Springtime storylines: Is this the year the Marlins finally break the mold?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The ever-pesky Florida Marlins.

The Big Question: Is this the year the Marlins finally break the mold?

We’ve come to expect a particular narrative from the Marlins over the past few seasons. While owner Jeffrey Loria doesn’t spend much on player payroll, we can usually count on the Marlins to be a pesky bunch that will hang around just long enough so that they look like contenders around the trade deadline. However, they ultimately fall short down the stretch.

That’s essentially what we saw from them again last season, as Edwin Rodriguez took over for Fredi Gonzalez in June and led the Marlins to a 46-46 record the rest of the way. The most positive development from an on-the-field perspective was that Mike Stanton flashed elite power potential as a 20-year-old and Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison emerged as potential regulars moving forward.

The Marlins engaged in contract talks with the arbitration-eligible Dan Uggla following the season, but ultimately swapped him to the Braves for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn after he rejected a four-year, $48 million extension. It was a disappointing return for the Fish, especially considering that they traded him to a division rival.

The hope is that Stanton can provide the thump in the middle of the order for the long haul – and while he certainly appears capable of doing just that — I have some concerns about their offense this season, especially if they give 21-year-old Matt Dominguez the opportunity to sink or swim at third base. After losing one of the most reliable power hitters in the game, the Marlins are now banking on productivity from a number of young and inexperienced players.

So what else is going on?

  • Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez already give the Marlins a pretty good chance to win, so if Javier Vazquez rebounds, the starting rotation could be a real strength. It’s fair to expect some improvement with the move back to the National League — and away from Yankee Stadium — but Vazquez is unlikely make a major impact unless he consistently throws in the low-90s again. Back end starter? Fine. But let’s not get carried away just yet.
  • The Marlins plan — at least at the moment — to use Chris Coghlan in center field. The decision is bad enough since advanced metrics haven’t been kind to him in left field, but Coghlan is also coming back from knee surgery and is currently dealing with shoulder soreness. The alternatives aren’t great (Emilio Bonifacio, DeWayne Wise, Scott Cousins), but Coghlan could be a real adventure out there. If Dominguez struggles or begins the year in the minors, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Coghlan get a look at second base or third eventually.
  • Marlins relievers led the National League in walks last season and finished ninth in ERA, so they made it a priority to revamp their bullpen during the winter. Leo Nunez, Clay Hensley, Brian Sanches and Burke Badenhop remain, but they added Dunn in the Uggla trade, Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica in the Cameron Maybin deal and Randy Choate as a free agent. Bullpens can be pretty fickle from year-to-year, but they should be better, at least on paper.
  • Dominguez could open the year on the major league roster, but there’s not much more help on the way. Now that Sanchez, Stanton and Morrison have graduated from the minors, the Marlins have one of the weakest farm systems in the game. If they’re going to win, they’re going to have to do it with what they currently have.

So how are they gonna do?

While I expect them to play better than .500 ball this year, I just don’t see them finishing ahead of the Braves or Phillies. Sure, Hanley will be Hanley and there will likely be some progression from Morrison and Stanton, but I’m not crazy about their third base situation and I’m betting against a repeat from new catcher John Buck.

So yes, another third place finish it is. On the bright side, the Marlins have a pretty exciting cast of young players under team control for the opening of their new stadium next season.

Diamondbacks return Rule 5 pick Tyler Jones to Yankees

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Diamondbacks’ right-hander Tyler Jones is headed back to the Yankees, the teams announced on Friday. The Diamondbacks had previously selected Jones in the Rule 5 draft last December, but elected to leave the 27-year-old off of their 40-man roster heading into the 2017 season. Rule 5 draft rules stipulate that when a player is not kept on the receiving team’s roster, the player must be offered back to his original team.

Jones signed a minor league contract with the Yankees prior to the 2016 season. He pitched to an impressive 2.17 ERA, 2.2 BB/9 and 13.2 SO/9 over 45 2/3 innings with Double-A Trenton, but was unable to make the leap to Triple-A or beyond during his stay with the organization.

Jones’ outlook with the Diamondbacks appeared slightly more promising. GM Mike Hazen described the righty as a power arm with a “good fastball and power curveball” after selecting him in the Rule 5 draft, and early reports indicated that Jones would be in the mix for a bullpen spot. A rough spring performance — underscored by his lack of experience at the Triple-A and major league levels — undid most of that confidence, however, and the Diamondbacks weren’t willing to keep him on the active roster throughout the entire 2017 season in order to acquire his control rights.

Jones is set to open the season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, per a report from the Yankees.

Derek Norris signing with the Rays

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Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown reports that Derek Norris is signing with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Norris was released by the Nationals nine days ago, made redundant by the Nats’ signing of Matt Wieters and by everyone sliding down a notch on the depth chart below him. Norris hit only .186/.255/.328 with 14 home runs and a .528 OPS for the Padres in 2016.

Still, there always seems to be a place for a backup catcher. For Norris that place is Tampa Bay.