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Exploring Marlins variables: Fernandez, Latos, Saltalamacchia & more; Dolphins, Heat, Canes chatter


As the Marlins begin spring training, there are many things they feel they can count on: Giancarlo Stanton’s power and run-production, Christian Yelich’s continued development as of the game’s polished young hitters; Dee Gordon’s blazing speed, among others.

But there’s also a level of uncertainty on several other fronts. Chatter on five variables that will affect whether the Marlins will be contending for a playoff berth in late September:

### When Jose Fernandez returns between mid-June and mid-July, will he be the same caliber pitcher who went 16-8 with a 2.25 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .183 average in 36 big-league starts?

For perspective, we analyzed six prominent starting pitchers who returned during the season from Tommy John surgery over the past six seasons. The results were mixed, but more favorable than unfavorable.

Here’s what’s encouraging: Tim Hudson, an All-Star before and after the surgery, pitched well after returning in September 2009 (2-1, 3.61 in seven starts), then went 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA and an All-Star appearance in 2010…. Washington’s Stephen Strasburg returned from the surgery in September 2011 and threw well (1-1, 1.50 ERA in five starts), then returned to dominant form in 2012 (15-6, 3.16)…

Josh Johnson, with a timetable similar to Fernandez’s, returned to the Marlins on July 10, 2008 --- 11 months after the surgery --- and was 7-1 with a 3.61 ERA in 14 starts for the Marlins, then went 15-5 with a 3.23 ERA in 2009. But he has fallen off dramatically the past four years and needed a second Tommy John surgery last April… Jordan Zimmerman has blossomed from decent young starter to an eventual All-Star after the surgery: He was 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA in seven starts after returning from the surgery late in 2010 but has posted an ERA below 3.30 every season since.

“Those guys had [partial] seasons and the following full season they were outstanding,” Marlins president/baseball operations Michael Hill said. “You can throw Anibal Sanchez into that mix also.”

On the flip side: Francisco Liriano, an All-Star before the surgery, struggled initially after a mid-April return (0-3, 11.32), went back to the minors, but pitched well upon returning later that summer, finishing 6-4, 3.91, and has since been named Comeback Player of the Year twice.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who went 18-3 in 2008 but fell off quite a bit since then, was 1-7 with an 8.28 ERA in 11 starts after a June 2012 return from Tommy John and was 6-6 as a starter/reliever the past two years.

“We hope when Jose does come back, he’ll be the guy he’s always been,” Hill said.

### Is Jarrod Saltalamacchia the above-average catcher the Marlins thought they were getting or the player who badly struggled last season? “He needs to be better,” Hill said. “He recognizes that.”

The Marlins gave him a three-year, $21 million deal 15 months ago, after he hit .273 with 14 homers and 65 RBI during Boston’s run to a World Series title in 2013. The fear is that the Marlins might have been fooled by one good season, just as they were with John Buck a few years early. Saltamacchia’s .273 in 2013 appears to have been an anomaly; he hit .235 (with 16 homers) in 2011 and .222 (with 25 homers) in 2012.

Last season, his .220 average was worst among National League catchers with at least 300 at-bats and third worst overall. His 15 errors were the most for any catcher. Plus, he threw out only 19 percent of base-stealers, second worst for catchers who appeared in at least 100 games.

And this was puzzling: He hit well at Marlins Park (.273), but his .162 road average (29 for 179) was the worst in baseball for any player with at least 150 at-bats.

Saltamacchia said moving to a new league was an adjustment and he battled fatigue because he had a shorter offseason after winning the World Series with Boston.

### Is center fielder Marcell Ozuna headed for stardom? That’s what former big-league front office executive Tony Blengino predicted in an ESPN.com piece last month.

Citing various metrics, Blengino said: “Ozuna is going to be a star and he’s a good bet to take it to the next level in 2015. A Ruben Sierra like career is a fairly conservative projection. More likely, he’ll become the second most well-rounded superstar in the Marlins’ lineup.”

Sierra, incidentally, was a four-time All-Star who hit .268 with 306 homers in 20 seasons. Ozuna blossomed last season, hitting .269 with 23 homers and 85 RBI and was second in the NL with 10 outfield assists.

