Heat will be on Gonzalez to match Girardi's success

JUPITER, Fla. -- Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez spent four years as Atlanta's third base coach watching Bobby Cox spit tobacco juice and squawk at umpires, so it's only fitting that he calls his former boss now and then to talk shop.

Cox and Gonzalez, good friends and now National League East competitors, recently spoke after the Marlins lost starter Josh Johnson for at least two months with an elbow injury. If Gonzalez expected sympathy, he came to the wrong skipper.

"Hey, read the paper,'' said Cox, who had just lost Mike Hampton to a strained oblique muscle. "Everybody is going through it. You just have to persevere and try to keep your team upbeat.''

Gonzalez, 43, gets his first shot to run a big league team as Joe Girardi's successor in Florida, and he comes with rave reviews. He's a personable guy with infectious energy and a passion for baseball, and it doesn't hurt that he's bilingual.

As for his patience, check back around Memorial Day.

A year ago this time, most national baseball authorities predicted Florida's loss total would surpass Charles Barkley's golf score from the black tees. But Girardi, with his focused, regimented, borderline militaristic mind-set, coaxed the absolute most from a young club. The Marlins went 78-84 and finished a game behind the third-place Braves in the NL East.

The feel-good story line unraveled when Girardi's personality conflict with owner Jeffrey Loria got him run out of Miami. Now he's working for the YES Network, and we can look forward to seeing him mentioned as a candidate for at least a half-dozen jobs between now and Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, baseball is watching to see if Gonzalez has the same magic touch with young players. Can Dan Uggla, the Little Rule 5 Draft Pick That Could, come close to replicating his 27-homer binge? Can Josh Willingham and Mike Jacobs be consistently productive power hitters even as opponents study the scouting reports and try to exploit their weaknesses? And what about all those kid pitchers?

"It's tough enough to worry about one guy going through the sophomore slump,'' said a scout in the Grapefruit League. "They have to worry about eight.''

Another scout said he doesn't see the Marlins playing with the same sense of urgency this year, which seems a tad alarmist given that it's still spring training. But unlike last March, when everyone was competing for a job and that extravagant major league minimum salary, the Florida youngsters have reason to feel relatively secure.

Some are even collecting a bona fide paycheck. Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins' franchise leader with 58 career victories, signed a $6.45 million contract in January, and third baseman Miguel Cabrera will make $7.4 million after beating the club in salary arbitration.

If there's a sure thing in the Florida lineup, it's Cabrera, who ranked second to Pittsburgh's Freddy Sanchez in batting at .339 and second to the Cardinals' Albert Pujols with a .431 on-base percentage. While you can nitpick about Cabrera's weight issues and perceived willingness to coast on his ability, he's an absolute monster player. Some of his teammates even regard him as a sort of hitting oracle, with transcendent powers of observation.

"I told my people back home what a privilege it is to play with someone of his caliber,'' Marlins outfielder Cody Ross said. "It's hard for me to believe that I'm 26 and he's 23. He'll sit there and talk about hitting with somebody else and I'll just listen because he has so much knowledge.''

Several Marlins recalled a recent Grapefruit League game with Baltimore in which Cabrera whiffed on a Daniel Cabrera slider in his first at-bat. He returned to the dugout and proclaimed that he would hit the same pitch over the fence in his next plate appearance.

So naturally, Miguel Cabrera jumped on a first-pitch slider, drove it over the fence and nearly broke the window outside general manager Larry Beinfest's office. He returned to the dugout with a sly smile, showing without a doubt that he's one precocious son of a gun.

Florida infielder Aaron Boone, who signed a $925,000 deal in December, has quickly learned what all the fuss is about with Cabrera.

"Miggy can step in the cage and it's real easy, effortless and strong, just like when Manny Ramirez gets in there,'' Boone said. "They step in that box, and it's like they're a genius in that box.''

Cabrera isn't the only Marlin lugging around "superstar'' expectations. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez, considered a talented problem child after a couple of spats in Boston's minor league system, quickly blossomed after coming over to Florida in the Josh Beckett trade. Ramirez scored 119 runs, stole 51 bases and overtook Uggla and Washington's Ryan Zimmerman in September to win the Rookie of the Year award.

Ramirez possesses a speed-power package in the Jose Reyes-Jimmy Rollins mold. In one game this spring, he legged out a triple and made a mad dash from first base to third on an errant throw. Last week against the Mets, he drove an Ambiorix Burgos pitch 400-plus feet over the center field fence.

Gonzalez calls Ramirez "Nino,'' because of his childlike energy. Like many Latin players, Ramirez needed time to adjust because of the language barrier. This spring, he's clowning around more in the clubhouse and acting more relaxed around reporters covering the team.

"In the little time I've spent with Hanley, he has emerged as a leader,'' Gonzalez said. "Call it maturity or whatever you want. He has been a joy to be around.''

If the Marlins plan to improve upon their 758 runs from last season, they could use a comeback year from erstwhile golden boy Jeremy Hermida, who appeared in only 99 games last season because of injuries and hit a soft .251. Hermida arrived in camp knowing the Marlins wanted him to show something, and he proceeded to hit .057 (2-for-35) in his first 12 Grapefruit League games. He hasn't even hit the ball with authority in batting practice.

Ask talent evaluators in Florida what's wrong with Hermida, and you'll get more questions than answers. Is he hurt? Why can't he get the ball in the air? Is he expanding his strike zone in an effort to be more aggressive and exacerbating his problems? And is he in such a mental funk that he won't be able to dig himself out of it?

"The guy makes me scratch my head,'' said an American League scout in Florida. "Sometimes it looks as if he doesn't want to be out there. The Marlins wouldn't admit it publicly, but I know they're worried.''

Hermida isn't the only cause for concern in Jupiter. Unless the Marlins trade for a proven closer, they'll probably go with rookie Matt Lindstrom. Eric Reed and Alex Sanchez are competing for the starting job in center field. And Boone, the fourth-highest-paid player on the team behind Cabrera, Willis and catcher Miguel Olivo, has shown a discomforting lack of bat speed in Florida.

While Gonzalez is diplomatic, rest assured that he has a handle on all potential trouble spots. Before spring training began, Gonzalez served on a jury in Atlanta. A reporter from the Palm Beach Post asked him if he ever dozed off during deliberations.

"I never dozed off, but I can't lie to you,'' Gonzalez said. "I did make some lineups in my head every once in a while.''

Gonzalez learned from one of the best in Cox, and now he's ready to put those lessons to use. Beginning Opening Day, he's the one being judged.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.