Success coming into focus for Marlins
Young talent, prospects of new stadium offer hope for franchise
JUPITER, Fla. -- This is an operation that has "better days ahead" written all over it.
On the field, the Florida Marlins define the concept of young talent. Off the field, this franchise is closer than it has ever been to gaining approval for a new stadium. The new ballpark is not a done deal politically, but the possibility of a baseball-only facility and the increased revenue it would produce is another factor that offers long-term hope for the Marlins.
So the future beckons. But what about the immediate future, the 2007 season? What the Marlins accomplished in 2006 offers some positive clues. A young team with baseball's lowest payroll, the Marlins were widely written off as a long-term project with little hope of success in the near future after an 11-31 start. But the young talent blossomed more quickly than expected, and the Marlins emerged as legitimate Wild Card contenders. That performance left a lasting impression.
"It was definitely my favorite season, because we overcame a lot of adversity," says starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis. "That's kind of an attribute that's not in everyone. As far as a season, 2003, because we won the World Series, was definitely a memorable year. But as far as the course of a regular season, last year, I just enjoyed how we all blossomed. We jelled together as a team and we had a good time doing it."
Their 78-84 record was impressive enough to the rest of the baseball world that their manager, Joe Girardi, won the National League Manager of the Year Award. Conflicts with team management ended Girardi's tenure in Florida after one surprisingly successful season. Lost in the general eyebrow-raising over his dismissal was the central fact of this team: It was highly competitive in 2006 and it only figured to improve with experience.
Look at the starting pitching. Willis, 25, won 22 games in 2005 and is widely and fairly regarded as one of the best young pitchers in the game. The Marlins are also fortunate to have someone with his relentlessly positive personality in a highly visible role. Anibal Sanchez, who turns 23 this week, was 10-3 with a 2.37 ERA as a starter in 2006 and broke the two-year Major League drought with a no-hitter against Arizona on Sept. 6. Scott Olsen, 23, won 12 games last season, while Ricky Nolasco, 24, won 11. Josh Johnson, 23, was 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA, although a sore right triceps has slowed his progress this spring.
There are many clubs that would envy this rotation. But there is much more to envy. Among the position players, third baseman Miguel Cabrera, 23, is already an established star. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez, 23, had a rookie season that was the stuff of dreams -- 46 doubles, 11 triples, 17 home runs, 51 stolen bases. Second baseman Dan Uggla, 26, had 27 home runs and 90 RBIs and was on the 2006 NL All-Star team.
Plus, there is a remarkably positive vibe around this club. Sunday, just a normal fielding drill in Roger Dean Stadium was conducted at a strikingly brisk, high-energy pace.
"We come in ready and willing to work every day, because we know we have enough talent to do great things," Willis says. "It's a beautiful thing to come in here knowing that the person next to you is going to work his tail off, and he expects you to, as well. I think us having success in the second half has really kind of steamrolled into this Spring Training, where everybody is eager to go out there and play baseball. How could you not come in here motivated to go out there and have fun and play baseball?
"We have a lot of love for each other. If one struggles, we all bleed. I mean that sincerely. It's fun, man. Once you know that people care about you and care about your well-being, it's just going out there and having fun from then on."
The new Marlins manager, Fredi Gonzalez, formed a positive impression of the team when he was coaching for the Atlanta Braves. What he has seen this spring has only reinforced that perception.
"What I saw on the field last year is that they played the game hard, they loved competing, they loved being around each other," Gonzalez says. "And that's the same thing I see now that I've been with them every day. They go about their business with enthusiasm, and they have fun and like each other.
"They're young, enthusiastic players. That's what I saw from across the field. You come here, working with them every day, they go through the fundamentals the same way. Everything's upbeat, a let's-get-it-done attitude."
This is still far from a push-button operation. Center field is unsettled. A new closer will have to be identified. But the Marlins believe that the idea of future success is not some hazy, distant concept.
"Listen, man, I wouldn't be here sweating my tail off and running and passing out if I didn't believe that we have a chance to do great things," Willis says. "If that's the case, then don't come. I have always believed that if you have nine guys out there who really believe, then you can do great things, like we did in '03. People are still scratching their heads about how we did that. Once I went through that, every year is a chance for us to go. And every year I've been on the team, we've made it to a playoff run until the last week. It just goes to show you that you never give up, you always believe that you can be that team."
Based on what they did in the second half of last season, based on the undeniable talent that is on this roster, it is not so far-fetched for this club to believe that the very good days are a matter of sooner rather than later. What does appear indisputable is that this team's success looks much more like an issue of when, rather than if.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.