Marlins start camp talking playoffs

By STEVEN WINE
AP Sports Writer

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — Before the first spring training workout even began, the Florida Marlins were swinging for the fences.

“We expect to make the playoffs,” catcher John Baker said. “I know that’s the cliche thing. That’s what you hear out of every spring training from every team. Everyone is going to win the World Series right now. But we’ve been getting closer and closer.”

The Marlins’ payroll has been creeping up in recent years, with a corresponding rise in the win total. Pitchers and catchers took the field to begin drills Saturday with high expectations, from team president David Samson on down.

That included such newcomers as reliever Derrick Turnbow, who hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since May 2008.

“This team always gives people fits,” Turnbow said. “They’re always making a playoff run at the end. It’s a young team with a lot of talent. I hope I can be a part of it.”

The Marlins climbed from 71 wins in 2007 to 84 to 2008 and 87 last year, when they finished six games behind league champion Philadelphia in the NL East. The core of the team returns intact, including NL batting champion Hanley Ramirez, NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan and All-Star right-hander Josh Johnson.

Payroll will top $40 million for the first time since 2005, and Samson has said a postseason berth is the expected payoff. Fredi Gonzalez returns to begin his fourth year as manager, and he shrugged off the notion higher expectations mean more pressure for the Marlins.

“The taste of going from 71 wins in ’07 and then making improvements, it’s a good experience for them to keep going,” Gonzalez said.

However, then Gonzalez said: “People don’t realize in any sport how hard it is to improve, even just three wins.”

More progress likely will be needed to crack the postseason for the first time since the Marlins won the World Series in 2003. And it’s hard to say where that improvement might be found.

The Marlins acquired not one player assured of making the roster. There are three spots to be claimed in the rotation and at least that many in the bullpen.

But with 32 pitchers in camp, president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest figures the jobs won’t go begging. He sees better pitching as the path to the playoffs.

“If we need to win an additional five to six games — because basically we need to be in the low 90s to be considered for qualification — I think we can do it with our pitching,” Beinfest said. “That’s where I think we can pick up those games — improvement in the starting pitching and consistency.”

Johnson and Ricky Nolasco are the only pitchers assured of starting jobs. Competing for the other three slots will be right-handers Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad, Rick VandenHurk and Hayden Penn, and left-handers Andrew Miller and Sean West, with none older than 25.

“You know what you’re going to get from Josh and Ricky,” second baseman Dan Uggla said. “The other kids have as high a ceiling as you can have. I think they’re mature enough that they’re going to step up and help those other two guys carry us into the postseason.”

There will be a similar scramble for spots in the bullpen. The Marlins brought in several veteran relievers trying to revive their careers, including former closers Turnbow and Mike MacDougal.

“We have a lot of guys in camp battling for jobs,” Gonzalez said. “Competition is good, not only in athletics but in the real world. It brings out the best in people.”

While position players aren’t due to report until Tuesday, several arrived early to begin working out, including Uggla, Coghlan and center fielder Cameron Maybin. All said the high expectations entering spring training were warranted, and they were eager to begin.

“It’s like, man, it has finally started,” Coghlan said. “We’re excited.”