General manager Larry Beinfest has received too little credit for assembling a young, pitching-rich roster that was in the running for the NL wild card as late as mid-September last year and is the envy of every other major league front office this season. These Marlins aren't yet ready to win a third World Series, but they are not as far off as many might think. While Florida's other mid-1990s expansion entry, the Devil Rays, have stockpiled positional talent, the Marlins have hoarded arms to complement their glut of talented every-day players such as Miguel Cabrera, reigning NL Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla.
It was revealing to see the change in the spring training clubhouse, where the center lockers that two years ago housed emerging starters Josh Johnson and Scott Olsen were manned this year by six new potential pitching stars: Gaby Hernandez, Jacob Marceaux, Aaron Thompson, Ryan Tucker, Chris Volstad and Sean West. All but Hernandez, a highly touted righthander who came from the Mets in a trade for catcher Paul Lo Duca before last season, were high draftees in 2005. At the very least that depth affords Beinfest some trade options.
"We play in a big stadium in the National League, so we'll always prioritize pitching," says Beinfest, who acquired 15 hurlers in the team's fantastic fire sale after the 2005 season, before the pitching market went crazy. The results were immediate. The '06 Marlins became the first team to have four rookies with 10 or more victories (and the first with six players, three pitchers and three regulars, receiving Rookie of the Year votes).
But playing in a division that is deep and experienced, Florida will be hard-pressed to steal the NL East, especially considering they have a $27 million payroll (lowest in the league) and a couple of gigantic holes (the club as much as held tryout camps for centerfield and closer this spring, for instance). The Marlins' inexperience can show, such as when they started last year 11-31 before becoming the first team to make it back from 20 games under .500 to a winning record (73-72; they finished 78-84). As Beinfest says, "Really good teams never bury themselves."
Before last season Beinfest acquired a double play combo for the future -- the multitalented shortstop Ramirez, in a trade with the Red Sox, and second baseman Uggla, a Rule V pickup from the Diamondbacks -- and finished off the rotation with righthander Anibal Sanchez, who was part of the trade with the Red Sox and won 10 games, including a no-hitter, in half a season. But this winter Beinfest only tinkered.
The roster came together about as cheaply as last year's (between them, lefthander Dontrelle Willis, $6.5 million, and third baseman Cabrera, $7.4 million, account for about half the payroll), but it's a little younger (Joe Borowski, Wes Helms and Matt Herges -- average age, 34 -- are gone) and, after a year together, perhaps a little more dangerous. Also, new skipper Fredi Gonzalez should have a calming effect on the team following the tense departure of Joe Girardi, the 2006 NL Manager of the Year, who was fired at the end of his first season after a falling-out with the front office.
Gonzalez, who grew up in Miami and worked his way up from Class A manager to Marlins third base coach during 10 years in the Florida organization, was summoned back home after four years with the Braves. He is low-key and humble, constantly has a smile on his face and seems to understand that he has more to work with than a lot of first-year managers. While the Marlins may still be a year away from challenging their big-market rivals, their nice crop of twentysomething players should make things interesting. -- Jon Heyman
Issue date: March 26, 2007