Young pitchers vying for jobs as Marlins open camp

Miami Marlins right-hander Nathan Eovaldi stood at his locker
facing a phalanx of TV cameras and tape recorders, responding to
routine questions with awkward pauses and one-word answers that
betrayed his youth.

”It’s the first day,” he said finally with a nervous smile.
”I wasn’t ready for this.”

Whatever attention the Marlins receive this year will be focused
on youngsters such as the 23-year-old Eovaldi. That was clear
Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers worked out for the first
time.

With Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez and Heath Bell
departing in last year’s payroll purge, the Marlins will rebuild
their pitching staff by relying on young arms. Eovaldi and
21-year-old Jacob Turner are slotted for spots in the rotation, and
third-year big-leaguer Steve Cishek is the likely closer.

Top pitching prospect Jose Fernandez wore No. 78 Tuesday, which
reflects the Marlins’ thinking that he’s at least a few months away
from being ready for the big leagues. But he’ll get a long look in
his first spring-training camp, and several other youngsters will
battle for spots in the bullpen.

”We’ve got a lot of young guys, so it should be great
competition,” said the rookie manager, 41-year-old Mike Redmond.
”These guys realize the opportunity. I know as a player, when you
had an opportunity to make a team and pitch in the big leagues,
that’s all you could ask.”

As a former catcher, Redmond’s well aware that unproven pitchers
can make a big splash at this time of year. He remembers when a
cocky young prospect by the name of Josh Beckett first arrived at
Marlins camp in 2000.

”His very first spring training, he had been drafted No. 1, and
I caught his first bullpen,” Redmond said. ”He was good. I
remember being impressed by his changeup, because for a high school
kid he was so polished. I was like, `Man, that’s the best changeup
I’ve ever seen from a high school guy.’

”Then he threw a heater and hit me in the wrist, and I wasn’t
so impressed anymore,” Redmond said.

Even with an experienced staff last year, the Marlins finished
last in the NL East. They allowed opponents to bat .263,
third-worst in the NL, and lost 93 games.

Redmond was managing in the Florida State League last year, but
he reviewed Miami’s pitching performance.

”We’ve got to be better,” he said. ”We weren’t good enough
last year. We didn’t throw enough strikes. We’ve got to fill that
strike zone and give ourselves a chance to let our defense work.
We’ve just got to be better on the mound.”

This year’s staff may not be better, but it will be different.
Ricky Nolasco, whose $11.5 million contract will represent about a
quarter of the Marlins’ payroll, becomes an ace for the first time
in his eight-year big league career.

Right-hander Henderson Alvarez, who went 9-14 last year for
Toronto, is expected to claim one starting job. Another is wide
open, and along with several young pitchers, the contenders include
several veterans trying to restart their career, among them
injury-plagued John Maine.

”If you play well, you’re going to get an opportunity,” said
Maine, standing at the locker formerly occupied by ace Josh
Johnson. ”It’s a time to start building something and being part
of something pretty fun.”

Several bullpen jobs are also vacant. Contenders include
25-year-old right-hander Arquimedes Caminero, who is coming back
from reconstructive elbow surgery.

”We loved his arm,” president of baseball operations Larry
Beinfest said. ”We’re going to take a good look at him. We’ll see
if he’s ready to pitch in the major leagues.”

Miami’s pitching could be better than expected if Eovaldi and
Turner improve. Eovaldi went 3-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 12 starts last
year, and Turner went 1-4 with a 3.38 ERA in seven starts.

The Marlins say this season could be similar to 2006, when
youngsters Johnson, Nolasco and Sanchez all had breakthrough
seasons.

”They were at this point once,” Eovaldi said. ”You’ve got to
start somewhere.”