Year older, another year better

Posted: March 28, 2007

VIERA, Fla. - Florida Marlins first baseman Mike Jacobs agrees with Jimmy Rollins.

"The Phillies are the team to beat," he said, sizing up the National League East one recent day. "They've got a nice starting rotation, and they can slug it. The Mets will swing the bats, but I don't think they have the pitching depth. The Braves are solid as usual. But the Phillies have the pitching and the lineup."

Despite his praise for the Phillies, Jacobs wouldn't count out his own team.

And he shouldn't.

The Marlins were supposed to be seen and not heard from in 2006. They had sharply reduced their payroll before the season and suited up 22 rookies. Prognosticators called for a 100-loss season.

Instead, the Marlins went 78-84 and remained in the wild-card picture until the final weeks of the season. All those youngsters are a year more experienced now.

"If our pitching holds up, I don't see any reason why we can't contend," Jacobs said.

Pitching was the most impressive aspect of the Marlins last season. Rookies Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, Scott Olsen and Ricky Nolasco all emerged to win double-digit games behind ace Dontrelle Willis.

All five are back this season, though Johnson will miss at least the first month with a nerve problem in his elbow.

Pitching wasn't the only reason for the Marlins' success last season.

Emerging superstar third baseman Miguel Cabrera hit .339 with 26 homers and 114 RBIs, and shortstop Hanley Ramirez was the NL rookie of the year.

But there was more to the Marlins' surprise season.

Despite a rookie-laden roster and a rebuilding theme, rookie manager Joe Girardi stressed that results mattered.

"From the beginning, he said we were here to win, not just to develop," Jacobs said. "Once we got over the initial shock of all being young and in the big leagues, we just tried to win games."

With the benefit of Girardi's prodding, the Marlins rebounded from an 11-31 start and got to two games over .500 with a win over the Mets on Sept. 11. The Marlins were the first team ever to reach .500 after falling 20 games under.

For all this, Girardi was voted NL manager of the year - and fired.

Seems Girardi did not get along well with his bosses. He'll manage again someday; it just won't be this year with the Marlins.

The job now belongs to 43-year-old Fredi Gonzalez, who seemed to have been destined to one day hold the position. A former catcher in the Yankees system, Gonzalez and his family moved to Miami from Cuba when he was a child. He was the first manager ever hired in the Marlins system, having led their 1991 New York-Penn League team, two years before the franchise played its first big-league game. He was the popular choice for the job when it went to Girardi before the 2006 season.

"Any time you get an opportunity to manage in the big leagues, it's special," Gonzalez said. "But this is really nice. It's my hometown, and this team has a great group of talented young players."

Gonzalez had been Atlanta's third base coach for four seasons before going home to Miami. That position allowed him to learn from one of the best in Braves manager Bobby Cox and get an up-close look at the division. He loved the young talent he saw on the Marlins.

Cabrera exemplifies that young talent. He won't turn 24 until next month, but already he has 104 career homers and three-straight 100-RBI seasons. Willis, who is just 25, likes to call Cabrera "our Manny Ramirez." Cabrera made $475,000 last season. This year, he will make $7.4 million after a huge score at the arbitrator's table in February.

If Cabrera is the Marlins' Manny Ramirez, Hanley Ramirez is their, well, Hanley Ramirez. The 23-year-old Dominican hit .292 with 46 doubles, 17 homers and 59 RBIs in 2006. He also swiped 51 bases in beating out Washington's Ryan Zimmerman and teammate Dan Uggla (27 homers, most ever by a rookie second baseman) for the rookie-of-the-year award. Mets shortstop Jose Reyes is often called the most exciting young talent in the NL East, but Ramirez is right there with him.

"The only thing Reyes has over Hanley is experience and throwing arm," said Jacobs, who came up through the Mets system with Reyes. "Hanley is right there and probably a couple ticks ahead in power, the ability to hit for average, and range. He's fun to watch. It's exciting having a guy like that. When he goes, we go."

Ultimately, pitching will make the Marlins go. They firmed up the closer's spot with the acquisition of Jorge Julio earlier this week, and have hard-throwing rookie Matt Lindstrom in a setup role.

If he's as good as all the team's rookies were a year ago, the Marlins will once again be a team to watch.

Read The Inquirer's series of NL East preview stories at

Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury

at 215-854-4983 or

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