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Marlins have bright future in store


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Good read.


Hal Bodley: Marlins Have Bright Future


They likely won't remain in first this year, but look out for Florida down the road


MIAMI -- Let's be realistic. When the baseball season ends, the Florida Marlins won't be where they are today -- atop the National League East.


No, it's more likely to be the Mets or Phillies or Braves.


But even though the Marlins may tumble, their view from the top, for however many days it lasts, is immensely important to their bright future.


The late Paul Owens, a brilliant grassroots baseball guy who served as a scout, manager and general manager, told me once that nothing in the game is more important than confidence.


He'd poke me in the chest to make his point, saying, "A lot of players think they can do it, but they don't really excel until they know they can do it. That's the difference."


As the Marlins enjoy the thin air of first place, they're convincing themselves they know they can do it. No matter how much schooling they get, nothing will replace what it feels like to have the aristocrats of the league chasing them.


Over the years, the Marlins have held more fire sales than Filene's Basement and have been written off more times than the double-martini lunch.


But just about the time you're ready to send condolences to their ownership and fans, they've picked themselves up and rebuilt their future. Just like that.


They did it in 1997 when, in only their fifth season, cagey manager Jim Leyland guided them to an unexpected World Series triumph over Cleveland.


And in 2003, under the managerial wizardry of Trader Jack McKeon, they stunned the mighty New York Yankees, taking home their second championship.


"How many years have we come off the garbage dump and won the World Series with a club nobody thought could do it?" asks McKeon, now special advisor to owner Jeffrey Loria. "This year's club is one nobody gives the respect it should have. They have some good players."


The heartbreak in Florida, however, is that because Dolphins Stadium is so dreadful for baseball the Marlins cannot afford the superstar players that they've produced and nurtured. There was a mass exodus after 1997 when the architect of that team, general manager Dave Dombrowski, was ordered by then-owner Wayne Hyzienga to unload all the high-priced talent.


"When you break up a world championship club like we did, it's gut-wrenching," says Dombrowski. "You never want to be in that spot to do that. On the other hand, when you have to reduce payroll it takes on different degrees of difficulty."


Admin Beinfest, who built the 2003 team, had to do the same thing, and this past winter traded away the last threads to that greatness, sending multi-talented Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis to Detroit.


But with astute moves, Beinfest & Co. have been able to get premier young players in return and that's a huge reason why the Marlins, with by far the lowest payroll ($21.8 million) in the Major Leagues, are off to such a fine start.


What makes their future even brighter is the fact that legislators approved, in February, financing for a $525 million, 37,000-seat ballpark that will be built in the area of the old Orange Bowl. It will be ready for the 2011 season. It should signal a rebirth of baseball interest in South Florida and enable ownership to financially afford a team that can contend.


"We definitely have our challenges," says Beinfest, now baseball operations president. "We're running a payroll that's directly related to our revenues. We would like to see that grow. We need the new venue to have those revenues to have higher payrolls. Right now, our job on the baseball side is to make any payroll that is given to us as productive as possible."


Ask Beinfest to objectively appraise the Marlins' first month and there's little hesitation.


"It's just that, and a good, early start," he says. "I want to be positive and I want our team to know that we're proud of them and happy with the way they've come out of the gate, but...


"There are some key things that need to improve here. We have to be realistic about it. We have the ability to do it, but we have some challenges ahead because of our youth and inexperience. We've shown a lot of power offensively, and have a balanced lineup. We have speed, but until our pitching solidifies -- we need to improve in that area."


Dombrowski, now president and CEO of the Tigers, was on the receiving end of the Marlins' last purge, but knows only too well what it was like to dismantle the 1997 champions.


He also knows losing premier players creates opportunity.


"When they traded Josh Beckett to Boston, they got Hanley Ramirez as a key player in that deal and a couple of other good, young pitchers. When they traded Cabrera and Willis, they ended up getting [pitcher] Andrew Miller, first pick in the 2006 draft, and [outfielder] Cameron Maybin [2005 first-round Draft pick now in the Minors] and some of the other guys who are helping too."


Adds Dombrowski: "They do their homework. Even though they're forced into those situations when you trade good players, there are enough clubs interested and they know they have to give up good talent to get them."


Ramirez is a good example. He's leading the team in just about every offensive category, including (through Wednesday's game) batting average (.349), homers (7), runs batted in (17) and on-base percentage (.417).


Pitcher Mark Hendrickson has won four of five decisions, while Scott Olsen is 3-0 with a 2.60 earned run average.


Manager Fredi Gonzalez, who replaced Joe Girardi after the 2006 season, was dealt a weaker hand with the trade of Cabrera, an All-Star third baseman, and Willis. He seems pleased with the progress of the youngsters.


"We've got quality individuals with great work habits," he says.


McKeon says when you look at the job that Beinfest and his staff have done "it's just phenomenal. No question this is a good start, and they've had a good schedule, but on the other hand, this is a tremendous boost for the young players. They're learning to win in the big leagues and should continue to get better." And the beauty of this is the players don't know they're not supposed to be in first place.

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This makes you appreciate our scouting and the geniuses we've had in the front office during all these years in Dombrowski and Beinfest. It's one thing to have low payroll and bad attendance, but when you consistently are able to acquire good talent whether through trades or bottom of the barrel signings it separates us from teams like the Pirates that are constantly botching it and never seem to have that "bright future".

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