Series Preview - Houston Astros vs Miami Marlins

Apr 9, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros shortstop Marwin Gonzalez (9) hits a single against the Atlanta Braves in the sixth inning at Minute Maid Park. The Astros defeated the Braves 8-3. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

The Houston Astros started their season off on a high note by winning three of their first four contests. On Friday, they fly into the home stadium of a club in a very different position. The Miami Marlins began their own season with one win in their first four, and are currently weathering an unplanned storm of their own making.

On Tuesday, the Miami Marlins suspended manager Ozzie Guillen for five games for making favorable comments toward Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro. Though Guillen has a history of saying stupid things, this suspension is a bigger deal than many in Houston probably realize. He has offended a significant percentage of Marlins fans with this particular gaffe, perhaps a majority of them. This season, the Marlins opened a shiny new ballpark--ironically, in an area of town called Little Havana, to cater to the city's enormous Cuban population. Owner Jeffrey Loria brought in the volatile Guillen specifically for the appeal he has among Latin American fans as an outspoken, Spanish-speaking manager. Oops.

This mistake by Guillen will be haunting the franchise until they eventually make the decision to part ways with him, whether that is this week or many years in the future. In the short term, the Marlins are replacing Guillen with bench coach Joey Cora, who has been a coach forever but other than short stints filling in for a suspended Guillen, has never managed a major league team.

In addition, the Marlins' 21-year old slugging superstar Giancarlo Stanton (the slugger formerly known as Mike), is having knee trouble and may not be firing on all cylinders, if he plays this weekend at all.

In short, it is a perfect opportunity for the Astros to build on their early success.

Friday, April 13 6:10 PM Central Time
Probable Astros Starter: Lucas Harrell
Probable Marlins Starter: Ricky Nolasco

Nolasco is one of those pitchers who always seems like he should be better than the results indicate. He was gifted enough that he spent only about 45 innings in the minor leagues, but in 6 full major league seasons he posted an ERA of only 4.49, despite a FIP of 3.83 (click the link...best explanation of FIP ever. Hat tip to Fangraphs) Despite an excellent slider and excellent-er changeup, he only averages 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings (and only 6.5 last season, ee-yuck!). So one wonders - which Nolasco will the Astros face on Friday? The one with the House-is-a-Rockin-Don't-Bother-Knockin stuff or the one with the Tiptoe-Through-The-Tulips stuff?

I won't claim to be the biggest believer in Harrell, though I would be thrilled if he proved me wrong. My doubt comes from historical results, which isn't entirely fair because he hasn't had much major league experience. However, he does a few things that I like very much. His career minor league Ground Ball % is well over 50%, which makes me say yay, though his walk rate and contact rate are a little higher than I'd like to see. He's a guy who will probably benefit from having a defense behind him with young legs, and I hope he continues his early 2012 success.

Saturday, April 14 6:10 PM Central Time
Probable Astros Starter: Bud Norris
Probable Marlins Starter: Carlos Zambrano

What don't we already know about "Big Z"? He used to be amazing, but for the last few seasons he's been quite average. Zambrano used to throw around 92 mph, now he throws around 90. He used to require anger management after taking his frustrations out on gatorade machines (hilarious link) and teammates, but now...well, actually he's probably still like that. Doubtless, the Marlins hoped that the influence of his longtime friend Ozzie Guillen would settle Zambrano down and turn him back into his all-star self, but these days any influence from Guillen can't be a good thing. Again, the Astros don't know if they'll see Jeckyll Z or Hyde Z, but it should be entertaining nonetheless.

In his last start, Norris did what he does. Gave up a couple runs, gave up a couple walks, and made hitters look silly with a ton of strikeouts. This is a result I will continue to be ok with as Norris establishes himself as one of my favorite Astros pitchers that I've seen in a long time. I'm a sucker for the K, and I look forward to this guy pitching every fifth day. This Bud is for you, Astros fans.

Sunday, April 15 1:10 PM Central Time
Jackie Robinson Day
Probable Astros Starter: J.A. Happ
Probable Marlins Starter: Anibal Sanchez

Anibal Sanchez is the fifth starter that most managers wish they had. His performance over the past two seasons are more on par with the third guy in a lot of towns. In the past three seasons, he's averaged an ERA around 3.70, with a K/9 around 8.00. FIP has been even kinder to him. He manages this by utilizing four different pitches, including a strong slider about 25% of the time, an even better changeup, and an odd curveball or so. Oh yes, and Sanchez has thrown a no-hitter. Of the three starting pitchers the Astros will face, Sanchez is likely the most predictable guy, but the predictions are that he is a strong pitcher that will really challenge the Astros' lineup.

I'm still a believer in J.A. Happ, and I'll keep saying it unless he repeats his season-long 2011 disaster. Sorry to all you Debbie Downers, but Happ's stats prior to 2011 should have purchased him a bye, especially considering that he spent late 2010 and all of 2011 trying to return from a 72-Game DL stint due to forearm strain. Here's a news flash: sometimes, when pitchers injure their throwing arms, they need some time to, you know, get back up to speed. Also, if you consider that Happ's FIP was almost a full run lower than his ERA in 2011 and so he was the victim of rotten luck and defense, it's easy to build a case that this guy deserves a break from Astros fans who are still angry that he's not Roy Oswalt. I'm in this guy's corner, and you should be too.

Probable Astros Lineup:

CF: Jordan Schafer
2B: Jose Altuve
LF: J.D. Martinez
1B: Carlos Lee
SS: Jed Lowrie
3B: Chris Johnson
RF: Brian Bogusevic / Travis Buck
C: Jason Castro / Chris Snyder

Nothing to say here except to repeat myself: Wow, have I been impressed with Altuve's new found plate discipline. Three walks in five games so far, compared to five walks in fifty-seven last season. 4.2 pitches per plate appearance in 2012 compared to 3.1 in 2011. Altuve deserves an apology article from me if he continues defying the concerns I articulated last season. Keep up the good work!

Lowrie's lineup spot is a complete guess on my part. At the beginning of the season, he was projected to hit second. But if I were Brad Mills I wouldn't mess up the good thing that has been Schafer and Altuve at the top of the lineup. Bogusevic has struggled a little bit, so I thought it made more sense to drop him in the lineup.

Probable Marlins Lineup:

SS: Jose Reyes
CF: Emilio Bonifacio
3B: Hanley Ramirez
RF: Giancarlo Stanton
LF: Logan Morrison
1B: Gaby Sanchez
2B: Omar Infante
C: John Buck

Ugh. This is still a murderous lineup, and thus far the story has been all about Bonifacio--probably the most under-appreciated position player in baseball right now--who's sporting a nifty .421 batting average with four stolen bases and an OBP of .500, and about Infante, who with three home runs so far is almost halfway to his 2011 total (seven) after five games. The Marlins also have these guys named Reyes, Ramirez, and Stanton. They are not shabby.

This lineup will probably be the first real test this season for Astros pitchers after facing the cracking hull of Chipper Jones (by the way, here's a Craig Biggio tidbit, couresy of Talking Chop, a SB Nation sister-site) and a surprisingly tepid Rockies offense. The Astros hitters will be left guessing which side of the Marlins' volatile pitching staff will show its face, and hopefully will be able to take advantage of some mistakes.

In no particular order, credit for links and research for this article go to SB Nation, Fangraphs, Yahoo! Sports, Baseball Reference, YouTube, ESPN, Sportingnews, and other final destinations I arrived at via Google.

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