Marlins believe they're poised to end playoff drought
MIAMI (AP) Two transactions midway through spring training that drew little notice heralded significant progress for the Miami Marlins.
Top pitching prospects Jose Urena and Justin Nicolino were optioned to the minor leagues - moves reflecting the franchise's improved depth of talent. This season, for a change, the front office doesn't feel compelled to rush youngsters like Urena and Nicolino to the majors.
''In previous years they would probably already be in the big leagues,'' president of baseball operations Michael Hill said. ''We've really tried to change that, be fair to the player and allow them to have the necessary growing pains in the minor leagues so when they do get to the big leagues, they can hit the ground running.''
When Urena and Nicolino do reach the majors, they might be joining a contender. Following a busy offseason highlighted by the signing of Giancarlo Stanton to a record $325 million contract, Miami's expectations are unusually lofty.
The Marlins don't talk just about finishing above .500 for the first time since 2009. They want to end an 11-year playoff drought.
''I love the talent we've been able to assemble,'' Hill said. ''If we handle our business, I'm pretty excited about where that will lead.''
While Stanton draws the biggest headlines, it might be the Marlins' rotation that separates them from the pack. They enter the season with five solid starters, and that doesn't include ace Jose Fernandez, the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year, who is projected to return from elbow surgery at midseason.
Miami acquired Mat Latos and Dan Haren in offseason deals, and they join Henderson Alvarez, Jarred Cosart and Tom Koehler. Latos is 56-40 since 2010, and the others each won at least 10 games last year, with a combined record of 48-39. Newcomer David Phelps, who is 12-11 as a starter, provides depth and can also relieve.
''I like our rotation,'' manager Mike Redmond said. ''These guys have gone out and competed for a long time and have a lot of experience, which is nice.''
Other things to know about the baseball buzz building in South Florida:
RETURN ON INVESTMENT: Stanton appears poised for another big year after being knocked out of the 2014 NL MVP race when a beaning ended his season in September. He led the NL in slugging and homers despite missing the final 17 games.
During spring training batting practice, new teammate Phelps noted that Stanton hits balls to the opposite field farther than most players can pull them. And he doesn't just outslug everybody.
''We ran shuttles the first week of camp and I figured he was a good athlete,'' Phelps said. ''But I didn't expect him to be outrunning everybody, too.''
TRENDING UPWARD: Miami went 62-100 under Redmond two years ago, and then ended a streak of three consecutive last-place finishes in the NL East by going 77-85 in 2014. The 15-win improvement tied for the best in the National League by a 100-loss team since 1986.
Among the players still around from that young, awful 2013 team are Stanton, Fernandez, Alvarez, Koehler, left fielder Christian Yelich, center fielder Marcell Ozuna and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria.
''The fun part is to see the excitement in guys now, and for them to talk about how far we've come in a short amount of time,'' Redmond said. ''As tough as it was at the time, I knew we would be better off for it, because we got some guys a lot of experience.''
STILL YOUNG: With the addition such veterans as Latos, Haren, third baseman Martin Prado, second baseman Dee Gordon and first baseman Michael Morse, the payroll is expected to be above $70 million. That's the highest for the Marlins since 2012, and an increase of about 50 percent from last year.
Even so, the Marlins remain young. Fernandez, Alvarez, Cosart, Stanton, Yelich, Ozuna and Hechavarria are all under 26. That creates a clubhouse environment foreign to Phelps, a right-hander acquired in a trade with the Yankees.
''It's a lot of young, talented players,'' said Phelps, 28, accustomed to being surrounded by the likes of Derek Jeter and CC Sabathia. ''It's really a breath of fresh air just to come in and have a core in place that is younger than me.''
Most of the Marlins have never played on a contending team, which raises some skepticism about their chances. But Alvarez predicted the Marlins will be playing games that matter late this season for a change.
''We're going to surprise a lot of people,'' he said.