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.”