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Sizing up Marlins pitching staff; Fins, UM NFL Combine notes; Heat limited by NBA rule

WEDNESDAY BUZZ COLUMN

We’ve been here before, with the Marlins believing they had the makeup of a rotation that could keep them in contention for years. But Josh Johnson kept getting injured and regressed; Ricky Nolasco mixed quality starts with atrocious ones; Chris Volstad and Andrew Miller never fulfilled expectations; and Anibal Sanchez was dealt months before free agency. All, of course, are long gone from Miami.

Perhaps this group will be different. Besides a young rotation with the potential to be very good, the Marlins boast at least four starting pitching prospects who should be in the big-leagues by 2015, if not sooner: left-handers Andrew Heaney (the top left-handed prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com), Adam Conley (rated seventh among left-handers) and two former Blue Jays: lefty Justin Nicolino and right-hander Anthony DeSclafani.

“It’s the start of my 12th season here, and I can't remember the last time we had upper-level starting pitching depth,” Marlins president/baseball operations Michael Hill said. “The fact we were able to improve our roster without losing our depth helps us so much.”

Marlins general manager Dan Jennings said "our pitching was coveted" all winter and "still is."

Sizing up this pitching staff:

### There’s a legitimate ace in Jose Fernandez, who ranked second in baseball in earned-run average (2.19) and first in batting average against (.182) and is now in better shape, having dropped from 242 to 225 pounds after cycling all offseason. “You think about the Cy Young,” he said. “Hopefully I can do it.”

Tampa manager Joe Maddon said he could envision Fernandez being the top pitcher in baseball over the next few years.

### There’s hard-throwing Nathan Eovaldi, who lowered his ERA to 3.39 last season, averaged 96.2 miles on his fastball (well above average for a starter and topping Fernandez’s 94.9), hit 100 on the radar gun in the sixth inning of one game, and allowed only four hits in 35 at-bats in the clutch (two outs and runners in scoring position).

But he missed the first 2 ½ months with a shoulder injury, and an opposing general manager worries that his delivery is overtaxing on his shoulder. “The stuff is there, but he’s got to refine it more,” a National League scout said.

Hill believes Eovaldi, who threw fastballs 71 percent of the time in 2013, has turned the corner because “he has worked hard to be more consistent with the breaking ball, and that opens up so much more for him.”

### Henderson Alvarez, who ended the season with a no-hitter, looks like he might be a better pitcher in the National League. He allowed a ridiculous .290 average and 270 base-runners in 187 innings for Toronto in 2012, but just 117 in 102 – and a .237 average – for Miami last season, finishing 5-6 with a 3.59 ERA in 17 starts. He was especially effective against right-handers (.206).

“We always knew the stuff was there to be a frontline starter, a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, but there were too many extra pitches, too many deep counts [in Toronto],” Hill said. “That's something [Marlins pitching coach] Chuck Hernandez addressed last year when we got to spring training. That's what made him efficient.”

### The projected fourth starter, Jacob Turner, isn’t assured a rotation spot if he flops this spring but is out of minor league options, which means it's likely he makes the team.

Hill said “we couldn’t be happier with the progress he made” in 2013, but he still allowed too many base-runners (170 in 118 innings) and a .262 average. The positive: He held hitters to a .161 average in the clutch and his ERA (3.74) was exactly at the National League average last season.

“His velocity was supposed to be good, but I haven’t really seen it,” a National League scout said. “And his command isn’t consistent. I’ve seen nothing to make you think he’s more than a bottom end starter.”

### There are decent options for the fifth spot in Brad Hand (out of minor-league options; the Marlins have been talking him up), Tom Koehler, Brian Flynn and Heaney.

### The bullpen figures to be Steve Cishek (begins 2014 with the longest active streak for consecutive save conversions, with 29); Mike Dunn (2.66 ERA, .212 average against), AJ Ramos (.201 average against), Carlos Marmol, Carter Capps and perhaps Arquimedes Caminero or a long reliever.

