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Spring Postcard: Can the Marlins be a cost-conscious contender?

1) The Fish are turning the formula for winning without money on its head.Conventional wisdom holds that if you don't have a large payroll, you've got to grind, scrap, do the little things, hustle, play smart and whatever other euphemism you can come up with for doing things other than hitting bombs. More specifically: pitching, defense and smart at-bats. Funny, then, that the Marlins didn't do any of those things well last year. They were 11th in the NL in ERA, 15th in errors and 10th in walks. And they still won 84 games with a $22 million payroll. Florida did it by pounding the ball -- the Fish were second in the league in homers and third in slugging -- and they should do that again this year (see No. 3 below).

As for the other facets of the game.... First the bad news: The Marlins have looked terrible defensively all spring. Granted, it has been windy as all get out all week, and it's early, so there's still bound to be some rust. ("First day, man," was shortstop Hanley Ramirez's excuse when he made one of the team's four errors in their Grapefruit opener.) But the Marlins made at least two errors in each of their first five games, and when I saw them, a few balls that should have been caught fell for hits. Will they improve? Unlikely. Newcomer Gaby Sanchez could be an upgrade over the departed Mike Jacobs at first, but if Sanchez doesn't win the job, Jorge Cantu will likely slide over from third, opening up the hot corner for Dallas McPherson. And Brooks Robinson he ain't.

Now the good news: The pitching has the potential to be a lot better. In 2006 Florida made history when it had four rookies win 10 games. Since then, one has been traded (Scott Olsen) and the other three (Anibal Sanchez, Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco) have missed substantial time with injuries. All three are now healthy, and pitching coach Mark Wiley makes a good point: Sometimes being forced to undergo a disciplined rehab will actually help a young pitcher. Throw in former Tigers phenom Andrew Miller and Chris Volstad (2.88 ERA) and the Fish have a potentially better-than-average staff. And the lack of a decent placesetter should be exacerbated by the fact that ...

2) Cameron Maybin looks like a stud.The numbers don't lie: Last year at Class AA, Maybin, who was a main piece in the Miguel Cabrera trade, hit .321 with an OBP of .437 in the second half. But if you're one of those people who doesn't trust stats and would rather rely on good ol' fashioned first-hand observations, allow me to say this: Yowza. He's listed at 6-foot-4, 205, and he's about as perfectly proportioned as you could want. Big enough so he won't wear down, but not so big that it slows him down. He moves around center field effortlessly, and he's got a nice arm. But the thing that's the most noticeable about him is how the ball jumps off his bat. Again, it has been windy -- and it seems like it's always blowing out -- but during BP he was just launching these balls up into the jet stream. It was majestic.

3) Hanley Ramirez has gotten big. How big? He put on 25 pounds in the offseason, which means he's now 225 -- or a good 75 pounds heavier than Freddy Patek in his prime. The extra bulk came from a strict offseason regimen -- a first for the 25-year-old -- of weight lifting and swimming laps. Ramirez said he felt worn down toward the end of last year. Not that it showed: He slugged .614 in September. The extra poundage might slow Ramirez down a bit (he stole 35 bases last year, down from 51 in each of the previous two), but with Maybin's emergence, it shouldn't matter as much. Maybin figures to bat leadoff, with Ramirez in the three hole.

I always enjoyed arguing with myself over who was the best Mike Stanton in big league history. There was the early '80s righty reliever or the longtime Brave/Yankee/et al. lefty middleman. (I'd argue with someone else, but no one seems to care.) I always liked the first Stanton because he pitched for the Indians when I was a kid, but I have to concede that the latter was better. Before long, though, I think we're going to have to reconsider, because the Marlins have a Mike Stanton who could put both of the others to shame. He's a remarkably athletic outfielder who was going to play wide receiver at USC had he not signed with the Marlins, who took him in the second round of the 2006 draft. He hit 39 homers in the South Atlantic League last year, and in Monday's intrasquad game he hit two, both of which easily cleared the palm trees beyond the fence. Florida president Dave Samson said that Stanton's name came up in every offseason trade discussion. The Marlins held on to him. Easy to see why.

It's ironic that while Alex Rodriguez was facing the press as part of the WBC's Dominican Republic contingent at Roger Dean Stadium on Monday, Jay Gibbons was slogging away on a back field at the facility, trying to earn himself a job. Like A-Rod, Gibbons saw his name show up where it shouldn't -- in his case, the Mitchell Report. Unlike A-Rod, he has seen his career take a major hit since. The O's released him (not entirely because of the PED revelation -- he hit .189 in spring training when Baltimore let him go), and Gibbons suddenly found himself exiled. He wrote a letter to every major league team asking for nothing more than a minor league deal and vowing to donate his salary to charity. He finally found a taker when the Brewers gave him a deal, and he hit five homers and OPSed .889 in a month of Triple A. (Gibbons also played for an independent league team and in Venezuela.) He's 1-for-2 with an RBI for the Fish, and he looked like he still had some pop in his bat when I watched him hit. He's hungry, and he's only 32.

A ladder. The Marlins' rotation includes 6-foot-6 Andrew Miller, 6-7Josh Johnson and 6-8 Chris Volstad. My neck hurts from craning it to talk to them. At least Johnson and I sat down as he played with his incredibly cute towheaded son, Cash.

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