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.

Bud Norris exits outing with right knee soreness

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Angels’ right-handed reliever Bud Norris made his 23rd appearance of the season on Friday, and after just three pitches, he was done for the night. He worked a 2-1 count to Marlins’ Dee Gordon in the eighth inning, then promptly exited the field after experiencing some tightness in his right knee. Neither Norris nor manager Mike Scioscia believe the injury is cause for major concern, and the 32-year-old right-hander admitted that it may have had something to do with his lack of stretching before he took the mound. For now, he’s day-to-day with right knee soreness, with the hope that the issue doesn’t escalate over the next few days.

While the Angels are lucky to have avoided serious injury, they’ll need Norris to pitch at 100% if they want to stay competitive within the AL West. They currently sit a full nine games behind the league-leading Astros, and haven’t been helping their cause after taking five losses in their last eight games. Friday’s 8-5 finale marked their third consecutive loss of the week.

 

When healthy, Norris has been one of the better arms in the Angels’ bullpen. Through 23 2/3 innings, he’s pitched to a 2.66 ERA, 3.4 BB/9 and an outstanding 11.8 SO/9 in 23 outings. The righty hasn’t allowed a single run in four straight appearances, recording three saves and helping the club clinch four wins in that span. This is his second setback of the year after sustaining a partial fingernail tear on his pitching hand during spring training.

Video: Max Scherzer sets record with 13-strikeout outing

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Max Scherzer is a force to be reckoned with. The Nationals’ right-hander delivered a season-high 13 strikeouts against the Padres on Friday, locking down his fifth win and his fourth double-digit strikeout performance of the year.

More remarkably, it was also the 53rd double-digit strikeout performance of Scherzer’s career, tying Clayton Kershaw for the most 10+ strikeout appearances by an active major league pitcher. Chris Sale is a distant third, with 43 to his name, though he’s been making considerable strides to catch up so far this spring.

Scherzer took the Padres to task on Friday night, whiffing 13 of 31 batters during his 108-pitch outing. He started strong, catching Allen Cordoba swinging on a 1-2 count to start the game and keeping the game scoreless until Ryan Schimpf unleashed a home run in the fourth inning. That was the first and final run the Padres managed off of Scherzer, who retired 14 consecutive batters following the blast and came one out shy of a complete game in the ninth inning. (Fittingly, Koda Glover polished off the win with a final strikeout, bringing the total to 14 on the night.)

It’ll take more than one stellar start to advance Scherzer and Kershaw on the all-time list, however. Their 53-game record ranks 13th, about 159 games behind second-place Hall of Fame hurler Randy Johnson and a full 162 games shy of the inimitable Nolan Ryan.