3. Florida Marlins
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A fresh battery provides a powerful charge for a fast-rising franchise
By Michael Farber
"That meant a lot coming from CJ," Lee says. "That's exactly what we need in this clubhouse."
There were more gifted players signed as free agents last winter -- Alex Rodriguez certainly, Mike Hampton maybe -- but there was no more ideal match than Johnson and the Marlins. With a back-loaded five-year, $35 million deal, Florida landed a 31-home-run, 91-RBI answer to its offensive black hole at catcher (two homers, 43 RBIs in 2000), a four-time Gold Glove winner to handle a green but potentially dazzling rotation and a steadying influence for a lineup that has an average age of 26. "The biggest gamble in free agency is not knowing the person, but we knew CJ," general manager Dave Dombrowski says of Johnson, 29, who was the expansion Marlins' first draft choice in 1992. "We knew we were getting better as a team, maybe even getting good. We also knew that if we could just give our players one extra jolt to get them to believe in themselves even more, it would make a big difference."
Traded in the aftermath of the nuclear winter of 1997-98, when Florida dismantled its store-bought World Series champions, Johnson has been repatriated to a largely homegrown team that has described a wildly ascending arc. In 2000 Florida enjoyed a double-digit increase in wins for a second straight year. (No team has done it three seasons in a row since the Red Sox of 1907 to '09, roughly two years before the first blue-haired Miami matron drove I-95 at 40 miles per hour in the left lane with her right turn signal on.) "The good thing is we got our asses kicked together," third baseman Mike Lowell says. "We went through growing pains when the only guys we had to turn to were each other. Makes you stronger."
Florida looks strong. If they can't handle the Braves on the field, the Marlins should challenge them to a decathlon. Florida's emerging identity is one of raw athleticism, a blend of speed (a league-high 168 stolen bases) and power. It has a pair of potential 30-30 men in leftfielder Cliff Floyd and chiseled centerfielder Preston Wilson, who exploded with a .337 average and nine homers in September. A sucker for high fastballs, Wilson struck out an absurd 187 times, but his career average of 3.1 at bats per whiff improved to 4.8 during the final month, when he switched to a 35-ounce bat, two ounces heavier than his former model.
Even if Wilson moves up to the outfield elite and either Brad Penny, 22, or A.J. Burnett, 24, makes the sort of leap to success that Ryan Dempster did last season at 23, the Marlins' immediate future still hinges on shortstop Alex Gonzalez. In 1999, his rookie season, Gonzalez hit .277 and stood along the foul line at Fenway Park during the All-Star Game introductions. Last year the only line he straddled was Mendoza's. Slowed by a fractured forearm sustained in winter ball, Gonzalez wound up at precisely .200, a clueless swinger who chased breaking balls in the dirt and struck out six times as much as he walked. "He has to play much better if we're going to get to the next level," manager John Boles says. "All premier teams have good shortstop play, so he needs to give us lights-out defense and help on offense, too."
Florida was a high-wire act last season, going 32-20 in one-run games, but finishing with a minus-66 run differential. With an imposing catcher whose offense has finally caught up with his defense (despite a noticeable statistical decline from his early seasons, Johnson still has committed only 19 errors over the past three years), the Marlins won't trip and fall in their continued journey toward playoff contention.
Issue date: March 26, 2001