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Florida MARLINS
Michael Bamberger
March 29, 1999
The bottom-feeding Fish still lack cash, but they're filthy rich in young talent
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March 29, 1999

Florida Marlins

The bottom-feeding Fish still lack cash, but they're filthy rich in young talent

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By the Numbers

1998 Team Statistics (NL rank)

1998 record: 54-108 (fifth in NL East)

BATTING AVERAGE

.248 (15)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.287 (16)

RUNS SCORED

667 (13)

ERA

5.18 (16)

HOME RUNS

114 (15)

FIELDING PCT.

.979 (12)

They'll be less awful. That's what the Marlins pledge to be in 1999. They're not, in any way, the club that won the World Series in '97. (Only six players remain from that roster.) And they're not the team that lost 108 games last year, although a bunch of kids from that group are back. Florida is like an expansion club again. It has a new owner. (Wayne Huizenga is gone, John Henry is in.) It has a new manager. (Jim Leyland is gone, John Boles is in.) It has a new attitude. The Marlins, only six seasons after being born, are being reborn.

In a few years Florida might be good again, if it's willing to pay the players it's developing. There's probably no other team with more young talent. Those talented players—outfielder Mark Kotsay, first baseman Derrek Lee, pitchers Braden Looper and A.J. Burnett, to name a few—may not have made it onto your radar screen yet. But Dave Dombrowski, the Marlins' nimble general manager, knows what he has with these guys: a future.

In the Huizenga years Florida was loaded with mercenaries. The Marlins' owner got out his checkbook, the team won the World Series; he put away his checkbook, the team was disbanded. Floridians were left feeling ill. Dombrowski, who has been successful over the years with both big budgets and tiny budgets, knows the harsh truth. Winning back fans will be about as easy as crossing the Everglades barefoot. The front office isn't burdening the players with this task. The message to the players is simple: Be loose, try hard, get better.

Boles believes Leyland did the Marlins a great favor by staying with them last year. When the best manager in baseball guides a team to the worst record in baseball and then leaves, it makes his successor's job a whole lot easier. Expectations could not be lower. Just look what the great Leyland did with these same guys.

Some of the Marlins weren't sorry to see him go. "Leyland made you worry about your mistakes," says Todd Dunwoody, Florida's centerfielder. "It makes you less aggressive." Lee, the cleanup hitter and first baseman, says, "Leyland just makes you nervous with all that coffee he drinks and smoking cigarettes and pacing around."

Boles is 50, but he's new school. No cigs, no coffee, no pacing around. "I'm not going to tip over any food tables, scream at media people, go home and kick the dog," he says.

The Marlins could finish last again in the National League East—any other finish would be a surprise—and still be one of the most improved teams in the majors. Every player on the projected Opening Day roster is in his 20's except knuckleballers Dennis Springer, who's 34, and Kirt Ojala, who's 30. The youthful trio of Kotsay, 23, in right, Dunwoody, 23, in center and Cliff Floyd, 26, in left constitutes one of the best defensive outfields in the majors. Burnett, a 22-year-old righthander, has a ring in each nipple, a 95-mph fastball and a knuckle curve that doesn't break the I-95 speed limit. He's a beaut, though he's probably still a year away from the bigs. During spring training, Boles said to him, "You're scared to death, aren't you, kid." Burnett said, "Yeah, right."

One of the most promising things about the Marlins' future is that Florida traded 23-year-old All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria to the Cardinals in December not to save money but to improve the team. Renteria is a hero in South Florida for his game-winning two-out single in the 11th inning of Game 7 in the 1997 World Series. But with the trade the Marlins got three promising players in return—the hard-throwing Looper; a lefthander named Armando Almanza, who has a 3.07 career ERA after five years in the minors; and an infielder named Pablo Ozuna, a 20-year-old speedster who has hit .351 in his three minor league seasons. That's not all. Dealing Renteria will also allow Boles to make 22-year-old Alex Gonzalez his every-day shortstop. Gonzalez is an excellent fielder and has, by the modest standards of his position, good power.

The Marlins haven't cut every tie to 1997, it just seems that way. Floyd, for one, is still around. Last season the injury-prone outfielder stayed healthy for the entire year and hit 22 home runs and stole 27 bases. In August, Barry Bonds even likened Floyd to himself when he was younger. Another holdover is second baseman Craig Counsell, who scored on Renteria's Game 7 single. Counsell is a relative grown-up—compared with the other Marlins. The kids can learn something from him. He's 28. He has a ring. He's coming back from a broken jaw after being struck in the face by a pitch last year. In spring training he showed no fear. He's a big leaguer.

Last year the Marlins didn't exist except in the standings. They were between owners, between managers, between directions. The new owner, John Henry, is not like the old one. He's a baseball man. He likes the game. He has co-owned a minor league team and a Senior Baseball League team. He owned a 1% share of the Yankees during the eight years before he bought the Marlins. He's trying to build a team.

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