BASEBALL 2016: Stanton is healthy, boosts Marlins' outlook
MIAMI (AP) Giancarlo Stanton was in midseason form during batting practice one spring morning, sending a succession of pitches off or over the fence as teammates looked on, smiling and shaking their heads in admiration.
Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez watched, too, pretending to be unimpressed.
''Those balls aren't regulation,'' Gonzalez hollered at Stanton. ''They're a little soft. They're not the real balls.''
Stanton grinned because he knew otherwise. The balls were the real deal and so is Stanton, who's healthy again, making the Miami Marlins' 2016 outlook much more robust.
Miami's big bopper has hit 159 homers since 2011, most in NL, according to STATS, and that's despite missing 202 games. For the second year in a row he's returning from a season-ending injury.
He was leading the majors with 27 homers and 67 RBIs last June when he broke his left hand. Nine months later his knack for launching moon shots is back, as he showed by hitting a homer over a two-story building beyond left field during spring training.
''This guy does stuff that doesn't seem possible, right?'' manager Don Mattingly said. ''He hits balls a long way. I think we know that we are way better if he's playing.''
''I'm a good beginning key,'' he said.
But Stanton has never played on a winning team. Here are things to consider as Miami tries to end a 12-year playoff drought, the longest in the NL:
STAYING HEALTHY: The Marlins will have a modest payroll as usual, leaving them with little depth to overcome injuries. There's also a dearth of talent in the minor league system for reinforcements. That makes it imperative to keep Stanton and the other regulars off the disabled list. ''Everybody has to stay healthy,'' ace Jose Fernandez said. ''It's no secret.''
CHANGES OF DIRECTION: The biggest offseason upgrades were made in the dugout. Mattingly became the manager after leading the Dodgers to three consecutive NL West titles, and the new batting coach is Barry Bonds, back in the majors for the first time since retiring in 2007 as the steroids-tainted home run king. Both earned raves from players during spring training. ''If I can't learn anything this year from two Hall of Fame caliber players, I have no business being in the game,'' first baseman Justin Bour said. Mattingly and Bonds say they're eager to teach, which makes them a good match for a roster long on promising players who have yet to fulfill their potential. ''To me this is a great opportunity to come to a club that is talented and young and has a chance to get better,'' Mattingly said. ''We've got a pretty talented core group.''
IMPROVED MOOD: The Marlins say they'll benefit from better clubhouse chemistry than a year ago, when the season went sour after the strange decision to move general manager Dan Jennings into the manager's job. ''The chemistry last year was lacking upstairs, downstairs and in between,'' team president David Samson said. ''We had issues top to bottom. What we have this year is different.'' All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon said returning players bonded after a 91-loss season. ''We know how to pick each other up because we went through some bad times,'' he said. ''It helps because you know can trust a guy.''
ACE: Fernandez enters his fourth major league season undefeated in Miami. Last year he returned from Tommy John surgery and set a modern big league record by improving to 17-0 at home. The right-hander has a 22-9 overall record in 47 starts. But Marlins newcomer Chris Johnson said he figured out a way to deal with Fernandez while playing for the Braves. ''Try to pull a hamstring and get out of the lineup,'' Johnson said.
COZIER CONFINES: After the team finished last in the NL in runs and home runs in 2015, management decided to make Marlins Park more hitter-friendly. The center field wall was moved 11 feet closer and is now 407 feet away, and outfield fences were lowered too. But there's no pleasing some hitters. Left fielder Christian Yelich, who has hit 17 of his 20 career homers on the road, considered the changes far from dramatic. ''It's not going to go from being a pitchers park to being a bandbox,'' Yelich said. ''It's going to play exactly the way it did last year.''