Marlins have sleeper potential

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Miami Marlins’ spring training camp began on a rough note when team president David Samson was the first contestant to be voted off the island on "Survivor." It’s been all uphill from there.

The Marlins have a National League-best 16-10 record in spring training. Although Grapefruit and Cactus League records are deceptive and are meaningless in the overall scheme of things, the vibe is decidedly positive at the complex the Marlins share with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins' best player, is relaxed, healthy and hitting rockets all over Roger Dean Stadium. Outfielder Christian Yelich and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria seem ready to assert themselves, and the Marlins assembled a more competent support system for their young players with the addition of veterans Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal, Casey McGehee and Reed Johnson in the offseason.

And, oh, that pitching. Throughout the starting rotation and the bullpen, the Marlins are stacked with hard throwers who are going to produce some very uncomfortable at-bats.

"I heard a lot of things about the pitching staff before I got here," said Saltalamacchia, the catcher on the Boston Red Sox’s 2013 championship club. "I was expecting some good arms, but you never really know until you see for yourself. When I got into camp and caught these guys, it was definitely as advertised."

It all begins with Jose Fernandez, the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year and third-place finisher in Cy Young Award balloting. Nate Eovaldi, acquired from the Dodgers in the Hanley Ramirez trade, averaged 96.2 mph on the radar gun last season, and Henderson Alvarez threw a no-hitter against Detroit on the final day of the season.

No. 4 starter Jacob Turner has something to prove after an awful second half (0-7, 4.92 ERA, and a 1.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio), but he's only 22 years old. The Marlins also have options: Brad Hand and Tom Koehler, who arrived in camp as likely competitors for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, have a combined 2.38 ERA in 34 Grapefruit League innings. The Marlins have another future-ace-in-the-making in lefty Andrew Heaney, who will begin the season in the minors, and some other pitching prospects (Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani, to name two) who aren't far from contributing.

"Pure stuff wise, I haven’t seen anything like this," McGehee said. "You do the math and see some guys who aren’t going to make the team and you say, 'Oh my goodness.'"

The Marlins went 24-35 in one-run games last season and lost 55 games by two or fewer runs, and they’re hoping attentiveness to detail can make a difference this season. They were a dreadful baserunning team in 2013, so they added Brett Butler to the coaching staff to work with the players on bunting and running the bases more efficiently. They also added Seattle’s Carter Capps to a bullpen filled with power arms in front of closer Steve Cishek.

In light of how this spring has gone for the rest of the NL East, a team can make positive strides just by avoiding bad news. At Atlanta’s camp, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy have gone down with elbow reconstructions. Cole Hamels will begin the season on the disabled list in Philadelphia, and the Phillies’ camp has been dominated by news of discord between manager Ryne Sandberg and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. It hasn’t been much better at Mets camp, where Jon Niese gave the team a scare with some elbow discomfort, Matt Harvey is questioning the course of his rehab, Ruben Tejada is hitting .216 with four errors and the Ike Davis-Lucas Duda competition at first base was slow to materialize because of injuries.

Miami's setbacks, in contrast, have been relatively minor. Furcal has missed time with a hamstring injury; infielder Derek Dietrich suffered a fractured nose on a bad-hop ground ball; and it’s been a tough spring for Marcell Ozuna, the team’s projected center fielder. Scouts are also withholding judgment on whether Jones, Saltalamacchia and McGehee will significantly upgrade Miami’s 2013 batting order. Given that Placido Polanco hit cleanup on Opening Day and the Marlins ranked last in the majors in runs (513) and OPS (.627), it won’t take much.

Put it all together, and it's no wonder talent evaluators, writers, opponents, front-office people and the Miami players think this team has dark-horse/sleeper potential. Although the Marlins are probably a year from playoff contention, they can take heart in the examples set by the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, 2013 Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals and other recent clubs that made a pronounced jump in the standings ahead of expectations.

"They're trending upwards. With the pitching they already have and what's on the way, I'd be very encouraged," said an American League scout who has followed the Marlins throughout spring training.

"It reminds me a lot of the San Francisco days when they weren’t scoring too many runs but they were pretty strong from the starting pitchers down to the back end of the bullpen," Johnson said. "If a team like that is winning the World Series with the offensive production they had, I don’t see why we can’t be that team. If we can figure out a way to average more than four runs a game, I think our pitching can definitely hold up."

The big question for the players is this: How wholeheartedly should they embrace the "sleeper" designation? The Marlins have gone 72-90, 69-93 and 62-100 in Stanton's first three full seasons, so he's not buying into the spring training euphoria just yet.

"We're better together here [in camp]," Stanton said. "We're playing solid on the field, but we need to bring it into the season, too. There’s no sleeper or Cinderella stuff. Save it. If we want to do it, we’re going to do it. That’s it."

Saltalamacchia, the starting catcher on a Boston team that began the season with modest expectations and then won a World Series, is a bit less reticent about sharing his expectations for public consumption.

"I’ve been a part of those teams where they count you out and put you third or fifth [place in your division]," he said. "That’s just projections, and we all know how projections go. We’re going to turn some heads this year."