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Spring Training 2011 Question Of The Day: Florida Marlins

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The Marlins are stocked with young talent in their lineup and big arms in their pitching rotation. But will their starting pitchers be healthy enough to lift the Fish into contention?

VIERA, FL - MARCH 02: Josh Johnson #55  of the Florida Marlins pitches during a Spring Training game against the Washington Nationals at Space Coast Stadium on March 2, 2011 in Viera, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
VIERA, FL - MARCH 02: Josh Johnson #55 of the Florida Marlins pitches during a Spring Training game against the Washington Nationals at Space Coast Stadium on March 2, 2011 in Viera, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Florida Marlins.

Wait! Don't go anywhere! You made it this far already, and I've got news!

Of a sort, anyway ...

If you're looking for a dark horse in 2011 -- and I know you know you are -- you've come to the right place. Because among all the teams that nobody's really talking about, the Florida Marlins probably have the best chance of playing big games in late September.

The Marlins? In the same division with the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves?

Yeah, the Marlins.

Last year, the Marlins were essentially a .500 team, and introduced two outstanding rookie hitters in the middle of the season; full campaigns from Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison figure to add three or four wins, alone.

Of course, that won't be enough. What the Marlins really need are innings.

Lots and lots of innings from their starting pitchers. And in some cases, better innings.

Last season, Anibal Sanchez led the staff with 195 innings. This was actually a major breakthrough, as Sanchez's previous career high was just 114 innings ... and those came all the way back in 2006. Sanchez was finally healthy in 2010, and the Marlins need him healthy again in 2011.

Last season, Josh Johnson pitched 184 innings and led the National League with a 2.30 ERA. But Johnson missed the last month of the season with a sore shoulder, and this wasn't exactly the first time. Johnson underwent Tommy John Surgery in 2007, and has pitched 200 innings in a season just once in his career. But that 2.30 was just a small fluke; if healthy for six months, Johnson's a Cy Young candidate.

Last season, Chris Volstad pitched 175 innings. He would have pitched more, if he had pitched better. Volstad, who's been giving up too many home runs for a low-strikeout sinkerballer, has a 4.88 ERA over the last two seasons, which really isn't good enough for a team with postseason aspirations. At the moment, he's in danger of losing his job.

Last season, Ricky Nolasco pitched only 157 innings before missing all of September with a knee injury. Nolasco has pitched sparingly this spring, due to a sore thumb. Does it really matter? After all, Nolasco's ERA over the last two seasons was 4.81, little better than Volstad's.

True. But Nolasco might be a sleeping giant. His strikeout-to-walk ratios over the last three seasons: 4.43, 4.43. 4.45. Among pitchers with at least 450 National League innings in those years, Nolasco's 4.44 mark ranks second, behind only Dan Haren's 5.33 (and well ahead of everyone else).

Last season, Javier Vazquez pitched only 157 innings for the Yankees, mostly because he pitched so poorly the Yankees wouldn't let him pitch more. Somehow, Vazquez abruptly lost his good fastball last season. Now he's a Marlin, and everyone thinks he can can get it back.

So that's five starters, all of whom have room for improvement, at least innings-wise. Volstad's not guaranteed the No. 5 slot, but it's probably his to lose. Rookie Alex Sanabia pitched well last season after joining the Marlins in June, but he's done very little this spring. Meanwhile, Elih Villanueva doesn't throw hard and hasn't tasted Triple-A yet, but he's posted excellent numbers in camp.

It's unhealthy to obsess to obsess about No. 5 starters, so we'll stick with Nos. 1 through 4 ... Can Johnson, Sanchez, Nolasco and Vazquez combine for more than 700 innings?

If so, watch out for the Marlins, parked near the top of the standings astride a herd of dark seahorses.