SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
The Marlins' $55 million starting rotation reports to spring training on Wednesday with encouraging news (Josh Johnson said his shoulder his fine), but also questions, including how Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano rebound from down years. Some early chatter:
### The Marlins expect far more from Nolasco, who exasperated by yielding the most hits in the National League (244 in 206 innings) and the third-most earned runs (107) – all after being given a three-year, $27 million extension. Nolasco privately was criticized by two former Marlins managers, one questioning his work ethic.
Here’s what’s worrisome: The batting average against him rose every year since 2008 – from .239, to .259 to .273 to .295 in 2011, when he finished 10-12.
Yes, he doesn’t issue many walks, but his strikeouts plunged from 195 in ‘09 to 148 last year. He had a 6.21 ERA after the All-Star break, including one game when he gave up nine runs before recording five outs. And it’s hard to explain last year’s .446 average against him when he’s ahead 0-1 in the count.
“He’s gotten out of shape and his delivery got out of whack,” one National League scout said. “He needs to rededicate himself. He was a No. 2 starter, but now he’s a No. 4. With what they’re paying him, that’s not good enough.”
Former Marlins pitcher Al Leiter said Nolasco is “upsetting to watch, his demeanor and execution.”
Here’s the good news: Nolasco, who will earn $9 million in 2012 and $11.5 million in 2013, said he worked out more strenuously than ever this offseason and lost close to 15 pounds. “Just a bad year,” he said of 2011. “I want to get back to where I was.”
Marlins executive Larry Beinfest predicts: “He’ll come back and be great. The E.R.A. has never been sparkling” – under 4.50 just once in the past five years – “but he’s always found a way to win.”
### Zambrano’s season ended in mid-August, when the Cubs placed him on the disqualified list after he was ejected from a game, cleaned out his locker and said he was retiring. Before that, he posted his highest ERA since 2001 – 4.82, more than a run above his 3.60 career mark. He allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time (154 in 145). The Cubs, who received Chris Volstad from the Marlins, were so eager to dump him that they agreed to pay $15 million of his $18 million salary this year.
“We’re going with Ozzie Guillen on this one,” Beinfest said. “He believes in Carlos. The fastball wasn’t 96, like five or six years ago, but it still sat in the low 90s, 94 at times. His stuff is still plenty good enough to win.” And he hit 97 playing in Venezuela this offseason.
Zambrano’s temper is a concern, but much less so playing for Guillen, who’s a friend. “Is he crazy? Yes,” Guillen said. “He did a lot of bad things in Chicago. He was out of hand. He was kind of like phony. But Carlos is a great guy. He’s healthy. He’s hungry. He’s going to show people.”
Said Zambrano: “I’m real happy to play for Ozzie. He's a mentor to me. The only thing I have to prove is to keep myself in control. God has changed my mentality.”
Don’t overlook that he’s had nine straight winning seasons; only Tim Hudson and C.C. Sabathia have longer ongoing streaks. And he’s often clutch: Batters hit 5 for 49 against him (.102) with the bases loaded over the past three years, and .208 with two outs and runners in scoring position. The bad news? Since 2009, no teams gave him more trouble than Atlanta (.373) and Philadelphia (.321), who stand in the Marlins' way of winning the NL East.
### The Marlins opted not to make a multi-year offer to Anibal Sanchez, eager to see if he stays healthy and duplicates his 3.67 ERA. “I’m OK with that,” he said. “I’m happy.” He would have been better than 8-9 last year with more run support, but Jack McKeon grew frustrated with him during a rough stretch in July (6.75 ERA) and August (5.04).
The Marlins mentioned his inconsistency and past injuries during arbitration, but Sanchez won anyway and will make $8 million. He has only a 39-38 career mark but could command $10 million or more a year next winter, when he will potentially be as attractive as any free agent pitcher excluding Cole Hamels, Matt Cain and Zack Greinke.
