Mar 16, 2012; Jupiter, FL. USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Mark Buehrle (56) delivers a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Marlins 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

Season Preview: Miami's Pitching Staff

Understanding and analyzing what the competition is up to is often just as important to knowing what the Nationals are up to. With Opening Day coming up in just about two weeks, it’s time we start taking a look at the rosters heading into the season for each of Washington’s division rivals. Once we run through each of the four divisional opponents, we’ll sum everything up and make some predictions. 

Our Season Preview series led off with an examination of the New York Mets. Next to the plate, the Miami Marlins. 

Heading into the offseason it seemed pretty certain that the Marlins were going to pursue one of the premiere free agent pitchers available. The team was determined to spend big this winter, an effort to justify the taxpayer-financed stadium that is set to open in the coming weeks.

Early on all indications seem to point towards the Marlins pursuing C.J. Wilson and in the end, they were one of the finalists in the hunt to land the left-hander. But as negotiations continued to progress, the Marlins were simultaneously negotiating with what was perceived to be their Plan B, Mark Buehrle. On December 9th the team announced their four year, $54 Million contract with Buehrle. Wilson’s signing with the Angels would be announced the next day.

Now Buehrle, who had spent his entire career with the Chicago White Sox before reaching free agency and who has been reunited with his former manager in Ozzie Guillen, is set to help anchor the Marlins rotation in 2012. The veteran has been reliable, throwing 200+ innings each of the past 11 seasons with a 3.83 ERA and an average of 15 wins per season. He and a hopefully healthy Josh Johnson should form a fairly strong 1-2 punch atop the Miami pitching staff. Health is ultimately going to be key for the pair of players.

Buehrle doesn’t have a checkered injury history like Johnson does, but he’ll be 33 on Friday and pitchers generally do not have a good track record as their arms and bodies continue to age. As for Johnson, he’s hoping to return to form after missing nearly the entire 2011 season. In the 9 starts he did make he posted a 3-1 record with a 1.64 ERA and 8.4 K/9 in 60.1 innings. He was on pace for another typical season from the right-hander.

Beyond the co-aces atop the rotation, the Marlins will likely send out Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco in the next two turns through the rotation. Each pitcher has their strengths but also their weaknesses. Sanchez also has an injury history, but has shown flashes of dominance when healthy. The two sides were rumored to be discussing terms of a contract extension throughout much of the past two months but there are no indications that a deal is close. Could the lack of long term security drive Sanchez to put up big numbers this season?

The last spot in the rotation appears to be going to Carlos Zambrano, though I’d prefer Wade LeBlanc fill the role rather than serve as the team’s long reliever. At this point in his career, I don’t expect much from Zambrano. He has to go a long way to prove that he is still capable of being a big-game pitcher.

While we all followed the rumors and rumblings surrounding the top free agent starting pitchers, the Marlins also seemed to sneak in and land the biggest bullpen option available on the market this winter, closer Heath Bell.  It was an expensive week for Miami. Bell signed on December 3rd. Jose Reyes signed two days later. Buehrle’s contract was announced two days after that.

Bell has saved 40+ games each of the past three seasons and will help anchor the Marlins bullpen. With all of the other additions this team made over the winter, they’d all be for nothing if the team didn’t have the ability to finish out games. Plus, considering the still unresolved situation that Juan Carlos Oviedo finds himself in, there was a definite need for an experienced and reliable arm at the back of the bullpen.

Right-hander Ryan Webb and left-hander Michael Dunn seem to be the most likely options to work the later innings ahead of Bell. Lefty Randy Choate and righties Steve Cishek and Eduardo Mujica figure to round out the rest of the bullpen. An area of concern to take note of, there isn’t significant depth in the Marlins organization on the pitching front. Their top pitching prospects (RHP Jose Fernandez and LHP Chad James) are not close to being MLB ready.

Tags: Anibal Sanchez Carlos Zambrano Heath Bell Josh Johnson Mark Buehrle Miami Marlins Washington Nationals

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