Springtime Storylines: Are the Marlins the most interesting team in baseball?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The new-look Miami Marlins.

The big question: Are the Marlins the most interesting team in baseball?

The Florida Marlins are no longer. We now have the Miami Marlins, complete with a new logo and uniforms, a quirky, new taxpayer-funded stadium and new skipper Ozzie Guillen, who has made a habit out of being a lightning rod for controversy. After years of fielding a team on the cheap, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria finally opened his wallet over the winter and while he didn’t lure Albert Pujols to South Florida, he was successful in getting Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell into the fold. The Marlins also made a deal with the Cubs in January for Carlos Zambrano, who ended last season on the restricted list after his latest personal meltdown.

Back from shoulder surgery, Hanley Ramirez is making the move over to third base to accommodate Reyes at shortstop. The 28-year-old reportedly had a tough time accepting the position change, but he hasn’t sulked yet. Just as the Marlins made the switch from Florida to Miami, Mike Stanton is now going by Giancarlo Stanton. At just 22 years old, he’s already one of the best power hitters in the game. And we also have baseball’s most famous tweeter Logan Morrison, who was demoted to the minors last season after clashing with management.

Win or lose, the Marlins should be the most interesting team in baseball this season. They certainly have the pieces in place to overtake the Phillies in the division, but they should also come with a warning label that reads, “contents may ignite or explode.” Showtime clearly sees the potential for great television, as they plan to feature them on the new season of “The Franchise.”

What else is going on?

  • Josh Johnson had a 1.64 ERA over his first nine starts last year before landing on the disabled list in May with a mysterious shoulder injury. No structural damage was ever found, but it was apparently serious enough where he didn’t make another start for the rest of the season. The 28-year-old right-hander hasn’t had any setbacks this spring, but it’s tough to count on him considering that he has logged more than 190 innings just once in his career. Anibal Sanchez has surprisingly made 32 starts in each of the past two seasons, but his injury history is also worrisome. The Marlins would have a tough time making a serious run if even one of them misses an extended period of time.
  • How is the new ballpark going to play? We need large sample of games before making an accurate judgment and this could be a very different stadium depending upon whether the roof is open, but the dimensions of the outfield are pretty big. The center field fence is 416 feet away from home plate while right-center field is 31 feet further away than it was in Sun Life Stadium. Only the fence down the right field line (335 ft) is closer than their former home. Giancarlo Stanton can hit home runs anywhere, but this probably means a favorite environment for the pitching staff and lots of triples for Jose Reyes.
  • No, I didn’t forget about the elaborate and unusual home run sculpture beyond the left-center field fence. We’ve talked about it so much over the past year or so that its debut is almost as anticipated as Stephen Strasburg’s was. As ridiculous at it looks, I think this gaudy hunk of metal will grow on us over time. Sort of like the episode of “Seinfeld” where that girl found George Costanza really irritating initially, but then he got stuck in her head. Co-stan-za!
  • Will people actually show up to the new ballpark in Little Havana? The Marlins have ranked last in the National League in attendance in each of the last six seasons, so I have my doubts. Of course, Loria hasn’t provided any reason for someone to want to come see the team. He has generated buzz this winter by adding some star power to the roster and he has been overt about attracting the Hispanic community, so the honeymoon phase should go well enough. But if they don’t win? Let’s just say I wouldn’t rule out another fire sale.

So how are they gonna do?

Best-case? Johnson throws 200 innings, Stanton hits 40 homers, Reyes stays mostly healthy and Hanley embraces the move to third base while bouncing back from his down 2011 campaign. If those things happen, the Marlins should challenge the Phillies for the division crown. However, I think there are way too many variables that could mess with that optimistic scenario. I have them in third place with around 85-88 wins, which puts them right in the mix for the second wild card spot.

Report: Cardinals, Yadier Molina making “major progress” on contract extension

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Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports that the Cardinals and catcher Yadier Molina are making “major progress” on a contract extension. Molina told the team he won’t discuss an extension during the season, hence the rapid progress.

Molina is entering the last guaranteed year of a five-year, $75 million contract signed in March 2012. He and the Cardinals hold a mutual option worth $15 million with a $2 million buyout for the 2018 season. The new extension would presumably cover at least the 2018-19 seasons and likely ’20 as well.

Molina is 34 years old but is still among the most productive catchers in baseball. Last season, he hit .307/.360/.427 with 38 doubles, 58 RBI, and 56 runs scored in 581 plate appearances. Though he has lost a step or two with age, Molina is still well-regarded for his defense. The Cardinals also value his ability to handle the pitching staff.

Sandy Leon homered twice in one inning, including a grand slam

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Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon achieved a rare feat during Monday afternoon’s Grapefruit League exhibition against the Orioles: he homered twice in one inning. One of those homers happened to be a grand slam.

Leon led off the top of the fifth inning with a solo home run off of Logan Verrett. Verrett continued to get knocked around, giving up three singles and a walk before being relieved by Brian Moran. Moran gave up a walk to load the bases, then a single to knock in a run and keep the bases loaded. Leon stepped back to the plate and swatted a grand slam to left field, making it an eight-run fifth for the Red Sox. The Sox would tack on one more before the inning was mercifully ended.

How often do players homer twice in one inning during the regular season? Not that often. Since 2010, the feat has been accomplished four times in the American League and twice in the National League. The Orioles’ Mark Trumbo was the only one to do it last year.

As for Leon, he’s on track to open the season as the starting catcher in Boston, Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald reported last week.