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The Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton talks with the media at the team's Winter Warm-Up on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, at Marlins Park in Miami. (David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/MCT)

Five questions heading into Marlins spring training

Questions abound, and now it's time to start answering them.

The Miami Marlins' front office believes it has assembled a considerably more competitive club than last year's 100-loss outfit. The process of proving that begins Sunday afternoon in Jupiter, where pitchers and catchers will have their first formal workout. The rest of the squad joins them Thursday, ahead of the Feb. 26 exhibition opener against the University of Miami.

How will Jose Fernandez will follow up his National League Rookie of the Year season?

Of the 69 players earmarked for big league camp, 29 are not on the 40-man roster. They include homegrown pitchers Adam Conley, Anthony DeSclafani, Andrew Heaney, Justin Nicolino, Colby Suggs and Nick Wittgren, and position players Austin Barnes, Danny Black, Mark Canha, Colin Moran and Avery Romero.

Among those with previous major league experience who the Marlins signed to minor league deals: Kevin Slowey, Chaz Roe, Ty Wigginton and Reed Johnson.

After a week's worth of community activities, culminating with Saturday's Winter Warm-up at Marlins Park, let's take look at five pressing questions facing the club heading into spring training.

How much better is the Marlins' offense?

That remains to be seen, but the good news is it probably can't get any worse. In 2013, the Marlins scored 513 runs -- 136 fewer than the National League average. They also hit 45 fewer homers than the NL mean. Even if Giancarlo Stanton has a breakout year and paces the circuit in homers, chances are the Marlins again will rank toward the bottom of the league in long balls.

President of Baseball Operations Michael Hill is counting on new additions Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal and Casey McGehee taking advantage of the sizeable gaps at Marlins Park, thus producing more run support for a young, talented starting rotation.

A full season of Christian Yelich in left also should help the club field a more representative offense.

Is top prospect Andrew Heaney this year's Jose Fernandez?

Expecting anybody to duplicate what Fernandez did during his National League Rookie of the Year-winning campaign seems unreasonable. Fernandez, who will spearhead the starting five, finished third in NL Cy Young voting and will be among the favorites for the 2014 award.

Some pundits this offseason tabbed Heaney, the Marlins' first-round pick (ninth overall) out of Oklahoma State in 2012, as the top left-handed prospect in baseball. He was outstanding last season splitting time between advanced-Class A Jupiter and Double-A Jacksonville, and followed that up with fantastic Arizona Fall League numbers.

The Marlins won't hesitate to put Heaney in the season-opening rotation if he earns a job, but he'll have plenty of competition. Tom Koehler, Brad Hand, Brian Flynn, Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani are among those vying for the final starter job.

Who will form the bridge from starter to closer Steve Cishek?

Much of manager Mike Redmond and pitching coach Chuck Hernandez's time this spring will be earmarked for evaluating and configuring the bullpen. The ninth inning is set with Cishek, who enters 2014 having converted 29 consecutive save chances.

The Marlins lost Chad Qualls to free agency and opted to non-tender Ryan Webb, two righties who last season combined for 142 1/3 relief innings.

Ideally, free agent acquisition and ex-Cubs closer Carlos Marmol can demonstrate enough effectiveness and command to assume eighth-inning setup duties from the right side.

That would push back the power arms of young righties A.J. Ramos, Carter Capps and Arquimedes Caminero into the seventh inning or earlier. Michael Dunn is back as the primary lefty reliever, and Edgar Olmos will push Dan Jennings for the second lefty job.

What are the positional battles to watch?

Because of early off days many teams can get away with a four-man rotation through mid-April.

That won't be the case for the Marlins, who beginning with the March 31 season opener play seven straight days. Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, and Jacob Turner are expected to occupy the first four spots. The last job is up for grabs among several upper level prospects.

Center field is worth monitoring. Marcell Ozuna is the favorite, but Jake Marisnick potentially can give the Marlins something to think about with a good spring. Several bench spots are locked in with Jeff Mathis as the backup catcher, Greg Dobbs as the primary lefty pinch-hitter and Jeff Baker as the club's super utility man.

Bryan Bogusevic is expected to serve as the primary backup outfielder. That leaves one spot, presumably for either Donovan Solano or Ed Lucas since both can play shortstop.

Which players are most likely to help the major league team at some point in 2014?

The Marlins have a good problem with plenty of upper level starting pitching depth. With rare exception, most teams require more than five starters to get through the season. Heaney, Nicolino, DeSclafani and Conley all are good bets to make their major league debuts in 2014.

In terms of relievers, Michael Brady, Grant Dayton, Greg Nappo, Colby Suggs and Nick Wittgren are among those who should see big league time in 2014 as the need for additional pitching arises. The Marlins won't rush third baseman Colin Moran, last year's first-round pick out of North Carolina, but a strong Double-A season should earn a September call-up at a minimum.

Another guy to monitor in the event the Marlins require an offensive infusion is Kyle Jensen.

The organization's best power hitting prospect, Jensen can play either corner outfield spot and also is working at first base.

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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