The NL East, home to three of the league’s top four records, is turning into something of a dogfight. Atop the division, to no one’s surprise, sit the Phillies and their four-ace rotation. Four and a half games back, the Braves young core, deep pitching staff, and league-best bullpen are very much in the race. Between the two, however, the surprising Florida Marlins have managed to keep up with their higher-salaried rivals, to the disbelief of many. Are the Fish truly contenders or is this simply an extended early-season hot stretch that will see them fade down the stretch?
Right off the bat, their run totals show that something’s a little out of whack for the (soon to be Miami) Marlins. Having scored 220 runs and allowed 215, we’d expect a record around .500. Currently, they’re nine games ahead of that pace. According to Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings, the Marlins’ 3.9 wins over their first-order expectation (based simply on their runs scored/runs allowed differential) is the biggest gap between expected and actual wins for any team up to this point. A huge reason for this disparity is the Marlins’ current advantage in squeakers; they’ve won a ridiculous 14 of the 19 one-run games they’ve played so far this season.
However, there are some bright spots that should provide hope for a strong future in Florida, even if they don’t figure to keep pace with the Braves and Phillies over the balance of this season. Gaby Sanchez, whose All-Star resume is currently much stronger than nearly anybody realizes, has taken a big step forward even after a reasonably productive 2010. Last year, the durable Sanchez missed only one game, and put up 2.3 WAR by doing a little bit of everything. He got on base at a decent clip, flashed some power, and played decent defense at first. This year’s he’s essentially taken his game up a notch in every category. He’s started every game at first, is showing more patience with an increased walk rate and diminished strikeout rate, and has become much more selective, reducing his offerings at pitches outside the zone. He’s increased his power output, following up on his 19-homer 2010 campaign with nine already this season. Sanchez’s 152 wRC+ trails only Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera among first basemen… not bad company. He’s also added value with the glove, putting up a solid 2.1 UZR so far this year. All told, he’s already matched his 2010 production level in less than a third of the appearances.
Outfielder Logan Morrison has been equally impressive with the bat, although his durability has hampered his ability to produce on the same level as Sanchez. Despite missing nearly a month between late April and early May recovering from a sprained ligament in his foot, Morrison has been extremely productive as the team’s everyday left fielder. He’s accumulated 1.5 WAR in 32 games as the Marlins’ everyday left fielder, hitting seven home runs and putting up a .254 ISO. He also leads the NL in Twitter activity, with over 7,500 tweets and nearly 30,000 followers since joining in November of 2009. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s about 15 tweets a day over the past two and a half years. If @LoMoMarlins keeps hitting like this, he could soon challenge @NickSwisher (over 1.3 million followers) for MLB Twitter superiority.
Mike Stanton is showing no signs of a sophomore slump after his impressive rookie campaign in which his 22 home runs and .248 ISO led all first-year players. After his massive numbers in 100 games last year, Stanton’s now played 50 and is on pace to match his home run total while taking steps forward in several facets of his game. First and foremost, Stanton was a hacker last season, finishing third in the NL with a 34.3% K rate behind notorious strikeout machines Mark Reynolds and Adam Dunn. However, he’s dropped his strikeout rate more than 5% in 2011, while raising his walk rate by a percent. For Marlins supporters who would like to see Stanton get on base a bit more in addition to him impressive power, this is an encouraging development.
Quick, name the top two NL pitching WAR leaders over the past two years. As you likely guessed, number one is Tim Lincecum. Number two would probably surprise you if this weren’t an article on the Marlins, but of course it is, so you know Josh Johnson’s been the second-best pitcher in the league since 2009. Johnson’s currently on the DL with shoulder inflammation, and the Marlins’ rotation looks a lot less imposing without its ace at the helm. After an impressive 2010 in which he put up a 2.41 FIP in 28 starts, Johnson is currently well on his way to an equally strong campaign. Assuming his DL stint cures his shoulder issues and he returns relatively quickly, expect Johnson to make a strong case to finish behind Roy Halladay for the NL Cy Young this year.
Stepping up to fill Johnson’s shoes in his absence, and impressive behind Johnson all year, has been Anibal “The Animal” Sanchez. Sanchez’s strikeout rate has skyrocketed this season to more than a K per inning pitched, driving his FIP down to 3.01. At 1.7 WAR, Sanchez is looking likely to follow his breakout 2010 campaign with an equally impressive 2011. With Ricky Nolasco also putting up solid numbers, this rotation isn’t all that far behind the incredible arms boasted by their main competition for the NL East crown.
The back end of the Marlins’ bullpen is also looking fairly strong so far. Leo Nunez currently leads the league with 19 saves. GM Michael Hill identified the bullpen as a major concern heading into the offseason, and targeted relief help in moving Dan Uggla and Cameron Maybin. Through these trades, the Marlins added Edward Mujica (from the Padres) and Michael Dunn (from the Braves), and both have been impressive thus far.
Overall, the Marlins will probably not be able to stay competitive with the high-powered Phillies and Braves this season. However, don’t count them out for next year. As they move into their new ballpark in 2012 and officially become the “Miami Marlins,” the Fish could consider a free agency splash in anticipation of the increased revenue expected whenever a team enters a new home. The Marlins have been fairly competitive considering they currently sit at a payroll of slightly less than $57 million, $30 million back of the Braves and less than a third of the Phillies total salary. If they are willing to open their wallet a little and jump from the 7th lowest payroll in baseball, they could make some waves.