Like many sluggers, he strikes out too much (164, seventh most in the NL).

“Who knows what the ceiling is on this guy? He’s special, a game-changer,” manager Mike Redmond said. “Reminds me of [nine-time All Star] Vladimir Guerrero.”

### Is Jarred Cosart the pitcher whom the Astros deemed expendable or the one who had quality starts in eight of his 10 Marlins appearances?

Through 40 starts, Cosart’s career has been interesting because of its unevenness: He had a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts as a rookie for Houston in 2013, then was pretty average in 10 Astros starts last season (9-7, 4.41); then thrived for the Marlins after his July trade (4-4, 2.39). Overall, he’s 14-12 with a 3.26 ERA.

The Astros were concerned by his strikeout/walk ratio (108 to 86) in 30 starts for them. It was much better for the Marlins (40-22), but he walked eight Nationals in five innings of his final Marlins start last September, his worst performance for Miami.

ESPN’s Keith Law has expressed concern about his “cross-body delivery” that sometimes affects his command. But after the trade, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow said: “I think he will be a 15-game winner pretty consistently.” Hill said he’s still young and needs time to develop.

### Will Matt Latos return to dominant form after being limited to 16 starts for the Reds in 2014? Latos, who had stem cells moved from his hip to his elbow during the winter to re-grow tissue, was solid last season (5-5, 3.25) but his velocity dropped nearly two miles per hour after finishing 14-4 and 14-7 the previous two seasons.

Batters hit .176 off him before the All-Star break last year, .275 in 10 starts after. “This is a very volatile asset,” fangraphs.com’s Jeff Sullivan wrote.

Latos said his knee was his only issue last season and it’s fine now, downplaying a reported forearm injury.

“I feel better than I did [anytime] last year.” But he’s only 27 and eighth among active pitchers in ERA. Plus, batters have hit .233 off him in his career. If he’s at his best, he could be a dominant starter.

Hill said the Marlins were thrilled “to be able to add such a great pitcher. He’s big, works downhill, power sinker. All the things we think can be successful with us.”    


### Another positive about new Heat guard Goran Dragic: He does some of his best work in the clutch. He’s shooting 14 for 26 (53.8 percent) in the final five minutes of games with a margin of five points or less, which is best in the league among guards with at least 20 attempts. Conversely, Dwyane Wade is shooting 14 for 39 in clutch situations this season (35.9), Luol Deng 3 for 16 and Mario Chalmers 7 for 22.

### Dragic, who is at his best when playing at a faster tempo, said today: "It's going to be a challenge for others. When I get the ball, I'm going to push it." He said he knows Wade is "great in the open court."

### Dragic on Hassan Whiteside: "He's going to be a dominant big guy in this league."

### Udonis Haslem developed blood clots in his lungs when recovering from foot surgery in 2010 and has spoken to Chris Bosh about his experience.

"One of the worst pains I ever felt," Haslem said today. "I couldn't breathe." He has told Bosh to "just be patient. It's going to get better. I learned how to inject myself with blood-thinners."

### Thomas Robinson, who was on the list of power forwards under consideration by the Heat, committed to the Brooklyn Nets today.

### Erik Spoelstra said this morning that Bosh remains hospitalized but is in "great spirits."

### With Caleb Sturgis losing some benefit of the doubt, the Dolphins conveyed to former Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker that he has a very fair chance to unseat him as Dolphins kicker. Sturgis made 78.4 percent of his field goals last season, which was 28th in the league.

### Add Mike Pouncey to the list of Dolphins lobbying for Mike Wallace’s return. “I really hope they bring Mike back," Pouncey told me last week. "He’s a great player and it would really help our team make the playoffs.”

### Unlike with Penn State, the NCAA rejected UM’s request to modify any of its sanctions, meaning UM says it will self-impose three more football scholarships next year and can’t allow recruits to attend
more than one game on an official visit until November 2016.

### UM smartly pitched moving the Sept. 12 FAU game from Boca Raton to Sun Life Stadium to accommodate more fans, but FAU refused. UM's deal with FAU calls for two games in Sun Life, one in Boca Raton.

 Twitter: @flasportsbuzz