Don't look now, but the Miami Marlins just might be the best team in baseball.
Wait, you mean the team whose closer, Heath Bell, has already blown more saves than he did in the entire 2010 season?
The team whose ace, Josh Johnson, is a mediocre 3-3 with a 4.83 ERA?
Yeah, that team.
Seemingly nothing could go right for the Fish in April. The Marlins lost their celebrated home opener. Ozzie Guillen followed that up by making his pro-Fidel Castro comments, which forced the franchise to suspend him for four games. To add to the team's problems, the Marlins' big off-season acquisitions weren't playing well, especially Bell and Jose Reyes. The team was inconsistent throughout the opening month of the season, at one point winning four straight and then following that up by losing eight of nine.
Since getting off to their dreadful 8-14 start, the Marlins rebounded to go 21-8 in May, the franchise's best month in their 19 year history. They capped off the month by sweeping the first place Washington Nationals, to move a 1/2 game back of the division lead. It's taken a while, but the Marlins are now playing consistent, solid baseball.
The bad news for the rest of the league?
They aren't even close to playing up to their potential.
During the month of May, the Marlins showed why their lineup can be one of the best in the league. Miami has one of the best leadoff hitters in all of baseball in Reyes, a player who is usually among the league leaders in batting average and has the ability to wreak havoc once he's on base. Reyes has slowly started to find his swing again, ending the month with a .265 average.
While Reyes is a key piece to this Marlins team, the real danger of their lineup (as with most teams) lies in the heart of the order. After Reyes and Omar Infante at the top of the lineup, the Marlins possess two of the most dangerous hitters in the league. Usually slotted as the three and four hitters, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton provide one of the most formidable one-two punches in baseball.
While Ramirez has struggled a bit this year, he has picked it up of late. Over his last seven days (as of June 1st), Hanley is batting .476 with a home run and four RBI's in 21 at bats. Although he is only batting .275 this year, his career statistics suggest this will go up, as his career average is .304. The mercurial third baseman is always a question mark, but he should thrive this year with Guillen as a manager and best friend Reyes around to keep his spirits up. If he can do so, Hanley has all the tools to be an MVP candidate and lead this team deep into the playoffs.
Although Ramirez and Reyes are the stars on this Miami team, the artist formerly known as "Mike" may soon surpass them. At only 22 years of age, Stanton is beginning to show why scouts thought he could be a force in the Major League for years to come. Tipping the scales at 6-5, 248 lbs., the Marlins clean-up hitter appears ready to have a breakout year.
Admittedly, Stanton didn't get off to the best start. The Marlins right fielder finished the month of April batting .247, with one home run and a paltry nine RBI's. However, Stanton had a downright monster month in May, raising his average 57 points to .304, while blasting 12 home runs and collecting 30 RBI's. The highlight of Stanton's month came on the 22nd. With a 3-2 count and the bases loaded, Stanton crushed a Jamie Moyer pitched off the scoreboard in Marlins Park, which had SportsCenter likening it to Roy Hobbs' famous shot in The Natural.
Formidable lineup aside, the Fish do have their faults. Gaby Sanchez, the Marlins first baseman and an All-Star a year ago, was sent down to the minors after an awful start. Aside form the top four in their lineup, the Marlins haven't gotten a lot of production from anyone else. Miami really needs Logan Morrison, who is only batting .231 with 14 RBI's, to become more of a threat in the five spot to protect Stanton in the order.
Miami's defense is also a concern. While with Reyes, Infante, Buck and Emilio Bonifacio or Bryan Petersen in center field the Fish are solid up the middle of the diamond, Stanton and Ramirez are both still learning their positions and are prone to errors. With Sanchez in the minors, the Marlins not only lose a normally reliable bat in the lineup, but also a solid defensive first baseman.
Considered one of the strengths of this team at the beginning of the season, the Marlins pitching has only been average so far. No starter has particularly stood out, although Johnson has won his last three starts. Even though the bullpen has been generally solid, Bell's blown saves have been an issue. However, like the batters, the pitchers are beginning to find their groove as well. If Johnson and Bell can return to their expected form, the Marlins staff will look a lot better as a whole.
It's clear the Marlins have had some bumps in the road but that was to be expected with the infusion of so many new faces and personalities.
OK, then, maybe the best team in baseball is a bit of a stretch at this point.
But it might not be for much longer.