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2011 should be another exciting year in Sunshine State baseball as the NL Florida Marlins are poised to compete with arguably the best young pitching staff in the MLB and the AL Tampa Bay Rays are looking to repeat as AL East Champions. For the Marlins, they’re expecting several of their young mound prospects to come into their own this season. The Rays, meanwhile, are as always hoping that their offseason moves—limited by their small market revenue—will be enough to keep pace with their deep pocketed rivals in Boston and New York.

Tampa Bay is forever in a ‘chess match’ in terms of talent with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and simply not playing with as many pieces. Despite this limitation, Tampa has done well to stay competitive with a combination of home grown talent and creative personnel moves. Rays’ Executive Vice President and General Manager Andrew Friedman knows what the score is:

"We're never going to win an offseason. We're going to have to respect the challenges that we have, the way we have to go about our business in different ways."

Friedman downplays what his team did in the off-season, but it’s hard not to be impressed with the talent they’ve lured to Florida’s ‘Cigar City’—within one week in January the team added Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Casey Kotchman and Felipe Lopez. Damon and ‘Man-Ram’ have contract incentives that kick in if the team reaches certain attendance levels. Damon is a solid pro, but this is a very creative way to keep the notoriously unfocused but brutally talented Ramirez’s ‘head in the game’. If he plays well and the team wins they’ll bring more fans to the yard and he’ll reap the financial rewards. If he goes head case and keeps fans away, it’ll hurt him in the pocketbook.

Overall, the Rays could be poised to repeat. The biggest question mark is the bullpen where six new setup men will compete for jobs ahead of closer JP Howell—who missed last season with shoulder surgery. If the bullpen comes together, Tampa Bay will be right in the thick of things in the AL East.

The Florida Marlins, meanwhile, are most definitely a team with potential. They’ll begin their first full season under manager Edwin Rodriguez with a starting pitching situation that can only be described as ‘an embarrassment of riches’. Adding some veteran arms to their talented youngsters produced this likely rotation: Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Javier Vazquez, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad. Volstad in particular is very intriguing—the started the season poorly but ended the year going 8-1. If he maintains that form Florida could have the best top to bottom starting rotation since the great Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz anchored Atlanta Braves’ teams. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a couple of promising young pitching prospects—RHP Alex Sanabia and LHP Sean West—that could compete for a spot or at the very least be a nice ‘insurance policy’ in case of injury.

Despite trading away power hitter Dan Uggla to the Atlanta Braves the Marlins are still in good shape at the plate with a lot of young talent including first baseman Gaby Sanchez who drove in 85 runs in his rookie year and 2009 NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan. Coghlan is expected to start in center field, though has played all three outfield positions as well as second base in his brief career. The Marlins also upgraded themselves defensively behind the plate—obviously very important for a team so reliant on pitching—with the acquisition of John Buck who also has some pop at the plate, hitting 20 home runs for Toronto last season.
With Tampa Bay looking to defend their AL East crown and adding Johnny Damon and ‘Man Ram’ and the Florida Marlins’ ‘sky’s the limit’ potential and a pitching staff that could become one of the best in baseball it should be a very exciting season for Sunshine State baseball fans.

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