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Marlins are what they are...

Ramp

Muckdog
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credit:sunsentinel.com
The perception of what a team can be and the reality of what it is once the season starts don't always match up.

A year ago the Mets acquired Jeromy Burnitz, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and Roger Cedeno.

On paper: playoff contender.

In reality: last place.

Twenty games into the campaign, the Marlins' reality isn't much different from the perception. This initial sampling of National League East competition has left them at 9-11 and bunched up in what looks like an up-for-grabs division.

"We've come out of this part knowing the division is tough, and we haven't even seen the Expos who are leading the darn division," said manager Jeff Torborg, whose team opens a three-game set today against the Milwaukee Brewers at Pro Player Stadium. "It's about what we all talked about right from the winter. The division is going to be tough, but so are we."

Tough enough to keep pace deep into the second half? The front office's answer was yes well before General Manager Admin Beinfest's revamped product went from the drafting board to the basepaths. He's no less encouraged after the start.

"We were a little inconsistent early on, but pitching smoothed that out," Beinfest said. "You have to be realistic. We're on the road in very tough places to play against good teams. This division is what we thought it was going to be this winter on paper."

On paper: The Marlins looked like they would pace the league in stolen bases going away.

In reality: No team will come close to their theft total. Take a look at the league leaders in that category, and four of the top five are Marlins. They've stolen three or more bases in six games.

"We have the two guys [Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo] that everyone knows can steal bases, and our hitters can steal," third baseman Mike Lowell said. "That's the added punch we get. Those stolen bases guarantee runners in scoring position, so those hits mean a lot more."

On paper: Many questioned whether the Marlins had enough home run power to succeed in this long-ball age.

In reality: Whether anyone hits 30 is speculative, but the Marlins are averaging almost a homer per game with 19. The perceived power shortage hasn't crippled the offense. They are 5-4 in games when they go deep at least once and 4-7 when they don't. "I thought we had a little more offense than anybody talked about in the spring," said Torborg, whose team has reached double digits in hits nine times.

On paper: The Marlins could boast one of the game's best starting trios in A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny and Josh Beckett.

In reality: Penny and Beckett have looked dominant at times. Burnett got a late start after opening the season on the disabled list and should continue improving. Starters have earned six of the team's nine victories and posted a 4.04 ERA. The three are capable of winning 15-plus games each, and Carl Pavano (2-2, 4.01) doesn't appear far behind. "I'm pleased with the health of the pitching staff," Torborg said. "The five starters are at least in line now, but they're nowhere near where they're going to be. A.J. is going to be so much better than he's been."

On paper: The Marlins have no less than four pitchers with closer-type stuff in the bullpen.

In reality: Until the starters get stretched out and can go seven-plus innings regularly, this six-man relief staff will be taxed. Vladimir Nunez has to work his way back to being a reliable setup man, and Blaine Neal is working through some mechanical issues. Closer Braden Looper hasn't pitched in enough save situations (three) to be deemed a top-notch closer. Based on how he finished last season and his early showings in 2003 (15 straight saves converted), he looks increasingly comfortable in the role. Tim Spooneybarger is everything the Marlins hoped. He has earned the right to pitch with games on the line.

Winners of seven of 12 after a 2-6 start, the Marlins still have a lot to prove. The consensus is they're off to a good enough jump.

"I still feel good," Lowell said. "I think we can hit with anyone. We can score with anyone and we can pitch with anyone. It's just a matter of putting it together."

Added Beckett: "This team is going to be right there. We're too good not to be. I know that's a bold statement, but we're going to be there in September."
 

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Muckdog
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It's frustrating that almost everyone on the team has been hitting the ball well, our starters have been solid, and yet we're still under .500 to start the season. As Dave Hyde said in a Sun-Sentinel article today, it just goes to show how little margin for error this team has. A bad move by the coach, a bad inning by a reliever, that's all it takes.
 

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