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02/15/12 12:24 PM EST

JJ at full strength, eager to lead Marlins' staff

Right-hander throwing pain-free three times a week in Jupiter

MIAMI -- If the Marlins are indeed going to contend for a playoff spot, they know their starting pitching must hold up. The key to the rotation is Josh Johnson.

The two-time All-Star was sidelined last May with right shoulder inflammation, and he missed the remainder of the year. Without the club's ace, the season unraveled, resulting in a 72-90 record.

With Johnson, the Marlins were on the heels of the Phillies for first place in the National League East the first two months of the 2011 campaign. In nine starts in 2011, Johnson was 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA.

Along with Johnson, the Marlins also were without three-time All-Star Hanley Ramirez, who underwent left shoulder surgery and missed the final two months.

After an offseason of adding the likes of Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano, the organization feels foremost it needs to keep its star players on the field.

"The biggest thing is health with this team now," president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said. "We like the team. But in order to perform at the level we'd like for it to perform, we have to stay healthy.

"I think there are 29 other teams probably saying the same thing. But when you lose Hanley and lose Josh Johnson, it's a big deal. We need those guys to stay healthy."

The encouraging news for Miami is Johnson appears to be at full strength. Since mid-January, Johnson has been throwing pain-free off the mound.

He started off working out at his home near Las Vegas. More recently, he has been in Jupiter, Fla., at the club's Roger Dean Stadium Spring Training complex.

Johnson is throwing off the mound on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The fact that he is not recovering from surgery is a plus, and his shoulder feels strong.

When the Marlins' pitchers and catchers begin Spring Training on Feb. 22, Johnson will be throwing without any restrictions.

"I feel great. No problems," Johnson said. "I don't feel anything in there."

Asked if he will be held back in any way, he responded: "As far as I know, no. We haven't sat down and talked about it or anything. So I'm good to go."

Based on how he's handled his rehab, Miami is expecting Johnson to be ready.

"We're confident at this point," Beinfest said. "He feels good. He is in Jupiter working out now. Everything is on schedule. He will get his work in, and hopefully Ozzie will pencil him in Opening Night against the Cardinals, and we'll work backward from there to get him ready."

In terms of pure stuff, the 6-foot-7 Johnson is among the best in the game. He has a career record of 48-23 with a 2.98 ERA. The hard-throwing right-hander was off to a terrific 2011 before experiencing tightness in his shoulder during a May 16 start against the Mets in New York.

Johnson was unable to work his way back into a regular-season game. The closest he got to game action was throwing batting practice against hitters in Jupiter at the end of the year. That session didn't gain too much notoriety, but it gave Johnson some peace of mind that his shoulder was sturdy entering the offseason.

Now, after months of rest and building up for Spring Training, Johnson is ready to accept his place as ace of the staff.

Johnson understands his importance to the team. With him, the Marlins have realistic playoff hopes. Without him, their chances are greatly diminished.

"I like to have that on myself," Johnson said of the pressure to perform. "I pride myself on going out there and getting outs for this team. I hope I can stay healthy and do it the whole year."

Miami feels it has a formidable rotation with Johnson, Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Zambrano. In a new ballpark, and with a payroll that's beefed up to a team-record $96 million, the Marlins are confident they will be a force in the division.

"We've always expected a lot from ourselves," Johnson said. "People have written us off kind of early [in the past]. Even at the end of the season last year, we were playing good baseball. Add the new guys, and you have a pretty good team."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.