Marlins caught in transitional phase
Minus 2B Dan Uggla, pressure falls on Florida's trio of talented young outfielders
JUPITER, Fla. -- Jeff Conine, Mr. Marlin, provides a comforting link to the Florida franchise's past as he roams the grounds at Roger Dean Stadium. But something seems out of whack with no Dan Uggla on the premises. For the past five years, Uggla was as much a part of Marlins spring training as grackles piercing the morning silence and palm trees swaying in the breeze.
Between his major league debut in 2006 and last year's season finale, Uggla hit 154 home runs -- fifth most among right-handed hitters behind Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera and Paul Konerko. Now Uggla is in Atlanta, after a November trade between National League East counterparts, and the Marlins will have to find a new wingman for three-time All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez. The succession plan begins here in Jupiter.
"We saw him the other day, and he said, 'Man, it feels so weird not being here with you guys,'" Florida first baseman Gaby Sanchez said of Uggla. "I became really good friends with him last year and we hung out all the time. He's a great teammate and player and all-around person. When a guy like that gets traded, you're going to miss him."
In South Florida, where roster turnover is a way of life, one man's change of scenery is another's growth opportunity.
Uggla's absence isn't the only tangible sign of change in the Marlins' clubhouse. Cody Ross and Jorge Cantu -- who combined for 40 homers and 190 RBIs in 2009 -- are also gone from last year's Opening Day lineup, and their departures have put the burden of production on several hitters still in their formative years.
The list of players under scrutiny includes Logan Morrison, a monument to plate discipline at age 23; Sanchez, who led all rookies with 156 hits, 37 doubles and 85 RBIs last season; 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, who took a step backward last season; and 6-foot-5, 235-pound man-child Mike Stanton, whose five-tool skill set and six-pack abs make for a wondrous combination. Every time Stanton takes the field, he has the potential to crank the volume to "11."
The Marlins are still talking about the batting practice shot Stanton hit early in camp. The ball cleared the center-field fence, sailed beyond the Duffy's Sports Grill sign adorning the Marlins' office building behind it and went over the roof before finally returning to earth. Balls usually aren't hit this far without somebody yelling "Fore!"
"The ball comes off his bat at a different speed," said Marlins catcher John Buck. "Right, left, center, ground ball, whatever. It comes out of there pretty quick."
If the kids were looking for a nice, uneventful spring to help them hit the ground running, they came to the wrong camp. The Marlins are 6-14 in the Grapefruit League, and while March records mean nothing in the overall scheme, the team's inattentive, fundamentally unsound play has scouts cringing and the owner borderline apoplectic. When the Marlins aren't missing cutoff men or failing to back up bases, they're throwing the ball around with reckless abandon. Ramirez has already made six errors at shortstop this spring.
After the team suffered its ninth straight defeat this week, CEO Jeffrey Loria sent a message to the home clubhouse.
"I'm not happy with what we're doing or what we're showing," Loria said after a 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay. "They say that there is no crying in baseball. Well, there is no turning the switch on when you want to. Get it together, and get it going."
With the Marlins en route to a 9-2 loss to Houston on Friday, Loria boarded the elevator before the final pitch. The word "dour" didn't do justice to his facial expression.
"I can't yell at them every day," Loria said.
The Marlins -- surprise! -- are in another transitional phase. They're moving to a new park in April 2012, and speculation abounded last year that Loria might hire Bobby Valentine or try to pry Ozzie Guillen loose from the Chicago White Sox to inject some star power in the dugout. A team that's surpassed 2 million in attendance only twice in its 18-year history needs to generate fan appeal any way it can.
Ultimately, the Marlins elected to retain Edwin Rodriguez, the longtime scout and minor league manager who took over for Fredi Gonzalez last summer. Rodriguez, 50, has a calm, no-frills demeanor that makes him easy to root for. But he's clearly in a tenuous spot. On the one hand, he can't pooh-pooh Loria's concerns because it's never wise to question the owner's judgment. And as Loria showed with the Joe Girardi and Gonzalez firings, he is not averse to making a human sacrifice of the manager.
I'm not happy with what we're doing or what we're showing. Well, there is no turning the switch on when you want to. Get it together, and get it going.” -- Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria
But if Rodriguez overreacts to two bad weeks in spring training, he risks making his players uptight before the season begins. So the Marlins are mixing in some extra work on fundamentals each morning, as they try to strike the right balance between alarmist and oblivious, and they're hoping the attention to detail leads to crisper play.
"This has definitely helped us, because it's showed us if we don't do these fundamental things right, it could blow up on us," said Buck, who signed a three-year, $18 million deal with Florida as a free agent in November. "But everything is [magnified] in spring training, good or bad. I played with Kansas City, and we won in the Cactus League and lost 100 games every year."
Sometimes the learning process means adapting to adverse circumstances on the fly. The Marlins envisioned the starting outfield of Morrison, Stanton and Coghlan getting lots of time to jell in spring training. But Stanton pulled a quadriceps muscle in an exhibition game against the University of Miami and has yet to play an inning in the Grapefruit League. In addition, Coghlan is taking things slowly because of tendinitis in his throwing shoulder.
Rodriguez thinks Stanton should be OK provided he can log 40-45 at-bats in spring training. After that it will be a matter of staying healthy and living up to the hype. Stanton hit 22 homers and slugged .507 in 100 games as rookie, but he knows it's not as simple as extrapolating those numbers out over a full season.
"In the minor leagues there are guys who've been around at the same level for four or five years," Stanton said. "Maybe that's the day you're in a slump and you face them, and you can come out of it. Or it's the second half and the better guys have moved up, so you're facing pitchers from the lower levels coming up.
"It's different here. Every guy is the best guy possible on the mound. You have no days off, no at-bats off, no pitches off. Otherwise, you're gonna get buried. Every game you're on a huge stage, and you can't overlook that. Nobody here cares who I am. The bigger your name, the harder they're coming for you."
Gaby Sanchez can certainly relate to the big league grind. He hit .302 in the first half last season, then limped home at .237 after the All-Star break. His 643 plate appearances were about 80 more than his previous high, and the workload took a toll on his bat speed down the stretch.
"I didn't want to do anything when the season got over," Sanchez said. "I didn't pick up a bat or a ball for a month."
As of this week, there were rumblings that the Marlins might buck the conventional wisdom and begin the season with Matt Dominguez, the 12th overall pick in the 2007 draft, as their starting third baseman. The consensus is that Dominguez can handle the defensive responsibilities, but he's only 21 years old, with a .257 batting average in 1,384 minor league at-bats, and some talent evaluators think the Marlins would be pushing it to promote the kid this quickly.
"He's not ready to hit in the big leagues yet," said one NL scout. "He's going to get eaten alive by breaking balls. They'd really be doing him a disservice to bring him up there now."
Not to mention that the National League East is one merciless training ground, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt dealing for the Phillies and Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens in the Atlanta rotation. If there's a hole to be found or a weakness to be exploited, they're sure to find it.
"There are a lot of questions," Stanton said. "Can our outfield handle not playing together until the season? Can I handle not having enough at-bats? That's the buzz going around. We're going to prepare like we need to and be ready to go the best way possible."
The questions could last a few weeks or linger for an entire season. If only for the sake of the owner's happiness and the manager's job security, the new-look Marlins better find the right answers as soon as possible.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick
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