Whether the sophomore jinx really exists has been debated seemingly since the game’s second season. A case study on the matter is being conducted this year in South Florida.

A year ago, the Florida Marlins were the game’s surprise team, as they contended for the National League wild-card playoff berth into late September despite having a young team that relied extensively on 10 rookies and had a payroll of just $14.9 million. The Marlins overcame an 11-31 start to hang tough until 13 losses in their last 18 games dropped them out of contention with a final 78-84 record.

That team had six rookies in its regular lineup: first baseman Mike Jacobs, second baseman Dan Uggla, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, left fielder Josh Willingham, center fielder Reggie Abercrombie, and right fielder Jeremy Hermida. They also had four rookie pitchers make at least 17 starts: left-hander Scott Olsen, and right-handers Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Anibal Sanchez.

The Marlins still have the youngest team in the major leagues this season, with an average age of 25.1. Youth usually gets the benefit of being associated with progress, but this year, it seems as if the Marlins aren’t making any. As the season reaches the one-third mark, the Marlins are 25-27 and nine games behind the Mets in the NL East after being swept by New York in a three-game series last weekend.

Could it be the sophomore jinx rearing its ugly head? “Obviously, we’re not sneaking up on anybody this season,” Uggla said. “It’s no longer a case of people wondering who we are. Scouts have seen us, opposing pitchers have seen us. They know our strengths and weaknesses, and they have a better plan against us.

“From that standpoint, it’s been different, but I wouldn’t say it’s a jinx in the fact that we’re all in our second years. We’ve played good baseball at times. What it’s come down to is we just haven’t put together a consistent stretch of good baseball like we did last year from the end of May until the middle of September. That doesn’t have to do with complacency or jinxes. We’ve been pretty banged up, and we’ve never had our whole team together. I think for the most part we’ve held our own, considering the injuries we’ve had.”

Indeed, injuries have taken a toll on the Marlins, but especially with their pitching staff. Johnson was expected to evolve into a staff ace this season, potentially pushing himself ahead of young veteran left-hander Dontrelle Willis. However, Johnson has yet to pitch because of a nerve problem in his pitching elbow, and is likely still a month away from returning to the mound. Nolasco has been limited to just four starts, as he’s had two stints on the Disabled List with a sore right elbow. Although Sanchez threw MLB’s first no-hitter in more than two years last September 6th against Arizona, he was optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque on May 4 after a bad start to the season, and subsequently placed on the DL with shoulder problems.

The injury-related disappointments haven’t been limited to the rotation. Henry Owens, a rookie reliever acquired from the Mets who took over as the closer early in the season when veteran Jorge Julio imploded, is already out with shoulder tendonitis. Jacobs, one of the lineups’s left-handed power sources, is shelved with a broken right thumb. Center fielder Alejandro de Aza came out of nowhere to win a starting job in spring training, only to suffer a hairline fracture of his right ankle; he’s been on the DL since April 16th.

The Marlins have also had to adjust to a new manager, as Joe Girardi was fired at the end of last season–despite being named the NL Manager of the Year–because of his squabbles with ownership. However, the Marlins say the transition to Fredi Gonzalez has been seamless. Their new skipper was hired off of Atlanta’s staff, where he’d been the third-base coach. For his part, is happy to get his first chance to be a major-league manager in his hometown of Miami. “It isn’t often that you come into a situation where you have such an outstanding nucleus of good young talent that has already been tested at the major league level,” Gonzalez said. “I feel very fortunate to step into a situation where we should be in position to win for many years to come.”

With two young superstars in Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera, the Marlins are seemingly set up to contend into the next decade. However, Willis hasn’t been sharp this season, posting a 0.4 SNLVAR and a 4.83 ERA; however, his record is a nifty 7-2. Although there are increasing complaints about his weight, Cabrera has a 22.4 VORP while hitting .323/.400/.545. However, the question remains as to how much longer the Marlins will hang on to both Willis and Cabrera, especially since they play to small crowds at Dolphin Stadium, and continue to come up empty in their bid to obtain government funding for a new ballpark. Through arbitration, both players’ salaries could reach eight digits next season.

“I don’t think a day goes by that either Miggy or I don’t get asked about where we’re going to be traded,” Willis said with a smile. “That’s the way life is here. Hopefully, we stay forever and win some more World Series, like we did in 2003.”

Even if owner Jeffrey Loria ultimately determines he can no longer afford Willis and Cabrera, the team’s underrated general manager, Larry Beinfest, figures to be able to get a boatload of talent in return for both players in whatever trades he ends up pulling off. He did just that in the winter following the 2005 season, when he dealt Josh Beckett to Boston for Ramirez, Sanchez, and two other pitching prospects. If the rest of the young nucleus beyond those 10 rookies who played key roles last season can improve, then the Marlins should be solid for years to come. Thus, it is instructive to look at those 10 players and see if the sophomore jinx has indeed struck in 2007:

HITTERS              2006                       2007
Player          AVG/ OBP/ SLG   VORP       AVG/ OBP/ SLG  VORP
Ramirez        .292/.353/.480   54.9      .317/.392/.510  24.4
Uggla          .282/.339/.480   39.1      .261/.346/.498  14.4
Willingham     .277/.356/.496   27.8      .277/.387/.473  14.4
Jacobs         .262/.325/.473   12.2      .281/.355/.490   5.8
Hermida        .251/.332/.368   -0.2      .255/.333/.473   2.8
Abercrombie    .212/.271/.333  -10.7      .216/.256/.378   0.5
Player           FRA  SNLVAR  VORP         FRA  SNLVAR   VORP
Olsen            4.55  4.7    40.3         6.28  -0.2     3.0
Johnson          3.75  4.7    40.2         Injured
Sanchez          2.99  5.0    36.2         5.25   0.2     0.9
Nolasco          5.57  2.3     6.7         5.48   0.0    -3.5

Ramirez has certainly built on his NL Rookie of the Year season of a year ago, as he is second in the league in VORP behind the Mets’ Jose Reyes (25.5). Cabrera is fourth. Uggla and Willingham have again provided power in the middle of the lineup, but Jacobs has been hurt. Hermida was considered by many to be the best of the bunch at the start of last season, but has disappointed again in 2007, as he missed the first six weeks with a bone bruise in his knee. Abercrombie has no business being in the major leagues.

Beyond Olsen taking a step back from last year, it’s hard to evaluate the other three starting pitchers–they’re all injured, which represents a major part of the problem as far as sorting out why the Marlins haven’t made any progress. Even so, it would be fair to say that Sanchez was a major disappointment early on after looking like a potential ace last season.

However, on the positive side, Ramirez has quietly emerged as an early MVP candidate this season, and he believes his teammates will eventually show improvement as well. “I know a lot of people [around baseball] thought last year was a fluke for us, but it wasn’t,” Ramirez said. “We have a really good team. We just haven’t shown it yet. We got off to a slow start last year, and you saw what happened. There is still a lot of season left. Once we get everyone healthy and playing together, I think we’ll show everyone that we’re even better than last year.”

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