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Marlins are not fish out of water as contenders

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A good article and finally a sports jounalist that sees what we see.



Scouts are the lifeblood of baseball's observer class. Before games, they mingle with media members in the press room, sharing remember-when? stories and can-you- believe-that? tales. And opinions. Many opinions.


Which makes surprising the silence in the air when one subject of particular interest is broached: the Florida Marlins. Ask scouts about Greg Maddux's fastball or Alex Rodriguez's swing, about baserunning or defense, about global warming or the mortgage crisis, and you'll get an opinion. Ask about the Marlins, though, and you get foot-shuffling and chirping crickets.


That's because, in seizing first place in the National League East, the Marlins have confounded baseball wisdom. They're supposed to stink. Their ace is 6-foot-9 journeyman lefty Mark Hendrickson, a soon-to-be 34-year-old who had a stint in the NBA. The Marlins finished in last place in 2007 at 71-91. They then traded their best pitcher (Dontrelle Willis) and their best hitter (Miguel Cabrera) for prospects. The 2008 roster had monumental loser written all over it. Florida's payroll is about $22 million, the lowest in baseball and more than $20 million below the second-lowest team. With revenue sharing, some complain that Florida's payroll is the equivalent of stealing.


No wonder scouts are so puzzled. Still, as the Marlins tackled a 10-game prove-it road trip against division rivals New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, a handful of scouts spoke about the team's success, forging this list of things you should know about these accidental contenders:


? They're not as young as you think. Not in terms of position players, at least. Just because you haven't heard about many Marlins doesn't mean they're young. Only three regulars -- shortstop Hanley Ramirez, outfielder Jeremy Hermida and third baseman Jorge Cantu -- are younger than 27, and Cantu is not the long-term answer at third. Slugging first baseman Mike Jacobs (27) and second baseman Dan Uggla (28) aren't old, but they're already in their primes. The Marlins have gone pitching-heavy in the draft in recent years, to the detriment of position players.


? Ramirez is an MVP candidate. Before this season, that statement would have been qualified with the phrase "sometime in the future." But as the Marlins look more and more legit, so do the shortstop's MVP chances.


? The future is in the rotation. After Hendrickson, the Marlins have four starting pitchers 25 or younger, none with more than two full years as a starter. Lefty Andrew Miller, a former No. 6 overall pick acquired as part of the Willis-Cabrera trade with Detroit, struggled in April but was 3-1 with a 1.44 ERA in his first four May starts. No one likes the knucklehead antics of Scott Olsen, but he has straightened out enough (for now) and put up a 3.38 ERA in his first 10 starts. If this is the year Olsen grows up, he could win 15 games. There are key youngsters in back-of-the-rotation jobs -- primarily Ricky Nolasco and Burke Badenhop -- but if Hendrickson, Olsen and Miller stay on track, the remainder of the rotation will need to be little more than adequate.


? The present is in the bullpen. This group gets entirely too little attention. One scout points out that this year's Marlins have similarities to last year's Diamondbacks, who won 90 games and advanced to the NLCS, in that they are being carried by their relievers. Kevin Gregg has developed into a top-tier closer, and Florida's fate likely rests in the same place Arizona's did last year -- with a strong-armed setup crew (Doug Waechter, Renyel Pinto, Matt Lindstrom, Justin Miller and Logan Kensing). The bullpen's 3.12 ERA ranks third in the N.L.


? The N.L. East is winnable. There are plenty of doubts about the Marlins beyond their paltry payroll. The defense, though improved, is still bad. They still can't draw fans. But one scout says other division contenders -- the Phillies, Braves and Mets have been early disappointments -- sport holes that won't disappear. The Marlins aren't perfect, and they remain an unpopular topic of discussion, but all the silence and shuffling of feet doesn't change the reality: This team could be a contender



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I'm more than happy to see our team wheel out the old "nobody believes in us" card all season because it never hurts to have an us-against-the-world mentality, atleast in terms of team sports.


This team is quickly joining the 2003 team in terms of my love and admiration. That 2003 team was my favorite single team in any sport ever but this team is no doubt special. In the end I won't judge this team by ridiculous World Series or bust expectations...they've already shown a combination of raw talent, youthful exuberance, and a general my name is Dan Uggla Bitch attitude that I'm sure I will remember fondly the 2008 Florida Marlins as a special group.

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