to upgrade in center. Alfredo Amezaga got the majority of playing time in center after Alejandro De Aza missed most of the season with injuries.

Catcher Miguel Olivo provided decent power but his average was too low. The Marlins might look to bring in another veteran or give Matt Treanor additional playing time.

Aaron Boone got some significant playing time early on, but a knee injury in June limited him to 69 games. He's a free agent again this winter, so it'll be interesting to see if the soon-to-be 35-year old will continue his career. He's a corner infielder with power, so he could attract some interest if he's healthy. The Braves might even look his way as a potential reserve behind Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira.

The Marlins seemed to be on the right track in 2006 when they won 77 games, but the injuries to the rotation just killed Fredi Gonzalez's chances to improve on that. Instead, the Marlins moved back into last place and seem to have less optimism compared to a year ago. They have difficult decisions to make on Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, and perhaps the Braves will be one of the teams in line to make an offer.

Florida needs a new stadium, but more than that it needs another infusion of young talent. There does not seem to be another group of young players on the horizon, which makes it difficult to believe the Marlins can rebound with so many questions around the pitching staff.

Potential Free Agents - Armando Benitez, Aaron Boone, Byung-Hyun Kim, Felix Rodrigues

Eligible For Arbitration - Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera, Miguel Olivo, Logan Kensing, Kevin Gregg


Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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