Capps and Marmol have power arms, but Capps allowed 96 base-runners in 59 innings for Seattle in 2013, and Marmol 80 (including 40 walks) in 49 innings. But the Marlins believe both will be better because of mechanical adjustments.

CHATTER

### The Dolphins, needing two new starting tackles, likely will add at least one in free agency (Kansas City’s Branden Albert figures to draw interest) and potentially one in the draft. The Dolphins hadn't reached out to free agent Bryant McKinnie's agent, as of early this week, to express interest or arrange a meeting --- unlike agents for several other of their free agents.

ESPN's Mel Kiper said Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin, who can play every line position, would "be a real good pick for Miami” at No. 19. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said Martin or Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio would make sense at 19, but both Kiper and Mayock said Kouandjio was inconsistent, with Mayock noting his last appearance in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma "was a really bad game."

“You can go three, four rounds deep and get a starting offensive tackle,” Mayock said, listing Morgan Moses (Virginia), Jack Mewhort (Ohio State), Brandon Thomas (Clemson) and Joel Bitonio (Nevada) as second-round options.

### Five UM players will be at the Combine. Mayock said offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson “is one of the biggest boom or bust guys in the draft. A year ago, I watched him block [then FSU-standout] Bjoern Werner and pitched a shutout against a first-round defensive end. Then you see him play at that level sometimes and at a completely different and lower level other times. No consistency with this kid at all. From a talent perspective, he's a first- or second-round talent. But he’s probably a fourth-round kid just because you don't know what you're getting.”

Mayock said receiver Allen Hurns “had a breakout year [but] has got average size and average speed. I don't see him separating in man-to-man press coverage easily. He's got to be crafty and run great routes. I want to see what he runs. He'll go late in the draft, fifth, sixth, seventh round.”

Mayock said Stephen Morris has “a big arm, engaging personality, smart kid. Inconsistent senior year. Senior Bowl was a mixed bag." Mayock called Morris a "developmental mid-to-late round pick.”

Morris told us he has explained his erratic senior season to the Dolphins and other teams by noting he “was dealing with an Achilles' strain that changed my throwing motion completely."

### A few postscripts from the Heat's 117-106 win in Dallas tonight: With 42 points, LeBron James reached 40 points for the 50th time in his career. Since he entered the league in 2003-04, the only player with more 40-plus point games than James is Kobe Bryant with 93.... This marks the first team as a member of the Heat that LeBron has scored 35-plus points in three games in a row. Last time he did that? Four straight, for Cleveland, in January 2010....

"I'm in a zone right now," LeBron said. "Hopefully, I can continue it. I'm tired but my body's feeling good." He said Dallas' "bench was telling me I couldn't shoot the ball." He said he shot a three the next time down and naturally made it... LeBron reiterated afterward that the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas is "the reason I am who I am today."

Chris Andersen scored 18 points and has made 35 of his past 44 shots, thanks to the terrific passing of teammates (often LeBron) and his ability to finish... The Heat was outrebounded 50-28 but still won by 11, thanks largely to LeBron and 57.1 percent shooting from the field, compared to 40 percent for Dallas. "It's weird," LeBron said. "We don't discredit [rebounding] but we're so efficient offensively, don't the turn ball over [as much] as earlier this season."... The Heat outscored Dallas by 13 in Greg Oden's five minutes, with Oden scoring five points. 

### Though a lot of names are said to be available before Thursday's trade deadline (Aaron Afflalo, Glen Davis, Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, etc.), many teams want first-round picks back, and the NBA tells us the Heat cannot trade any of its first-round picks in the next five years (through 2018) because teams cannot trade picks consecutive years and Miami owes Cleveland one first-rounder in either 2015 (if it’s not in the top 10) or 2016 (if not in top 10) or 2017 (unprotected).

The buyout deadline seems to make more sense if Miami makes a move. Players who have played in the league this season must be released by March 1 to be playoff-eligible for another team.

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