Doom and gloom was predicted for the Marlins following the big winter meetings trade in which they dealt away their two marquee players, left-hander Dontrelle Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera, to the Tigers for six players. While the Marlins got two top prospects back (left-hander Andrew Miller and center fielder Cameron Maybin), the team’s chances of having much success in 2008 appeared slim. In fact, it was not a stretch to think the Marlins might lose 100 games just two years after being the surprise team of the National League and contending for the wild-card playoff spot into September under Joe Girardi, who won NL Manager of the Year in his first year as a skipper at any level.

Current Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez took over after Girardi was fired following the 2006 season because of his disputes with owner Jeffrey Loria, and was not so quick to write his team off coming into this season after his first year at the helm. It wasn’t just because he is supposed to stay positive as the leader. “Even though we lost a heckuva player in Cabrera, I still felt we had the type of offense that was going to score our fair share of runs,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t think offense would be the problem but I did have questions about our pitching. I didn’t know if we could get major league hitters out on a consistent basis.”

Gonzalez’s thoughts about how his team could potentially turn out in 2008 have proven to be prescient. The Marlins can score runs, but they also give them up.
Florida is ninth in the NL in runs scored with an average of 4.6, but is allowing just over five runs a game, which ranks 12th in the 16-team league. Despite that negative run differential, the Marlins hold a percentage points lead over defending champion Philadelphia in the NL East. The Marlins are off to an 18-14 start, which puts them percentage points ahead of the 19-15 Phillies in a virtual tie.

While teams that allow more runs than they score usually don’t win over the long haul of a 162-game season, the Diamondbacks overcame those odds last year and captured the NL West despite a -20 run differential. Veteran outfielder Luis Gonzalez was a member of that team and is now with the Marlins, filling in for left fielder Josh Willingham, who is on the disabled list with lower back soreness. “The similarity between the two teams is you have a lot of young guys with confidence,” Gonzalez said. “Our confidence kept growing last year, and you can see this team believing in itself more and more with each passing day.”

Florida’s offense has been led by Willingham, who is eighth in the NL with a .344 EqA, as well as shortstop Hanley Ramirez is having another fine season, with a .319 mark. In what has been a generally solid lineup–good enough to rank sixth in the league in EqA–the only weak spots in the lineup have been catcher and center field. The Marlins platoon behind the plate with Matt Treanor (.237) and Mike Rabelo (.224), and in center with Alfredo Amezaga (.244) and Cody Ross (.154). And with a .252 EqA, Luis Gonzalez hasn’t matched Willingham’s production.

The skipper’s generally satisfied. “I really like our lineup a lot and I think the middle of it stacks up favorably with a lot of teams around the league even though a lot of the guys aren’t that well known,” Fredi Gonzalez said. “You have [Mike] Jacobs, who is a threat to hit the ball out of the park anytime he steps up to the plate, as is the Hammer [Willingham], who really loves to hit in RBI situations. You have Hermida, who in my mind is going to be a perennial .300 hitter. He’s got that kind of talent and I think you’ll see him have that kind of consistency. Then, you have Cantu kind of cherry picking after all those other guys from the No. 6 spot in the lineup. We’ve got the type of power in the middle to generate runs.”

The Marlins also have a good young combination at the top of the lineup in Ramirez and Uggla. Ramirez led the NL in VORP with an 89.5 mark last season, and a case can be made that he is the most underrated player in baseball, for he plays for a franchise that is as far removed from the national spotlight as any team in the game. “It’s a shame more people don’t know about Hanley yet, but the kid can really do it all,” Fredi Gonzalez said. “He can hit for average and power and he steals bases. A lot of people have said he will eventually have to move off shortstop but I don’t see it because I think he’s an above-average fielder. There was a week last season where we were in Los Angeles and San Diego and he did everything humanly possible the entire week. He showed he could just take over games both offensively and defensively and dominate. We haven’t seen the best of him yet. He’s still getting better.”

As Gonzalez expected, the Marlins’ young pitching staff has absorbed some beatings. Left-hander Scott Olson (1.4 SNLVAR) has bounced back from a 2007 season marked by off-field issues, and veteran lefty Mark Hendrickson (0.5) has been an adequate low-budget free-agent addition. However, Burke Badenhop (-0.3) and Miller (-0.6), two rookies acquired from the Tigers, have both been below replacement level, as has Ricky Nolasco (-0.4). In the bullpen, left-handed reliever Renyel Pinto is third in the NL with a 1.314 WXRL, but closer Kevin Gregg has been just ordinary, with a 0.705 mark. The Marlins are also missing three right-handed starting pitchers, who have been on the disabled list since the start of the season: Josh Johnson is recovering from elbow surgery, Anibal Sanchez is rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and Sergio Mitre is out with a strained forearm.

“We have a lot of pitchers with upside,” Fredi Gonzalez said. “Like most young pitchers, they’re having their ups and downs. They’ve had some rough patches where they’ve got hit around a little bit, but that’s to be expected. The talent is there and the work ethic is there, too. You watch these guys work on the side in the bullpen between starts and you see the determination they have, how they want to get better. They will get better. They just need a little experience.”

The graybeard on the Marlins’ roster at age 40 and with 19 years of major-league experience, Luis Gonzalez realizes that the Marlins are still considered a long shot to contend this season despite their surprising start. However, he also believes it would be foolish to dismiss Florida as nothing more than a fluke. “We just keep grinding it out and trying to win series,” he said. “As the season moves along, those add up and you hope that puts you in contention for July, August and September, and then anything can happen.”

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