When the Marlins locked up Josh Johnson by signing him to a four-year, $39MM contract, it was a rare display of long-term spending by Florida ownership. After all, besides Wes Helms, who is finishing up an inexpensive two-year deal, the only other Marlin signed to a multi-year contract is Hanley Ramirez, who inked a deal to remain with the club through 2014.
In Johnson, the Marlins knew they had a young arm capable of anchoring their staff, and the big right-hander has proven them right so far this year, recording a 2.27 ERA over 158.2 IP. If the Marlins aren't playoff contenders toward the end of his contract, the 26-year-old ace could eventually become tradeable. But he's going nowhere anytime soon; barring an injury, he'll get the ball on Opening Day in 2011.
Behind Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, and Chris Volstad figure to have spots in the 2011 rotation virtually locked up. Volstad has underperformed in 2010 (4.91 ERA), but as a former first-round pick and a player under team control through 2014, the right-hander should have a reasonably long leash at the back of the rotation. Meanwhile, Nolasco and Sanchez have pitched admirably this season, and will both be arbitration-eligible for two more years before hitting free agency after the 2012 campaign.
Nolasco, however, is a trickier case than Sanchez for the cost-conscious Marlins. The 27-year-old, as a Super Two player, will be eligible for arbitration four times rather than the usual three, meaning he'll be more expensive for the Marlins to retain. Even this season, Nolasco is earning $3.8MM while Sanchez makes just $1.25MM. With Nolasco set to receive two more raises through arbitration, he could become a trade chip for Florida in either 2011 or 2012.
Nolasco will almost definitely be around to start 2011 though (the team hopes to explore an extension) which leaves only an empty fifth spot in the Marlins' rotation. Florida has shown a willingness to take fliers on one-year contracts for bullpen arms in recent years, but they've rarely relied on the free agent market for starters. As such, we can probably expect the club to fill their rotation with an in-house option.
Currently, Sean West and Alex Sanabia appear to be the favorites to compete for the Marlins' fifth starter job. The 24-year-old West has posted impressive numbers for Triple-A New Orleans this year, including a 3.12 ERA in 11 starts. However, in 22 career major league starts, the 6'8" southpaw has been mediocre (5.03 ERA). Sanabia, 21, has dominated Double-A and Triple-A opponents this year, with a 1.92 ERA and just 1.7 BB/9 in 16 starts, and has also spent a little time with the big league club. Like Volstad, these two should get a longer look from the Marlins, in hopes that their minor league successes translate to the majors. West, in particular, could be valuable to Florida as the lone left-hander in a righty-heavy rotation.
If the Marlins require more depth, they have a few other possibilities in the minors, including a pair of 24-year-olds, Elih Villanueva and Tom Koehler. The two right-handers have combined to pitch over 300 Double-A innings between them this year, with a 2.15 ERA for Villaneuva and 2.88 for Koehler. Other familiar names in Florida's minor league system include Brian Lawrence, Tom Mastny, and Andrew Miller, though if they're still with Florida in 2011, none of them are likely to be more than potential injury replacements.
Overall, the Marlins' rotation is in decent shape. Johnson is one of the best starters in baseball, and the team has affordable second and third starters in Nolasco and Sanchez. If Volstad, West, and Sanabia prove they can build on the potential they've occasionally displayed, the Marlins should field a 2011 rotation that will be tough on opponents from front to back.