For a couple of months, it appeared the team was primed for a promising season. The Marlins played at a high level, keeping pace with the Phillies until the impact of losing ace Josh Johnson was felt.
Johnson, a two-time All-Star, made just nine starts in 2011. His season was cut short by right shoulder inflammation after a May 16 outing against the Mets. Five days later, he was placed on the disabled list, and the Marlins were unable to recover. Without their hard-throwing right-hander, the season began to slip away in June.
Looking to avoid a repeat of last year, Miami made acquiring as much pitching depth as possible an offseason priority. The team made big headlines with the free-agent signings of Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, along with the trade for Carlos Zambrano.
"Based on the moves we've made this offseason, I think people anticipate us competing for a division crown," said vice president of player development Marty Scott. "If something happens to somebody in the big leagues, we have some choices we can call up and fill those holes. If we have a setback or two because of injury, we've got to have the depth."
As much attention as the Marlins gained by bringing in three All-Stars, they are hopeful that a series of less-publicized moves can also make a difference. Recently, Miami added free-agent pitchers Rob Delaney, Chad Gaudin, Gary Glover, J.D. Martin, Robert Ray and Beau Jones, all of whom are out of options. Each is signed to a Minor League deal with an invitation to Spring Training.
A year ago, a lack of Minor Leaguers who were big league tested was an issue.
When Spring Training broke, the rotation shaped up as Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Javier Vazquez, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad.
In all, the Marlins used 11 different starters in 2011, including four who had never previously started an MLB game before -- Brad Hand, Brian Sanches, Jay Buente and Elih Villanueva.
Another alternative was Clay Hensley, who opened the season as the primary eighth-inning setup reliever. Hensley started nine games in 2011, marking the first time since 2008 that he opened a game. Alex Sanabia, who was hampered with an injured right forearm for most of the year, made two starts in September.
"I think the main area that we tried to address was having some able-body arms in Triple-A," Scott said, "so when the Major League club is beset by some injuries, we have some depth and quality arms there that you can bring up with Major League experience."
In November, Miami acquired lefty Wade LeBlanc from the Padres for catcher John Baker. LeBlanc provides starting depth, with 52 career starts since debuting in 2008. Because he has an option left, the Marlins can send him to Triple-A New Orleans without risk of losing his services should he not make the Opening Day roster.
In years past, the Marlins have uncovered several out-of-options free agents who earned their way onto the roster in Spring Training. Most of them were relievers, such as Hensley, Sanches and Kiko Calero.
This Spring Training, the organization is hopeful that several of these non-roster invitees will be able to step in, if necessary.
Gaudin, 28, has 268 big league games of experience, including 10 relief appearances with the Nationals last year. Should he be called upon to open a game, he has 75 big league starts.
Martin, 29, pitched with the Nationals from 2009-10, making 24 total starts with a 6-9 record and 4.32 ERA. He appeared in 30 games, including 14 starts at Triple-A Syracuse last year.
Ray, 28, has seven games, including four starts in the big leagues with the Blue Jays from 2009-10.
Glover, 35, has made 47 career relief appearances, last pitching in the big leagues in '08.
Delaney, 28, has made five big league relief appearances in brief stints with the Twins ('10) and Rays ('11).
Jones, 25, was a first-round Draft pick with the Braves in 2005 who was sent to the Rangers in '07 as part of the Mark Teixeira trade. He will get a look as a lefty reliever.
"I think a strength at the big league level is our bullpen," Scott said. "I want to have five guys who are good, quality [starting] guys. They've tasted the Major Leagues before. They're still hungry and they're still on the front side, and not on the back nine, on the back side of their careers."