Commentary

Marlins must shore up their defense

Originally Published: November 11, 2008
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

The Marlins are coming off a satisfying 84-win season, their first winning campaign since 2005. With a strong front of the rotation -- Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad -- there's in-house hope of taking the National League East by surprise next season.

FLORIDA MARLINS
GM: Michael Hill
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez
'08 record: 84-77, 3rd in NL East
Florida Marlins '08 payroll: $22.65M, 30th MLB
Runs scored: 770, 5th NL
Runs allowed: 767, 6th NL
OPS: .759, 5th NL
ERA: 4.43, 11th NL
Fielding percentage: .980, T-15th

One mitigating factor, however, is money. The payroll doesn't figure to exceed $35 million, which will limit ownership's ability to keep some of the Marlins' arbitration-eligible stars. An unusually large number of their players have reached that threshold.

Primary needs

The offense slugged a franchise-record 208 home runs in 2008, second in the NL only to the Phillies. But the power surge came with a cost: The Marlins led the league in strikeouts (1,371), and their .980 fielding percentage tied them for last with the Nationals.

Team president Larry Beinfest seems ready to exchange some of that power for better run-prevention, which is why the Marlins zeroed in on the Nats' Emilio Bonifacio.

Free agents

OF Luis Gonzalez, LHP Arthur Rhodes, C Paul Lo Duca, LHP Mark Hendrickson

It doesn't appear Gonzalez and his $2 million salary will be back; the DH role more closely fits his skill set, although the 41-year-old outfielder reportedly is interested in a reprise with the Diamondbacks.

Trade bait

The finite budget is what sent Scott Olsen packing to Washington. The left-hander's $405,000 salary could jump to just less than $3 million through arbitration this winter, which made him a prime candidate for a deal.

The Marlins were similarly motivated in trading Mike Jacobs to the Royals last week. The first baseman figured to make approximately $4 million in arbitration, which is more than ownership wanted to spend on a hitter with a .247 average and .299 on-base percentage in 2008.

Jacobs does have undeniable power, however -- 80 home runs and 247 career RBIs -- which is why the Marlins were able to generate interest in him so early in the offseason.

Farm aid

The club is hoping to see rapid development from left-hander Sean West, a former first-round draft pick who has struggled with injuries since 2007. What distinguishes West from the Marlins' other blue-chip prospects is his height -- he stands at 6-foot-8. With his long limbs and long delivery, West's fastball routinely clocks in the mid-90s.

Not surprisingly, West averaged nearly a strikeout an inning at Class A Jupiter in 2008 and now is on the Marlins' radar for 2009. In the meantime, he is one of seven Marlins prospects currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, including Aaron Thompson, another first-round pick from the '05 draft.

Outlook

Florida's emergence in '08 has not gone unnoticed by either the Phillies or the Mets, whose general manager, Omar Minaya, says, "The Marlins are the reason this is going to be a very tough, very balanced division next year."

If Beinfest can maintain enough of the explosive power -- dropping Hanley Ramirez to the No. 3 hole might be an option -- and sprinkle in better defense and athleticism, count on a three-team race in the NL East.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.