NL East Preview: Florida Marlins

The Florida Marlins figure that this isn't their year. Down the road though, this young group of players could have the makings of a pretty good club that could contend in the NL East.

The Marlins arrived in camp in February with questions up and down the roster. As they prepare to open the season, not many of those questions have been answered.

Don't get bubbly about Florida's winning Grapefruit League record. The team will start the season with as much potential and energy as it will have inexperience. That could very well add up to more than 100 losses.

Pokey Reese's abrupt departure from camp forced the team to dispatch Dan Uggla, a Rule 5 draft pick, to second base. Uggla is a proven minor league hitter, but he won't come close to the slick fielding Florida enjoyed from departed Luis Castillo.

Miguel Cabrera returns to his natural position of third base after playing most of his first 2 1/2 seasons in the outfield. But the 22-year-old also will have to take on the role of infield leader. He'll be surrounded by rookies Uggla, Hanley Ramirez at short and Mike Jacobs at first. Ramirez had a strong spring.

The catching spot was coming down to the wire although Josh Willingham has the inside track. The team opened camp with the thought of putting Willingham in left field if he struggled behind the plate, but he made defensive strides and hadn't played in left field as of March 23. That would make veteran Miguel Olivo the backup catcher.

The larger questions are in the outfield. RF Jeremy Hermida will start despite struggling most of the spring. That leaves Reggie Abercrombie and Eric Reed battling for CF with Chris Aguila and Matt Cepicky. Any of those candidates could also wind up starting in left field unless the Marlins pull off a trade late in camp. Abercrombie had a strong spring, batting around or above .400 most of the games, but he led the team with strikeouts most of the spring.

The starting rotation also will be in flux until camp ends. LHP Dontrelle Willis, RHP Brian Moehler and LHP Jason Vargas will get three spots, with the final two coming down to a battle between RHP Josh Johnson, RHP Sergio Mitre Ricky Nolasco and LHP Scott Olsen. The two losers could wind up in the bullpen.

RHP Joe Borowski signed with the thought of being Florida's closer, but he hasn't emerged as a stand-out candidate for the job. Manager Joe Girardi said he might go with a committee of relievers in the closer's role. RHP Matt Herges and Kerry Ligtenberg are candidates.

PLAYER TO WATCH: The SS battle was supposed to be close, but Hanley Ramirez ran away with the job by hitting and playing solid defense. Expect him to take advantage of regular playing time and live up to the hype, proving that he can indeed perform well above Double-A level. He could be a Rookie of the Year candidate along with teammate Jeremy Hermida, who struggled most of the spring.

GOING DOWN? LHP Dontrelle Willis had a career season in 2005 with 22 wins. But he is surrounded by a lineup and bullpen that are young and inexperienced. He is poised enough to overcome his awful performance in the WBC. But no matter how well he pitches, he won't have a solid defensive infield turning hits into outs, he won't have a bullpen consistently saving his leads and he won't have a lineup that can consistently give him adequate run support. Expect his numbers to pale in comparison to last year unless he pulls a 1972 Steve Carlton.

Who bats where?

Nothing is official yet, but manager Joe Girardi might have settled on the top of his batting order.

Without a bona fide speedster who can reach base like Juan Pierre did last year, the Marlins are looking at SS Hanley Ramirez to lead off.

He'd be followed by RF Jeremy Hermida, a left-handed hitter, and 3B Miguel Cabrera, a righty-hitter, with 1B Mike Jacobs, a lefty, hitting fourth.

Except for Cabrera, who originally was slated to bat fourth, they're all rookies.

"This kind of protects our hitters," Girardi said.

Hermida has shown some power in the minor leagues, belting 28 home runs in 209 games the past two seasons. Last year he hit four home runs in 41 at-bats with the Marlins.

Yet, Girardi believes Hermida is an ideal second hitter because he gets on base, is patient and can run.

"I like his approach to the plate," Girardi said. "It's conducive to a number two."

Jacobs hit 11 home runs in 100 at-bats with the Mets last season.

"Now it's showing you can do it over the course of a year," Girardi said.

ROSTER PROJECTIONS

The Marlins saw a lot of surprises this spring - from a winning Grapefruit League record to an awful offensive performance by RF Jeremy Hermida, who is pegged as a Rookie of the Year candidate. The team was still a work in progress, and many spots won't be known until the final day or two of camp. But SS Hanley Ramirez played well, and Dan Uggla, a rule 5 pick, emerged as the leading contender for 2B.

ROTATION:
1. LHP Dontrelle Willis
2. RHP Sergio Mitre
3. LHP Jason Vargas
4. RHP Brian Moehler
5. RHP Josh Johnson or RHP Ricky Nolasco or LHP Scott Olsen

Because of two early off days in April, the Marlins could go with a four-man rotation until April 15. Willis is trying to rebound from an awful WBC performance. Vargas and Johnson pitched well, but Moehler needs to throw an effective changeup. Girardi has toyed with the idea of opening with six starters; two would take turns in the five-man rotation so the rookies don't get overworked.

Only Willis, Vargas and Moehler were certain going into the final week of camp. The rest are shaky but they are the best the Marlins have. One of them could get traded in the final days of camp for an outfielder or second baseman.

BULLPEN
RHP Joe Borowski (closer)
RHP Matt Herges
RHP Kerry Ligtenberg
RHP Chris Resop
RHP Nate Bump
LHP Scott Olsen or RHP Ricky Nolasco or LHP Taylor Tankersley

Joe Borowski was signed to bring a veteran arm to the back end of the bullpen, but manager Joe Girardi might go with a closer-by-committee. Matt Herges pitched well and could inherit the closer's job by May. There's a chance there will be no lefty unless Olsen doesn't crack the rotation. Taylor Tankersley, the team's top draft pick in 2004, has a chance to be the lefty specialist after ending the 2005 season in high Class A.

LINEUP
1. SS Hanley Ramirez
2. RF Jeremy Hermida
3. 3B Miguel Cabrera
4. 1B Mike Jacobs
5. C Josh Willingham
6. 2B Dan Uggla
7. LF Chris Aguila
8. CF Eric Reed/Reggie Abercrombie

The big question here is whether Hermida and Jacobs will hit well enough for Miguel Cabrera to see hittable pitches. Manager Joe Girardi put Cabrera third to give the team its best shot of scoring early. Hanley Ramirez hit well this spring. After Willingham, the rest of the lineup is suspect.

This lineup has six rookies. Expect Girardi to juggle them as they each adjust to the craft of hitting big-league pitching.

RESERVES:
C Miguel Olivo
INF Wes Helms
INF Alfredo Amezaga
OF Lenny Harris
OF Matt Cepicky / Eric Reed / Mark Little / INF Mike Kinkade

If there's one benefit for the Marlins this year, the team should have a bench that is more experienced than the regular starters. Helms could get the most playing time of the bench because he can also play 3B, and he has worked out some in left field. Helms will also spell Mike Jacobs when lefties start against Florida.

ROOKIE ALERT: There could be six rookies in the starting lineup: 1B Mike Jacobs, SS Hanley Ramirez, 2B Dan Uggla, C Josh Willingham, RF Jeremy Hermida and CF Eric Reed. as expected, they'll perform with mixed results. Hermida struggled all spring. Willingham is 27. Jacobs, 25, is the oldest infielder.

The Trainer's Room: The good news for this young club is that it escaped spring without a major injury. C Josh Willingham says the back spasms that kept him out of action for a week in March are gone... RHP Sergio Mitre left a game after getting drilled in the right thumb by a ground ball but he says he is fine.


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