PLAYER TO WATCH
The Marlins hope that Ricky Nolasco's final start of 2009 was a preview of what's to come in '10. Against the Braves on Sept. 30 the righthander struck out 16, including nine in a row—one short of the major league record. "That's the Ricky we know," says G.M. Larry Beinfest, who acquired Nolasco from the Cubs in a December 2005 trade. "And that's the Ricky we expect to see this year."
It certainly wasn't the Ricky they saw most of last season. Nolasco followed up his breakout '08 season (15--8, 3.52 ERA) with a year to forget: a 9.07 ERA in his first nine starts, after which he was banished to Triple A New Orleans for two weeks. "We were completely floored by how poorly he pitched out of the gate," says Beinfest, who thinks the then 26-year-old Nolasco put too much pressure on himself and let his mechanics lapse. "We view him as a guy that anchors the staff with Josh Johnson at the top of the rotation."
There have been signs that Nolasco, indeed, will fill that role. Though he was erratic after being recalled to the Marlins in June, Nolasco still struck out a career-high 195 hitters and finished with a strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.43) nearly identical to his number in '08. What's more, this spring he struck out 19 and walked none in his first 18 innings. "At the beginning of the year my mechanics were off, and things just snowballed," he says. "I felt good at the end of the year, and I feel great going into this year."
Errors by Hanley Ramirez last year, less than half of his previous career low and the fourth fewest among regular NL shortstops. But the improvement isn't as drastic as that suggests: The stat range factor says the 26-year-old All-Star got to the third-fewest balls among NL shortstops.
The Marlins can help Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan—and make themselves better—by moving him back to his original position, third base. Coghlan had never caught a fly ball as a professional when the Marlins promoted him last May and made him their leftfielder. He didn't take to the job, ranking among the worst defensive leftfielders in the game as measured by Ultimate Zone Rating. With mediocre veteran Jorge Cantu at third and no first baseman to speak of, the Marlins' best unit would have Coghlan at third with Cantu sliding across the diamond until prospect Logan Morrison is ready to take over at first in 2011. Florida can patch leftfield until prospect Mike Stanton arrives—perhaps the middle of this season. Coghlan is more valuable at third, where his glove will be average, and the team will be better for upgrading its defense at two spots.
WITH 2009 STATISTICS
Manager Fredi Gonzalez
4TH SEASON WITH MARLINS
TOM SZCZERBOWSKI/US PRESSWIRE (NOLASCO)
EARLY SUCCESS A fast start will help Nolasco leave his '09 struggles behind.
TOM DIPACE (COGHLAN)