Marlins not so young as spring training begins

By STEVEN WINE
AP Sports Writer

MIAMI (AP) — 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.”