It's not all doom and gloom in South Florida

November, 21, 2008
Larry Beinfest and the Marlins took Chris Resop and traded him for Kevin Gregg. Two years and 61 saves later, they moved Gregg to the Cubs for Jose Ceda, a 21-year old right-handed reliever sought by several other teams in other prospective deals with Chicago. Ceda's another power arm in the Florida stable.

This is a remarkable organization, tightly bound from Beinfest to Mike Hill, Dan Jennings to Jim Fleming, Stan Meek to Orrin Freeman. They had the lowest payroll in baseball last season and were 84-77, a half-game better than the Dodgers while playing in a far stronger division. They won the World Series in 2003, then had to tear the team back down. They finished above .500 in 2003, 2004 and 2005, bottomed out in 2007 and are once again knocking on the door in a division with the world champion Phillies and a Mets team that is expected to win.

What does it mean to have winning records four of the past six years with that kind of allowance and a ballpark that might as well be in Yeehaw Junction?

The Orioles haven't had a winning record since 1997, the other time the Marlins won the World Series before dismantling the team. Baltimore is 188 games under .500 in the 21st century; Pittsburgh hasn't had a winning season since Barry Bonds was their left fielder and George H.W. Bush was president; Cincinnati hasn't had a winning season since 2000; Kansas City has one winning season since 1993; Milwaukee has two in that time, albeit the last two seasons; the Nationals are 107 games under .500 in the past five years, which includes one season in Montreal; and until Detroit got to the World Series in 2006, it went a dozen years under .500 and had the worst record in their division in 2008.

The Marlins are a team in transition that hit 207 homers in a pitchers' park last season, second only to the Phillies. They had a modest plus-3 run differential. Their two best pitchers, Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson, were a combined 22-9, and Chris Volstad was 6-4 with a 2.88 ERA in 14 starts. They see high ceilings for pitchers Andrew Miller and Anibal Sanchez (10-3 in 2006), with Sean West hot on the trail. Down the stretch last season, Nolasco, Johnson and Volstad combined to go 7-3 in September, and The Phish split their last dozen games with the Phillies and Mets, who were fighting to make the playoffs.

Granted, there are nights when you watch the Marlins' home games and it looks as if it is a family-only crowd. But their rebirth has been overlooked (much like Hanley Ramirez's season was ignored in the MVP voting), as everything these days in the NL East is ignored other than the drama of the Mets. For two years in a row, the storyline of the division has been the "collapse" of the Mets, with little credit given to the intrepid Phillies, who never stopped fighting and who this year earned their first championship in 28 years. Things have gone wrong for the Mets, but they did not play in a vacuum, and for two straight years the Phillies stomped their way to the division title, this year the World Series.

We have grown accustomed to the Braves being the third part of the division equation, and they again will get there if they can straighten out their tattered pitching.

Now the Marlins are in the middle of the strong division, especially if Cameron Maybin can make the jump and take over in center field, with Cody Ross in left and Jeremy Hermida in right, and they figure out how the infield aligns around Ramirez -- where Dan Uggla and Jorge Cantu and their 61 combined homers end up playing, how they use Emilio Bonifacio's defense, whether Gaby Sanchez or Logan Morrison or Dallas McPherson or Cantu ends up at first.

"Essentially we wanted to do two things this winter," says Beinfest. "We wanted to improve our defense and work on deepening our bullpen, especially after trading Gregg." Not that they wanted to necessarily move Gregg, Josh Willingham, Mike Jacobs and Scott Olsen, but those are the rules of the small market with no legitimate venue, rules that can be followed without complaint because of the developmental system.

Miller's upside eclipses Olsen's if his knee is right and he gets his breaking ball over. They think fireballing right-hander Matt Lindstrom takes Gregg's place, with help from Leo Nunez out of the Jacobs deal, Ceda and a couple of other young arms.

Morrison, the MVP of the Florida State League and one of top performers in the Arizona Fall League, is athletic enough to move to the outfield. Second baseman/third baseman Chris Coghlan (67 BB, 65 K, .298 in Double-A) can play second or third. Speedy outfielder John Raynor had a .402 on-base percentage in Double-A, Scott Cousins hit .285 climbing from Single-A to Double-A, and the two best prospects of all -- 18-year-old monster Mike Stanton (39 HR, .611 SLG in 125 games) and third baseman Matt Dominguez, who turned 19 in August -- played in Greensboro.

If Nolasco, Johnson, Vostad and Miller are all healthy this season and a couple of players from the Maybin, Morris, Sanchez and Coghlan group hit, then the Marlins will be a legitimate team for the Phillies and Mets to fear. Because they're so young and they've got these Stantons up and down the system, the Florida Marlins are going to be around for the long haul.

Ownership put Beinfest and a highly-skilled organization in place, allowed them to draft freely and have put a competitive team on the field, competitive enough to have more winning seasons in the past six years than the Orioles, Pirates, Reds, Nationals, Rockies, Royals and Tigers, combined.

Contrary to what may you might have read and heard, the Phillies' road to the World Series was not just the Mets, it was the talented young Marlins before they got to the talent of the Brewers, Dodgers and Rays.

Come to think of it, maybe when the Marlins play the Rays in the battle for who has the best young talent in Florida or across the Southeast, they will be two of the most interesting series of the first half of 2009 season, even if they play in Yeehaw Junction, Indiantown or on the back lawn of the Orville Tribewasser House of Taxidermy.



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