Marlins look to build on surprising '06

Marlins look to build on surprising '06 campaign

MIAMI -- Unknowns for the most part last year, the youthful Marlins still expect to be treated like underdogs when Spring Training opens on Feb. 17.

Arguably the biggest surprise of 2006, Florida sported the youngest and, by far, the lowest payroll in the league. Showing that inexperience is not an excuse for failure, the squad that used 23 rookies before the September callup period remained in Wild Card contention until the final few weeks.

Although Florida finished at 78-84, many league insiders forecasted far worse. Common logic projected more than 100 losses.

For all the feel-good stories of a year ago, there is still much room for improvement.

Once again, the Marlins open Spring Training at Roger Dean Stadium with a comparatively inexperienced and inexpensive roster. The backbone of the franchise is starting pitching, and that's what the team is building around now and into the future.

Brash lefty Scott Olsen typifies the spirit and no-surrender style of the squad. So when asked what the opinion of the league will be toward the 2007 Marlins, Olsen predicts the team will be treated like a long shot.

"I still think everybody thinks we'll end up doing bad," said Olsen, who was 12-10 with a 4.04 ERA and a team-high 166 strikeouts in 2006. "I don't think anybody expects us to do good.

"I think that's what people are going to be saying in Spring Training. 'Oh, they can't do it again.' We did it last year in spite of what everybody thought. So we have to go out and do it again."

Guarding against a "sophomore slump" will be among the team's biggest challenges.

In order to avoid going into a slide, new manager Fredi Gonzalez says the players must learn to adjust.

"Everybody has a little history," Gonzalez said. "Now, they need to make adjustments."

Gonzalez is not putting any undue pressure on his team. He understands an abundance of youth is on the roster, and more growing pains are likely.

A year ago, manager Joe Girardi openly told the team the goal was to reach the World Series. Regardless of age or lack of experience, Girardi made it clear in meetings and to the media that winning the title is why you play the game.

Gonzalez has no plans on talking World Series in Spring Training, although the goal of winning certainly is understood. Instead, when Gonzalez addresses the team at the start of camp, a main message will center on preparation.

If players are prepared, and they conduct their business properly, winning will take care of itself.

"I'll tell them, if you hit 28 home runs last year, it's OK if you hit 22. Nobody is asking you to hit 30," Gonzalez said. "Or if you're a pitcher and you won 12 games last year, you don't have to go out and win 18.

"Preparation must continue not only for this year, but throughout their careers. That's one of the things I'll stress in Spring Training."

Critics will contend the league may not have been prepared for the 2006 Marlins. A natural letdown may have occurred for opponents, especially in light of Florida's 11-31 start. By mid-May, it appeared the team's season was over.

But just when it seemed the Marlins had hit rock bottom, they battled back through adversity. Miguel Cabrera enjoyed a stellar season, setting a franchise season record with his .339 batting average. Hanley Ramirez went on to be named National League Rookie of the Year and Dan Uggla made the All-Star team.

As impressive as a number of position players were, the big reason why the wins started piling up was pitching.

The maturity of rookie starters Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Olsen and Anibal Sanchez spearheaded the turnaround. Collectively, they became the first foursome of rookies in league history to post double-digit victories.

Dontrelle Willis, the ace and veteran of the staff, matched Olsen and Johnson for a team-high 12 wins.

Generally speaking, pitchers hold a natural advantage over hitters in first-time showdowns. So now the young Marlins pitchers must show they can adapt to the changes hitters will make.

"We'll know the hitters more, but they'll know us more, too," Olsen said. "I don't know if there is an advantage going into a second year, at all."

Olsen isn't bashful saying what the goals for the entire starting staff should be.

"I want all of us to get 20 wins, that's what I want," Olsen said. "I think a goal for our rotation is everybody should try to go out and win 15, and hopefully a couple of guys can get 20. That would be outstanding. I think with a full year [of experience], we've got a shot."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.