3 Florida Marlins A fresh battery provides a powerful charge for a fast-rising franchise

March 26, 2001

Charles Johnson, never one for idle chitchat, cornered first
baseman Derrek Lee early in spring training and asked him what
he thought the difference was between his disastrous .206,
five-home-run season in 1999 and his breakout .281, 28-homer
campaign in 2000. This was no pop quiz, just a pointed question
from a veteran looking for a direct answer. Lee's first thought
was that he hadn't thought about it until Johnson asked. When
Lee finally spit out something about patience and a better
understanding of the strike zone, Johnson replied, "Fine,
remember the differences and build on them for the coming season."

"That meant a lot coming from CJ," Lee says. "That's exactly what
we need in this clubhouse."

There were more gifted players signed as free agents last
winter--Alex Rodriguez certainly, Mike Hampton maybe--but there
was no more ideal match than Johnson and the Marlins. With a
back-loaded five-year, $35 million deal, Florida landed a
31-home-run, 91-RBI answer to its offensive black hole at
catcher (two homers, 43 RBIs in 2000), a four-time Gold Glove
winner to handle a green but potentially dazzling rotation and a
steadying influence for a lineup that has an average age of 26.
"The biggest gamble in free agency is not knowing the person,
but we knew CJ," general manager Dave Dombrowski says of
Johnson, 29, who was the expansion Marlins' first draft choice
in 1992. "We knew we were getting better as a team, maybe even
getting good. We also knew that if we could just give our
players one extra jolt to get them to believe in themselves even
more, it would make a big difference."

Traded in the aftermath of the nuclear winter of 1997-98, when
Florida dismantled its store-bought World Series champions,
Johnson has been repatriated to a largely homegrown team that has
described a wildly ascending arc. In 2000 Florida enjoyed a
double-digit increase in wins for a second straight year. (No
team has done it three seasons in a row since the Red Sox of 1907
to '09, roughly two years before the first blue-haired Miami
matron drove I-95 at 40 miles per hour in the left lane with her
right turn signal on.) "The good thing is we got our asses kicked
together," third baseman Mike Lowell says. "We went through
growing pains when the only guys we had to turn to were each
other. Makes you stronger."

Florida looks strong. If they can't handle the Braves on the
field, the Marlins should challenge them to a decathlon.
Florida's emerging identity is one of raw athleticism, a blend of
speed (a league-high 168 stolen bases) and power. It has a pair
of potential 30-30 men in leftfielder Cliff Floyd and chiseled
centerfielder Preston Wilson, who exploded with a .337 average
and nine homers in September. A sucker for high fastballs, Wilson
struck out an absurd 187 times, but his career average of 3.1 at
bats per whiff improved to 4.8 during the final month, when he
switched to a 35-ounce bat, two ounces heavier than his former
model.

Even if Wilson moves up to the outfield elite and either Brad
Penny, 22, or A.J. Burnett, 24, makes the sort of leap to
success that Ryan Dempster did last season at 23, the Marlins'
immediate future still hinges on shortstop Alex Gonzalez. In
1999, his rookie season, Gonzalez hit .277 and stood along the
foul line at Fenway Park during the All-Star Game introductions.
Last year the only line he straddled was Mendoza's. Slowed by a
fractured forearm sustained in winter ball, Gonzalez wound up at
precisely .200, a clueless swinger who chased breaking balls in
the dirt and struck out six times as much as he walked. "He has
to play much better if we're going to get to the next level,"
manager John Boles says. "All premier teams have good shortstop
play, so he needs to give us lights-out defense and help on
offense, too."

Florida was a high-wire act last season, going 32-20 in one-run
games, but finishing with a minus-66 run differential. With an
imposing catcher whose offense has finally caught up with his
defense (despite a noticeable statistical decline from his early
seasons, Johnson still has committed only 19 errors over the past
three years), the Marlins won't trip and fall in their continued
journey toward playoff contention.

--Michael Farber

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Young, speedy and powerful, the 26-year-old Wilson has the whiff of a star. Now if only he can do something about all those strikeouts. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON JOHNSON

[ENEMY LINES]
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Marlins

"Can they make another 12-win jump? Maybe not, but they should
finish above .500....If they take Alex Gonzalez to a doctor to
get his head removed from his ass, this can be a good team.
Gonzalez is very talented, but he gets complacent. They're
concerned that he's starting to take his at bats out to the
field with him. They need him to hit .250 and play defense the
way he's capable of....Charles Johnson brings a lot of maturity
to handling that young staff, and he's shortened his swing so
that he can get to balls on the inner part of the plate. Those
pitches used to give him trouble....Derrek Lee finally got
aggressive last year, and that explains his huge second half. He
used to take fastballs down the middle that he should've hit a
mile....Luis Castillo will steal close to 100 bases. He and Lee
are very good on the right side of the infield....Cliff Floyd is
a paper tiger. He has so much talent but seems content to spend
a month on the DL every season....Mark Kotsay is a great
rightfielder. He throws really well and covers a lot of ground.
He makes up for the fact that Preston Wilson probably shouldn't
be playing center....Ryan Dempster has one of the best sliders
in baseball, and he's figured out how to use his changeup. A
great competitor, he can stop the bleeding if he falls behind
early. You don't see that much anymore....A.J. Burnett's
stuff--that explosive fastball and power curve--is as good as
anyone's.... Antonio Alfonseca has a boring, 94-mph fastball
that eats up righthanded hitters. He might be just goofy enough
to be a top closer.

[THE LINEUP]
projected roster with 2000 statistics

2000 record: 79-82 (third in NL East)
Manager: John Boles (third season with Florida)

BATTING ORDER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

2B Luis Castillo S-R 57 .334 2 17 62
RF Mark Kotsay L 156 .298 12 57 19
LF Cliff Floyd L-R 99 .300 22 91 24
CF Preston Wilson R 19 .264 31 121 36
3B Mike Lowell R 141 .270 22 91 4
C Charles Johnson[1] R 75 .304 31 91 2
1B Derrek Lee R 134 .281 28 70 0
SS Alex Gonzalez R 250 .200 7 42 7

BENCH

OF Jeff Abbott[1] R-L 327 .274 3 29 2
IF Kevin Millar R 329 .259 14 42 0
IF Andy Fox L-R 349 .232 4 20 10
IF Dave Berg R 389 .252 1 21 3
C Mike Redmond R 397 .252 0 15 0

STARTERS PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Ryan Dempster 21 14 10 6.9 1.36 3.66
RH Chuck Smith 80 6 6 6.5 1.35 3.23
RH A.J. Burnett 154 3 7 6.4 1.50 4.79
RH Brad Penny 91 8 7 5.4 1.50 4.81
LH Jesus Sanchez 196 9 12 5.7 1.50 5.34

BULLPEN PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Antonio Alfonseca 44 5 6 45 1.51 4.24
RH Dan Miceli 163 6 4 0 1.29 4.25
LH Vic Darensbourg 239 5 3 0 1.44 4.06
RH Braden Looper 242 5 1 2 1.59 4.41
RH Manny Aybar 276 2 2 0 1.37 4.31
RH Ricky Bones 307 2 3 0 1.56 4.54
LH Armando Almanza 338 4 2 0 1.75 4.86

[1]New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 156)

"Floyd has so much talent but always seems content to spend a
month on the DL."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)