Everyone commented on it upon arrival at the Miami Marlins spring training complex at Roger Dean Stadium.
It felt different in the clubhouse. Each player, coach and front office member exuded an air that seemed to be missing during a complete rebuilding year in 2013.
Call it optimism. Call it hope.
Many think the Marlins are still a season away from competing for a postseason spot, but that doesn’t matter to them. They finished Grapefruit League action 18-12-2 for the third-most spring victories in club history and second behind the Tampa Bay Rays.
With a young and talented rotation led by National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Finalist Jose Fernandez, why not now? Pitching is supposed to be the name of the game, after all.
When the Marlins host the Colorado Rockies at 7:05 p.m. ET Monday at Marlins Park, there will be no thought given to last season’s 100 losses. It’s time to start anew.
"I’m excited about this team. It’s a good group of guys," right-hander Tom Koehler said on Thursday after learning he was named the fifth starter. "We’ve really come together over the last six weeks. It’s a talented group and a hungry group, and you mix those three things together and good stuff tends to happen. Hopefully we just go out there and play hard every night and compete and hopefully things take over and the results that we want will be there."
Let’s examine what we learned about the Marlins during spring training as they prepared for the 2014 season.
The fifth spot in the rotation proved to be a hotly contested race between Koehler, lefty Brad Hand and non-roster invitee Kevin Slowey. All three posted an ERA below 3, making the decision even tougher for manager Mike Redmond.
But Koehler, who went 2-1 with a 3.14 ERA in five September starts, rode that momentum as the most dominant Marlins pitcher this spring. The 27-year-old allowed just one run over his first 13 innings and closed Grapefruit League action 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA — the lowest of all starters — over five appearances (four starts).
Though Jake Marisnick lost out to Marcell Ozuna on the starting outfield spot, the 22-year-old proved he is fully healed from knee surgery and made progress at the plate. He led the team with a .432 average with five doubles, a triple and four RBI. Should Ozuna falter, expect Marisnick to be recalled from Triple-A New Orleans.
After the Marlins signed Garrett Jones over the offseason, it was only a matter of time before they dealt Logan Morrison. Seattle sent hard-throwing righty Carter Capps to Miami for the injury-plagued first baseman.
Capps struggled to get in a groove this spring as he worked on tweaking his delivery. The 23-year-old, who will start the year in Triple-A New Orleans, went 0-0 with a 3.60 ERA in eight outings. Over 10 innings, he allowed four runs on five hits with eight strikeouts, five walks and two hit batters. His fastball never reached the upper 90s.
Despite a poor spring, Ozuna won the starting outfield job over Marisnick. The 23-year-old hit .177 with five doubles, two homers and seven RBI in 21 games, unable to find his timing at the plate. Ozuna’s 2013 season had ended prematurely when he fractured his thumb following a demotion.
Top left-handed pitching prospect Andrew Heaney will likely make his major-league debut sometime this season; it’s just a matter of when.
That’s what happens when an organization is experiencing a surplus in pitching. It’s a good problem to have if you’re the Marlins. Rather than rush Heaney, who recorded a 2.35 ERA over three spring training outings, the 22-year-old can continue to develop in the minors.
Heaney missed the first two months of last season with a lat injury before rebounding in Class A Jupiter and Double-A Jacksonville (1.60 ERA combined) and the Arizona Fall League (1.95 ERA). He is not on the 40-man roster, so a corresponding move would need to be made.
1. Giancarlo Stanton arrived in Jupiter with a new routine that emphasized daily workouts to prepare him for the grind of a 162-game season. The 24-year-old had his best spring, blasting five home runs and driving in 15 runs. Time will tell if it will carry over.
2. Injuries can be random. Just ask Ed Lucas. On Thursday — hours after learning he’d made the Opening Day roster — a pitch fractured his left hand. It will keep him out 4 to 6 weeks. Donovan Solano will take his place in a utility role.
3. Rafael Furcal’s comeback from Tommy John surgery didn’t go off without a hitch. The 36-year-old will start the season on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring. Derek Dietrich and Jeff Baker will platoon at second in his place until he’s ready.
4. For most of spring training, the Marlins pitching staff boasted the lowest ERA. Four pitchers combined for a no-hitter against the New York Yankees in Panama. It ranked fifth in the majors (second in the NL) with a 3.50 ERA heading into Opening Day. What was expected to be a strength has proven to be one so far.
5. There has only been marginal improvement for the offense, which finished last in almost all categories last season. This spring, the team ranked 22nd in average (.257), 20th in homers (22) and 20th in runs (133). Newcomers Jones, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Casey McGehee combined for seven home runs and 11 RBI.
If the pitching performs up to its expectations and the offense adds more run support than last year, the Marlins will finish third and could possibly sneak into second in the NL East. With a depleted Atlanta rotation, a season without ace Matt Harvey in New York and an aging Philadelphia lineup, it’s not too far-fetched to think. Should things go haywire, 2014 still won’t see 100 losses. There’s too much talent on the club and in the minors.