Young Marlins swimming in infield talent

In Miguel Cabrera, NL Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Mike Jacobs, the Marlins might have the majors' most talented infield.

Originally Published: February 8, 2007
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

Hanley Ramirez did a quick, visual reconnaissance of the sold-out crowd at the New York baseball writers annual dinner last week, seemingly overwhelmed by its size (1,500 people) and its passion (Jonathan Papelbon was thickly booed after being introduced). Ramirez, about to accept his award as the National League's Rookie of the Year, wasn't sure if he'd be harpooned, too, and for good reason.

After all, the Marlins' shortstop was a one-time Red Sox prospect and is currently a Mets rival, But despite being deep in enemy territory, Ramirez won the public relations war by thanking Joe Girardi, his deposed Florida manager who was on the dais, telling Yankees-Mets audience that Girardi, "was always being there for me, never complained about giving me extra time."

Shortstop
Florida Marlins

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
158 17 59 119 .353 .292

Girardi always has been immensely popular in New York, and the crowd clearly appreciated the exchange between the former Yankees catcher and his pupil. But as they hugged, the two actually were moving in opposite directions. Girardi is off to the YES Network broadcast booth in 2007, while Ramirez embarks on Year 2 of his promising career, surrounded by what's already the hottest, trendiest infield in the big leagues.

Just how good are these guys? Not only do the Marlins boast the NL's premier neophyte, they have a young Albert Pujols in Miguel Cabrera, a runner-up in the Rookie of the Year voting in Dan Uggla (who set a rookie record by a second baseman with 27 homers) and Mike Jacobs, who already has 100 RBIs in just 569 at-bats.

They're young (the average age is 24.75), they're athletic and if even if they're not necessarily going to topple the Mets in 2007, the Marlins' infield should have star power for years to come. Question is, will Florida's ownership be able to afford this much talent for the rest of the decade?

The battle lines already have been drawn with Cabrera, albeit in a relatively amicable way. The third baseman is headed for arbitration, having been unable to agree on a long-term contract. Cabrera is asking the Marlins for $7.4 million, a raise of nearly $7 million. The club has countered with a figure of $6.7 million, which itself represents a sweeping endorsement of a player who set a franchise record by batting .339 last year and has driven in more than 110 runs in each of his first three seasons.

"[Cabrera] has done a terrific job for us," general manager Larry Beinfest told the Palm Beach Post. "I know Miguel. He's a professional kid. He has taken on a lot of things at a young age and he'll handle [arbitration] well. Then we'll all get on a plane and start spring training."

Cabrera caught the world's attention in the 2003 World Series, ducking under an up-and-in fastball from Roger Clemens in Game 4, then blasting a home run to right-center field. All this, at the age of 20. He's advanced so quickly; he came within one game of winning the batting title last year, falling short on the final day to Pittsburgh's Freddy Sanchez.

Uggla also experienced a drop-off that cost him, hitting just .221 with five home runs and 10 RBI in September. Had the second baseman stayed hot, it's conceivable that he, not Ramirez, would've captured the Rookie of the Year award. Uggla finished third, but, the Marlins are nevertheless profiting handsomely from their decision to pluck him away from the Diamondbacks in the 2005 Rule 5 draft.

Cold Plate Special: Red Sox
GM Theo Epstein has shifted the Red Sox's focus away from their offense to the pitching staff, evidenced by the $100-plus million invested in Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. If the urban legend of Matsuzaka's gyro ball is even partly based in reality, Boston could have the AL's most formidable starting rotation -- and that's before Roger Clemens decides if he wants to finish his career at Fenway Park.

In the meantime, however, the infield has degraded. Epstein has (so far) chosen not to deal for Todd Helton, leaving him without an All-Star at any of the four positions. Julio Lugo, the incoming shortstop, is a better defender than predecessor Alex Gonzalez, but neither has Hanley Ramirez's ceiling. The Sox can only hope they'll eventually be proven right in having traded Ramirez to the Marlins in the deal for Josh Beckett.

As for Ramirez, there's no arguing his accomplishments: He scored 119 runs, drove in 59 runs and slammed 17 home runs, the most by a rookie shortstop since Ernie Banks hit 19 in 1954. Scouts say Ramirez easily should transition from the leadoff spot to the middle of the order where his power can pay meatier dividends. In the meantime, though, the Marlins' only concern is Ramirez's left shoulder, which he injured playing winter ball in his native Dominican Republic. It's the same shoulder he strained during the regular season.

The club prohibited Ramirez from further play until spring training. Smart move: Trendy or not, this is an investment worth protecting.

Runners-up

Mets: It's hard to find flaws in this alignment, considering Jose Reyes and David Wright are on their way to anchoring the franchise. Sooner than later, the two stars will replace Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran as the Mets' most productive (and most marketable) players. But Wright has unfinished business from 2006, when he went just 4-for-25 against the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.

Yankees: The enduring chill between Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter would best be handled by Dr. Phil, but there's no denying the Yankees have three of the game's best players in their infield. Robinson Cano, in particular, is proving he can handle major-market pressure, raising his average 45 points in 2006, batting .342 in only his second season in New York. Jeter and A-Rod aren't as quick or athletic on defense as Wright and Reyes, although (for now) they still hold the advantage on offense. That run-producing potential is great enough to turn Jason Giambi into a full-time DH and replace him with the defensively-gifted but offensively-challenged Doug Mientkiewicz at first base.

Phillies: Another close call here: How do you go against the NL's Most Valuable Player (Ryan Howard), a shortstop who was poised enough to hit in 38 straight games (Jimmy Rollins) and the major league's most productive second baseman (Chase Utley, 32 HRs and 109 RBIs)?

Obviously, there are no wrong choices on this ballot. This was an election between right -- and right.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.