New stadium brings different approach for Marlins

USA Today

JUPITER, Fla. — Josh Johnson was 15-5 for the Florida Marlins last season. But the numbers from the 26-year-old right-handed pitcher that say more about the future of the team are four and 39.

“It’s definitely a positive thing,” says Johnson, who emerged as the ace of the staff last year, his first full season after 2007 Tommy John surgery.

Positive describes his recovery, his pitching performance and the fact that he signed a four-year, $39 million contract in January.

With a new stadium on the horizon for 2012, the Marlins are changing a longtime cycle of building winning teams and then trading away key players before they hit free agency or, in many cases, arbitration eligibility.

In addition to having their best pitcher under contract two years beyond free agent eligibility, the Marlins’ best offensive player, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, has a six-year, $70 million deal, signed in May 2008.

It’s something not lost in the clubhouse.

“I think the players feel better,” manager Fredi Gonzalez says. “Hopefully, that shows on the field. Little by little, they see it, that they can spend a long time here. It used to be: play three years and get traded. That’s important for the community, too.”

That’s all part of the formula. The Marlins have two World Series championships since 1997 but have been last in the National League in attendance the past four seasons and not higher than 14th in any of the past 11 years, including the 2003 championship season.

The stadium is being counted on to change that. Johnson’s contract is backloaded with $27.5 million to be paid in the half of his deal after the ballpark opens. Same for Ramirez, who will get $46.5 million in the three years after the move.

The other part of the equation is winning, and the Marlins are well on the way after moving from fifth to third to second place in the NL East over the past three seasons.

Only 27-year-old Ricky Nolasco, a combined 28-17 the past two seasons, is older than Johnson in a rotation that’s still under construction. But Johnson sees similarities to 2006, when he and Nolasco were rookies and were among five 24-or-younger pitchers who won 10 or more games.

“We need to have quality starts, and I don’t mean that six-inning thing,” Johnson says. “I mean real quality starts. One guy does, then the next guy, then the next guy. You feel like you’ve got to keep up. That’s what happened in ’06.”

Anibal Sanchez, a leading contender for one of the other three spots in this season’s rotation, was 10-3 as a 22-year-old in ’06 before surgery the next year for a torn labrum. Now, he’s is a mix with Chris Volstad, Sean West, Rick VandenHurk and Hayden Penn — all 25 or younger.

“It starts with the starting pitching,” Johnson says. “We’ve had our ups and downs and learned from our mistakes.”

But it doesn’t end with the starting pitching.

Ramirez, 26, is the NL batting champion and coming off a career-best 106-RBI year. He has 103 home runs and 164 stolen bases in his first four seasons. Left fielder Chris Coghlan, 24, is NL rookie of the year. And the influx continues.

The Marlins probably will have a rookie at first base, as long as Gaby Sanchez or Logan Morrison has a strong enough spring to claim the job.

Cameron Maybin, acquired from the Detroit Tigers in 2007 in one of the past trades of young stars (Miguel Cabrera that time), is expected to be center fielder on opening day, a day after his 23rd birthday.

Maybin is an accomplished offensive player, with a .302 average during four minor league seasons and is what Gonzalez calls, “not a finished product.

“We’ve seen an improvement in his defense from last year, his break on balls,” says Gonzalez, adding that Maybin’s defense is far from weak enough to jeopardize his spot in the lineup. “He’s always caught up (to balls) because of his speed.”

That’s just one of the pieces necessary for the young Marlins to catch the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. 

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