“Let him keep performing – we like paying for performance,” Marlins president David Samson said, insisting the Marlins want to keep him. Asked if he wants to stay longterm, Sanchez said, "I don't know."
### Johnson? Obviously no worries if he stays healthy. Same with Mark Buehrle, who’s a proven winner, with 13 wins three straight years and an ERA over 4.00 just once in the past five. The only red flag: He has faded late in the year, with a 5.51 ERA and .328 batting average against in the past three Septembers.
### San Diego coach Norv Turner told us a mobile quarterback is “the key thing” in the offense that Joe Philbin likes and used in Green Bay, because “he makes a lot of plays with his feet.” Matt Flynn has that. But top target Peyton Manning, resourceful inside the pocket, isn’t very mobile out of it. Philbin and Mike Sherman, who uses a West Coast style offense, would need to change their offense to accommodate him.
“You need to install with him just what he did in Indy,” NFL coaching legend Joe Gibbs told The Washington Post. “It needs to be that offense.” Gibbs indicated teams should not “put him in a West Coast offense.”
### Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle says Karlos Dansby would be well-suited for middle linebacker when Miami uses a 4-3 defense (“a fine athlete, a big man that can run”) and Cameron Wake would be “very successful” moving from linebacker to defensive end in a 4-3, noting he would have even more pass-rush chances. Coyle expects to use both the 4-3 and 3-4 but said he doesn't know what Miami's base defense will be.
### Word last week, according to the Houston Chronicle, is that the Texans are unlikely to place a franchise tag on top free agent pass rusher Mario Williams because they probably can't absorb the $22.9 million cap hit, though they want to find a way to re-sign him. Finding a pass rusher is a huge Dolphins priority, but it would be unrealistic to expect Miami to be able to afford both Williams and Manning, unless a lot more cap space can be cleared. We hear Miami would love to clear more than the $15 million it has, likely by restucturing contracts.
### In his second mock draft released Friday, ESPN's Mel Kiper reiterates Iowa right tackle Riley Reiff as the Dolphins' pick (either No. 8 or No. 9). "Reiff's tape was exceptional this past season and given how complete he is right now, stepping in immediately on the right side shouldn't be a problem."
### Tidbits: The Marlins haven’t bid for coveted Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler because they believe he’s much further away from the majors than Oakland-bound Yoenis Cespedes…. Agent Bill Duffy said center Joel Pryzbilla is still trying to decide between the Heat and Bulls. There's also a possibility he might not play at all. The Heat also hopes the Hornets buy out Chris Kaman if they can’t trade him by the March 15 deadline.... Belle Glades five-star junior running back Kelvin Taylor, who surpassed Emmitt Smith as the state's all-time rushing leader, orally committed to the Gators on Saturday.
### To appreciate how impressive LeBron James’ 54.6 shooting percentage is, consider this: Since 1990, only two other starting small forwards or guards have shot as well over a full season: Chris Mullin in 1996-97 and Ronnie Brewer (who shot a lot less) in ’07-08. James, who entered this season as a career 47.9 percent shooter, has shot well above his career average in 10-to-15 footers (47.8 percent). Plus, he has shot three-pointers not only better (39 percent) but less often.
James, incidentally, denied a Yahoo report on Friday that he months ago relayed to Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, through an emissary, that he's open to playing for the Cavaliers again. "Not true, not true at all," James said after Friday's game.
### To put in perspective what the Heat just accomplished, consider that Miami is only the second team to win five games in a row, all on the road and all by a double-digit margin, according to Elias. The only other: the Knicks in November 1969.
### UM expects Jimmy Gaines, Kelvin Cain, Gionni Paul and Josh Witt to battle for the middle linebacker job, but Paul is on crutches and out indefinitely with a knee injury. Before he got hurt, defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio said Paul had made progress and he named Paul as one of the players he was eager to see this spring. Spring practice begins March 3, with the spring game at 2 p.m. April 14 at Sun Life Stadium.