Marlins not so young as spring training begins

Those perennially youthful Florida Marlins are starting to show

a little age.

Five members of the Marlins’ talented rookie class of 2006 are

back for the start of another spring training, lending a rare sense

of continuity to a franchise known for constant roster turnover.

The group includes ace Josh Johnson, NL batting champion Hanley

Ramirez and slugging second baseman Dan Uggla.

Johnson will be part of the first workout for pitchers and

catchers Saturday in Jupiter, Fla. Ramirez, Uggla and other

position players are scheduled to report Tuesday.

“We have some older guys now,” president of baseball

operations Larry Beinfest said. “It’s weird to say that, but

they’ve been here coming up on their fifth year. We take a lot of

pride in our homegrown players. It has been fun to watch them grow

up together.”

Johnson and his classmates are still twenty-somethings, but by

the Marlins’ standards, they’re wily old veterans. Fifth-year major

leaguers tend to be too pricey for Florida’s tight budget, but

after the players’ union complained about the small payroll, the

Marlins signed Johnson last month to a $39 million, four-year

contract. And when trade talks involving Uggla failed to produce a

deal, Florida gave him a $7.8 million, one-year contract.

Also back for a fifth season with the Marlins are right-handers

Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez.

“We’re very thankful the Marlins made this happen, because we

love each other, we love this team and we want to win,” Uggla

said. “With us staying together, we have a chance.”

The Marlins return largely intact after winning 87 games last

year and finishing only six games behind league champion

Philadelphia in the NL East. The biggest loss was first baseman

Nick Johnson, who played 35 games for Florida after being acquired

at midseason.

However, the Marlins also made no major additions, and there

will be plenty of sorting out to do in spring training. First base,

three-fifths of the rotation spots and most of the bullpen jobs are

unclaimed. The Marlins must also hope young Cameron Maybin is ready

to win the center field job after flopping when given a shot a year

ago.

Still, optimism is high, as always at the start of spring

training.

“We like our players,” Beinfest said. “We scored a ton of

runs last year. If the pitching picks it up a little bit, we’re

going to be fine.”

Team president David Samson has set the bar high regarding

expectations by saying the Marlins should make the playoffs. That

puts some heat on fourth-year manager Fredi Gonzalez, and his first

priority in spring training will be to sort out the rotation.

The Marlins are set on opening day with Josh Johnson, who made

the All-Star team for the first time last year and had a

career-best record of 15-5. Their No. 2 starter is Nolasco, 28-17

the past two seasons.

Candidates for the other jobs include right-handers Sanchez,

Chris Volstad, Rick VandenHurk and Hayden Penn, and left-handers

Andrew Miller and Sean West.

“It can breed healthy competition, which can be a good thing,”

Beinfest said. “We feel like we have enough viable candidates that

it can be a good situation.”

Leo Nunez, who tied for second in the NL with seven blown saves,

is the incumbent closer, but there will be a scramble for other

bullpen roles. Helping to sort out the relievers and rotation will

be new pitching coach Randy St. Claire.

Contenders at first base are prospects Gaby Sanchez and Logan

Morrison, while the 22-year-old Maybin gets another shot in center.

He was demoted to Triple-A last May after batting only .202 in 26

games.

“It’s his job to lose,” Beinfest said.

Florida is set in the leadoff spot with NL rookie of the year

Chris Coghlan, who will again play left field. Uggla, third baseman

Jorge Cantu and right fielder Cody Ross – another fifth-year Marlin

– give the team three potential 30-homer hitters.

“We’ve got pretty much everybody back,” Ramirez said. “That

makes you feel better going to spring training. I think we can

compete with everybody in the big leagues.”