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The Marlins' history is as odd as it is brief. In their 13 seasons they've won two World Series, a record any team outside the Bronx would envy. But each title win has been followed by a purge. After the 1997 championship run the team dumped such stars as Moises Alou, Robb Nen, Jeff Conine and Kevin Brown. Now, two seasons removed from their second Series win, the Marlins again gutted the roster in a payroll-cutting frenzy prompted by the failure to secure a new stadium deal. If a long-discussed move from South Florida is indeed in the works, ownership would be wise to consider another coastal location, because the Marlins are expert at building baseball castles in the sand.
The list of players gone from last year is impressive: pitchers Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, catcher Paul Lo Duca, infielders Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo and Mike Lowell, and outfielders Juan Pierre and Juan Encarnacion. The two pieces of bedrock retained by the Marlins are 22-year-old Miguel Cabrera, who'll move from the outfield to third base, and 24-year-old lefthander Dontrelle Willis, the 2005 Cy Young runner-up who will be the team's No. 1 starter. During spring training the remaining 23 roster spots were up in the air. Even more unnerving, of the 40 roster invitees to spring training, a stunning 35 were in the minors for at least part of 2005. "I've never been to a big league camp that had this many guys without big league experience," says third baseman Wes Helms, a seven-year veteran who spent the last three seasons with Milwaukee. The man to lead this youth movement is 41-year-old Joe Girardi, a rookie skipper just 2 1/2 years removed from his playing days.
Marlins fans--those who remain--might not be excited about having to learn so many new names yet again, but for the players it's another story. Promising prospects such as Jeremy Hermida, Mike Jacobs, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Willingham suddenly have a wide-open road to the majors. If nothing else, the Marlins should put a couple of horses in the race for Rookie of the Year.
Hermida, a rightfielder who was the Marlins' first-round pick in 2002, hit a grand slam last Aug. 31 in his first major league at bat. The Georgia native has impressed Girardi with his maturity and is the Marlins rookie who looks most ready to make a smooth transition to the bigs. "He reminds me a little bit of [former Yankee] Paul O'Neill," Girardi says, "He's a patient hitter. He has an idea at the plate. He's a good defender, and he's got a good arm in the outfield. He's got that good approach every day." The 22-year-old Hermida, whose lefthanded stroke has impressed scouts for years, spent his off-season working out at the Baseball Performance Center in Marietta, Ga., where he's been going since his senior year of high school. Beyond his physical skills, the 6'4", 200-pound Hermida's greatest asset may be that he rarely forces a swing. "I've always prided myself on letting the game come to me," Hermida says.
Jacobs, a first baseman, came over from the Mets with two other prospects in exchange for Delgado. He sizzled after being called up by New York in August, hitting four home runs in his first four games and finishing with a .310 average and 11 homers in 100 at bats. Ramirez, who arrived from Boston in a trade for Beckett, won the shortstop job over Robert Andino, who came up through the Marlins' system. Girardi also wants to find a place in the lineup for Willingham, who hit .324 with 19 home runs in 66 games for the Marlins' Triple A club last year. He's been catching this spring.
With so many open jobs, the Marlins at least had a spirited training camp. "Even when we had our first intrasquad game, everyone was all pumped up for that," Jacobs said. Adds Girardi, "You have a lot of hungry players here." Admittedly, it's not the kind of hunger you'll find in St. Louis or Atlanta or New York, where the appetite is for winning a World Series. That may come later for some of these Marlins--and then, if the pattern holds, for the teams they'll be traded to. --B.S.
The Marlins are going to need all the scoring help they can get, and to aid their cause they can give lots of playing time to three young guys with power bats. Florida can split catching duties between two players who have recent experience behind the plate, Josh Willingham (right), who hit .324 with 19 homers in 66 games at Triple A last year, and Mike Jacobs (.321, 25 homers at Double A), and use another prospect, Jason Stokes, at first base. Thumb and wrist injuries have hampered Stokes's development, but he has hit one home run every 17.6 at bats in the minors and has a career slugging percentage of .521.