Marlins' Gonzalez will manage

Posted: March 29, 2007

JUPITER, Fla. - There is no handy how-to guide for Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, no well-worn path for him to follow. What he is doing, in fact, is rarer in baseball than hitting for the cycle or pitching a perfect game.

What Gonzalez is doing is replacing a guy who was voted National League Manager of the Year the previous season.

That would be Joe Girardi, who managed to get into such a spitting contest with his bosses that he found himself unemployed 2 days after the schedule was completed even though a young Marlins team widely expected to lose at least 100 games was two games over .500 and two games off the pace in the wild-card standings as late as Sept. 11.

The only other time an incumbent manager of the year has gotten the boot was 1997, when the Orioles axed Davey Johnson.

Then again, the Marlins don't operate like most other teams. When the Fish won their second world championship in 2003, it also represented just the second winning season in franchise history.

They have also conducted two almost-everything-must-go fire sales in the last decade.

Florida will have one of baseball's lowest payrolls again this year with almost half of it going to just two players, third baseman Miguel Cabrera and lefthander Dontrelle Willis.

And changing managers is hardly something new. Gonzales will be the sixth skipper in the last 7 years.

Fortunately for him, there is one part of his resume that is uniquely suited to the task in front of him.

The Marlins used 22 rookies last season, all but one before rosters were expanded in September. And the kids were all right. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez was named NL Rookie of the Year while second baseman Dan Uggla, righthander Josh Johnson, lefthander Scott Olsen, righthander Anibal Sanchez and leftfielder Josh Willingham all received votes.

Now the challenge is to keep them from becoming complacent or falling victim to the dreaded sophomore slump.

And Gonzalez has had a firsthand look at what can happen to a team that gets an unexpected boost from young players.

Before being hired to replace Girardi, Gonzalez was third-base coach for the Braves for 4 years. In that capacity, he watched Atlanta repeatedly reach down to Triple A Richmond to plug holes caused by injuries on the way to winning a 14th straight division title in 2005 . . . only to see the streak end last season when some of the same youngsters were unable to replicate their early success.

And what did that teach him?

"Me and the organization have to have patience with these guys a little bit," he said earlier this spring before an exhibition game at Roger Dean Stadium. "They had great years last year. Let's stay with them. They're our guys. They're our players.

"Sure, some of them are going to slide a little bit. You look at 162 games, those guys that hit .340 slide somewhere. But you've got to have patience with them. For me, as long as they're working hard and preparing and playing the game the right way, I can deal with the slumps and the slides."

Willis knows something about dealing with expectations that are raised by making a big splash. He won the 2003 Rookie of the Year Award, going 14-6 after being called up in May. The following year he was 10-11.

"How do we build on last year? That's a good question," he said, sitting in front of his locker. "Just continue to work hard. That's kind of self-explanatory. We started to gel as a team after having some adversity early. We started having some success. It's not always going to play out that way. But if you continue to work hard, when you go out on the field you know you've prepared yourself the best you possibly could. So there are no regrets.

"Once we started getting that mentality, that's when we started turning things around. So hopefully we can build on that."

It was pointed out that sometimes young players take a step backward before continuing to improve.

"There are different cases," he said. "Baseball is a game where nothing's set in stone. So hopefully we won't have to go through that. Hopefully we went through enough of it in the first couple months of the season.

"But, again, the game's funny. You just want to work hard enough and play well enough so you're there at the end. Hopefully we don't think about it. I think a lot of times people get caught up in sophomore jinx, thinking about it mentally instead of thinking about what you need to do. If we don't get caught up in those things, we'll be OK."

Willingham conceded that the younger Marlins will have to be sure they don't assume anything. "I think you get a little bit more comfortable. Last year we were kind of all going through it together," he said. "This year we know what to expect and are a little more comfortable in our setting, but you can't get comfortable in your work.

"Basically we have to do the same thing as we did last year, how we prepared and how we went about our business. The fun we had in the clubhouse. Stay loose. Rely on each other, be a complete team. Basically, we can't slack off. We can't take for granted that we had a pretty good team last year."

Cabrera is an example that it doesn't always work that way. He also came to the majors in 2003. He batted .268 with a .325 on base percentage and a .468 slugging percentage.

Since then he's gotten steadily better, going from .294-.366-.512 in 2004 to .323-.385-.561 in 2005 to .339-.430-.568 last year. And he showed up in better shape this spring than he did a year ago after going on a weight-lifting regimen while cutting back on junk food.

The Marlins also moved to address a glaring need on Monday when they sent well-regarded 22-year-old righthander Yusmeiro Petit to the Diamondbacks for Jorge Julio, who becomes their closer.

Still, they face some tangible issues. They lost a productive bat when veteran Wes Helms became a free agent and signed with the Phillies to play third base.

They were unable to acquire a centerfielder in the offseason and ended up giving the job to non-roster invitee Alejandro De Aza.

And after having a relatively injury-free season in 2005, they've already lost Johnson, who had been penciled in as their No. 2 starter, for at least 2 months because of a nerve problem in his throwing arm.

Starting rightfielder Jeremy Hermida fouled a pitch off a knee and will be out until at least mid-April.

Throw in the uncertainty that always seems to cling to this franchise, including periodic threats to relocate if a new stadium isn't built and the rotating managers, and it's fair to wonder if the Marlins can hope to even match their 78 wins from a year ago.

Willis says all that matters is what happens between the lines. "Baseball is always 7:05 and 1:05. You know what I mean?" he said. "In the end, this is my fifth year with four different managers. But, again, when it's all said and done, the lineup card is up there and you still have to go out there and compete. The Phillies don't feel bad that you switched managers, so why should you? It's what the situation is. And by the same token, it doesn't dictate how you go about the game and prepare for the game."

It wouldn't comfort Gonzalez to know that, since the Orioles fired Johnson after winning the division, Baltimore has finished as high as third just once. But there's also this:

After the Cardinals rallied to win the National League pennant in 1964, manager Johnny Keane quit. Sure enough, under Red Schoendienst, St. Louis finished seventh and sixth, respectively, the next 2 years.

However, the two seasons after that the Cardinals won the pennant. And Schoendienst went on to manage the team for 12 years. *

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