Buzz building about Marlins slugger Mike Stanton

Sitting in the visitors’ dugout one afternoon last September,

Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel watched rain fall as

he gushed about the Florida Marlins’ precocious slugger, Mike

Stanton.

”He’s one of the best young hitters I’ve seen come along,”

Manuel said. ”The ball really jumps off his bat. He’s as strong as

anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Manuel went on like that for 15 minutes. Eventually the rain

stopped, the game began and Stanton struck out four times.

Oh well; no one ever claimed Stanton would get a hit every time

up. But there’s a buzz building about the 21-year-old right

fielder, whose propensity for prodigious homers is – dare we say

it? – Ruthian. Or Mantlesque.

Or at least Pujols-ish.

”It makes BP-watching a lot more fun,” teammate Gaby Sanchez

said. ”We’re catching our groundballs and Mike will come up, and

you’re like, ‘Hold on a sec. I don’t want to miss this.”’

Stanton was called up from Double-A to make his big-league debut

last June. His first home run was a grand slam, and in 100 games

hit 22 homers, several of the tape-measure variety. He batted .259,

including .312 with eight homers in the final month of the season,

giving the Marlins reason to believe they’re set in the cleanup

spot for however long they can afford Stanton.

Others agree. One national publication even predicted he’ll be

this year’s National League MVP.

”He’s got awesome power,” said Marlins special adviser Jack

McKeon, not one for hyperbole. ”With a little maturity and better

pitch recognition, he’s going to be something special.”

Some sluggers make the ball sound different off their bat. Hall

of Famer Tony Perez, a Marlins executive, said Stanton’s bat sounds

different even before he makes contact.

”When you’re around the cage when he hits BP, you can hear the

bat: ”Sssswwwwhhhhh,”’ Perez said. ”It’s bat speed. Only a few

players have that.”

Then there’s the flight of the ball. Many of Stanton’s homers

leave a lasting impressive, such as the shot he launched last week

that dented a video scoreboard 40 feet beyond the left-center field

wall at the Marlins’ spring training ballpark.

A right-handed hitter, he made upper-deck drives in batting

practice commonplace last season, and cleared a building beyond

center field during the first week of spring training in February.

Mark McGwire cleared that same building in 1998, the year he hit 70

home runs.

”When a guy hits a ball that far, it doesn’t matter how many

times you see it, it still has that little wow factor,” Sanchez

said. ”I can watch Stanton do it for the next 10 years and it’s

still going to be, ‘Golly, that’s unbelievable.”’

Stanton said he’s not trying for tape-measure homers and is

satisfied with clearing the fence.

”It’s all worth the same,” he said. ”The length is for the

fans. I don’t care; otherwise I would be trying to do it every

single pitch. It’s not good to try to hit it farther and farther

and farther. I figured that out once I got to professional ball.

You need a sense of discipline.”

Even so, when spring training began, Stanton came out swinging.

In the first game, he homered on the first pitch he saw. Then he

strained his right quadriceps in the next inning and was sidelined

several weeks.

His first game back, he homered twice and drove in seven

runs.

”Unbelievable,” said 2009 NL batting champion Hanley Ramirez,

who’s glad to have Stanton batting behind him this season – and

perhaps for years to come.

The Marlins promoted Stanton to the cleanup spot this spring

even though he never hit fourth last year and seldom did in the

minors.

”I’ve hit third or fifth or sixth,” he said. ”I’ll be in

bigger situations a lot more often, and I’ll be ready to step up

and take care of business. Otherwise the spot’s not going to be

mine for long.”

At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he looks the part. And with an

appetite that leaves teammates in awe, he’s still growing.

New Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, fired as the Marlins’ manager

last June, watched Stanton make the climb through the minors. They

crossed paths again during spring training.

”I ran into him, and oh my goodness – he has put on another 10

pounds of muscle,” Gonzalez said. ”Holy cow. I guess that’s what

maturity does. Or reaching puberty.”

Yes, Stanton’s still a youngster, and he’s still learning when

not to swing. He struck out 123 times last season and endured an

0-for-31 slump in August. In 324 minor-league games, he had 371

strikeouts.

But when he connects, the ball can go a long way. He hits homers

to the opposite field; he hits line-drive homers; hit hits homers

with plenty of hang time.

”It reminds me of when Miguel Cabrera came up,” Perez said.

”Miguel came up from Double-A the same way at the same age. He

turned out to be a pretty good player. Mike has the same potential

to be a great player.”

And so the buzz builds – but slowly. After all, Stanton’s on a

team often overlooked and playing in front of 65,000 empty

seats.

The Californian said he was recognized by strangers only once or

twice during the offseason. But his jersey is starting to sell in

souvenir shops, which he finds amazing.

”It still blows my mind that I’m even in the majors,” he said.

”You dream about this all your life, and you’re living it. It’s

surreal sometimes.”

The Marlins are certain Stanton’s for real. They figure any

hitter who can dent a scoreboard is going to have a big impact on

the score.

AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this

report.