JUPITER, Fla. -- There was quite a buzz surrounding the Miami Marlins on Monday leading up to their first Grapefruit League game of 2012. Excitement is in the air because so much has changed for the team since last season ended. There are the new big-name additions (speedy shortstop Jose Reyes, veteran hurler Mark Buehrle, closer Heath Bell), a new manager (Ozzie Guillen), the new ballpark (the Marlins will play there Tuesday night for the first time); heck, even the team name and logo are new.
But the most chatter at Roger Dean Stadium centered around the 6-foot-7 anchor of the Marlins' pitching staff, a player whose season ended prematurely in 2011 after just nine starts. On Monday, Josh Johnson had his first competitive outing since May, and while it's important not to read too much into two innings of a spring game, there were some encouraging signs.
Johnson threw 41 pitches Monday, 25 of them for strikes. His first inning went three up, three down, with two strikeouts. The velocity on Johnson's fastball hovered around 93 mph, and while that's likely not the top speed he can deliver, he did consistently hit that number on the radar gun. Johnson ran into trouble in the second inning, allowing a single, a double and a walk before Guillen removed him. The Marlins manager stuck to the plan to remove him at about 40 pitches. Still, Johnson doesn't appear to have lost much deliverywise, and most important, he walked off the mound healthy.
Johnson's words following the game provided further insight into how this spring is different from last, when he was also returning from a season that ended prematurely due to injury. He noted that his arm felt "really good." He threw all his pitches -- primarily fastballs, along with a mix of curveballs, sliders and changeups -- and didn't seem particularly fatigued. He also pointed out that he felt "a hundred times stronger than last year," in the process giving a shout-out to his physical therapist in Las Vegas, Tim Soder, who worked with him extensively in the offseason to prepare his body for pitching. Soder incorporated a variety of exercises Johnson hadn't done before, with a heavy emphasis on manual resistive work. "He was with me every step of the way," Johnson said.
In my preseason injury roundup, I referenced Johnson's change in his offseason regimen as one of the positive factors in his outlook for 2012. The type of exercises Johnson described are very specific in targeting the strength, endurance and neuromuscular coordination a pitcher's body demands, things he was not doing previously. While Johnson acknowledged he is still working his way back, he certainly has the perspective of someone who has faced big injury hurdles and overcome them, which he did following his 2007 Tommy John surgery.
However, this time it's a nonspecific shoulder injury, and Johnson's complete return to form is no sure thing. He will have to make it past the All-Star break healthy before anyone can really begin to exhale. Nonetheless, there is clear optimism within the organization about Johnson's readiness to return. Most important, Johnson sounds like a more confident, better-prepared pitcher heading into this season, as compared with last year. And he is indeed the projected starter for Opening Day at Marlins Park, where he will again face the same St. Louis Cardinals team he pitched against Monday.
Other notes from Monday ...
• Third baseman Hanley Ramirez looks to be in phenomenal shape heading into the season. In fact, he surprised some of the team's coaching staff by how fit he appeared to be when he showed up at camp. Ramirez, who is still getting a feel for his new position (third base), seemed upbeat and relaxed when discussing his health. After missing extensive time last year because of a disk injury in his lower back and later a shoulder injury that ultimately required surgery, Ramirez says he has been working hard to recover. He said his shoulder has the range necessary to swing the bat freely, and while he doesn't feel any discomfort in his back or leg, and says he hasn't for months, he continues to do his exercises "for the little muscles" that support his spine.
• Reyes was not in the lineup Monday but was expected to play in a split-squad game against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday. Reyes appeared loose and upbeat during batting practice and drills.
• Outfielder Logan Morrison, who is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, was also inactive Monday. He also was expected to play Tuesday, but with the other half of the squad (against the University of Miami). This exhibition game will be the first time the Marlins play in their new stadium.
• Pitcher Adam Wainwright, on the mend following Tommy John surgery, is expected to see his first game action Friday in Fort Myers when the Cardinals visit the Boston Red Sox. This will be Wainwright's first start since September 2010.