Miami opens Marlins Park vs. champion Cards
With a new name, new uniforms, new stadium and a number of new high-priced acquisitions, the Miami Marlins feel that now is the time to contend for the NL East title.
Yet, only time will tell if new manager Ozzie Guillen will be leading a contender or the same old Marlins.
Miami opens Marlins Park on Wednesday night when the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals begin their first season since 2000 without both Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa.
After playing 19 seasons at Sun Life Stadium and sharing that facility with the NFL's Miami Dolphins and the University of Miami, the Marlins have a new, $515 million home to call their own. The 37,000-seat park just west of downtown Miami is one of the smallest stadiums in the majors, but owner Jeffrey Loria is expecting upwards of 3 million to pass through the turnstiles in 2012. That would be a significant increase from the major league-low 1.53 million that watched in Miami last year when the Florida Marlins finished 30 games back of East champion Philadelphia at a division-worst 72-90.
If the product on the field can generate the same excitement as the many bells and whistles at Marlins Park, Miami should have a successful 2012. The new ballpark has a retractable roof - the sixth in MLB - two aquariums behind home plate and a 73-foot-tall kaleidoscopic sculpture beyond the center-field wall that will launch into animation when the home team hits a home run.
"Anything your stadium can do, ours can do better," left fielder Logan Morrison wrote on his Twitter account Tuesday.
But with all this excitement leading into the franchise's 20th season, Guillen is taking a cautious approach as he returns to Miami - he was a coach on the Marlins' 2003 World Series winner - following eight seasons managing the Chicago White Sox.
"You can have a beautiful house with a beautiful view," Guillen said, "but if the people living in the house stink, it ain't going to be so beautiful."
The Marlins are hoping their offseason spending spree will prevent that from happening and lead to their first playoff appearance since the 2003 club won a championship.
Wearing the team's new rainbow logo will include shortstop Jose Reyes, the reigning NL batting champ, starters Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano, and All-Star closer Heath Bell.
Add a healthy Hanley Ramirez, who will shift to third base after missing the final two months of last season with a left shoulder injury, along with slugger Giancarlo (no longer Mike) Stanton, and Miami could challenge the Phillies' five-year run atop the division.
"When you go position by position, we're going to be able to compete with any team in the league," first baseman Gaby Sanchez said.
The Cardinals are taking that same approach into the season opener, yet expectations for the defending champs have changed due to their big-name departures. La Russa's 16-year run with the club ended soon after the Game 7 World Series victory over Texas, and Pujols, their three-time MVP, joined the Los Angeles Angels in January with a 10-year, $240 million deal.
New St. Louis manager Mike Matheny also will be without staff ace Chris Carpenter for the time being due to nerve irritation in his pitching shoulder.
"Last year, everybody pretty much discounted us after (Adam Wainwright) went down (with an elbow injury)," Wednesday's starter Kyle Lohse told the Cardinals' official website. "We had a lot of guys step up. It just shows what kind of character we have in here."
It's hard to argue with that after the Cardinals won 23 of their final 32 regular-season games in 2011 to overtake Atlanta for the wild card with a 90-72 record. St. Louis also was down to its last strike two times in Game 6 of the World Series before rallying for a 10-9, 11-inning victory and forcing a decisive game.
A big 2012 from reigning NLCS and World Series MVP David Freese could help the Cardinals get over the loss of Pujols, but he's going to need help from Matt Holliday - the team's new No. 3 hitter - and Lance Berkman, who takes over for Pujols at first base.
"You can't replace 40 home runs in the middle like Albert gives you, but despite that we still have a tough offense top to bottom," said Berkman, last season's NL comeback player of the year.
"We definitely have a chance to win more than 90 games. I would be disappointed if we didn't."
A solid April from new right fielder Carlos Beltran, Berkman's teammate in Houston in 2004, would be more than welcomed as St. Louis will be without Skip Schumaker (torn right oblique) and Allen Craig (knee) to open the season.
The Cardinals, who open a stretch of 27 straight NL Central matchups Friday in Milwaukee in a rematch of last season's NLCS, will face 2010 NL ERA leader Josh Johnson on Wednesday.
Johnson, limited to nine appearances last season due to right shoulder inflammation, will make his third consecutive opening day start for the Marlins.
"Hopefully, it's going to be loud and awesome," he told the Marlins' official website. "Opening day is opening day, but this is a little more special."
Following Wednesday's game, Miami will visit Cincinnati and the Phillies before returning home April 13 against the Astros.
St. Louis swept a four-game set Aug. 4-7 in its only trip to Miami in 2011.