If pitching wins, who tops the Marlins?

If pitching wins, who tops the Marlins?

MIAMI -- Perhaps more than any team, Florida Marlins management has discovered that quality arms don't necessarily have to come at a premium price.

It's often wondered how a low-budget organization like the Marlins can repeatedly contend.

The answer is simple.

Pitching.

General manager Larry Beinfest, one of the craftiest roster architects in the game, has emphasized a basic formula for success: stockpile pitching.

"The philosophy is that pitching sets the tone," Beinfest said. "You go out there early and shut your opponent down, it changes the rhythm of the game, and you give yourself an opportunity to win."

When Beinfest became Florida's general manager in 2002, he inherited a pretty strong collection of arms that included Ryan Dempster, Matt Clement, A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny and Josh Beckett.

Although all these flamethrowers have moved on to other teams, Florida remains well-armed to compete in the tough National League East.

Dontrelle Willis, now 25, is the ace of a rotation that last season included the first foursome of rookies in MLB history to post 10 or more wins. Those four, who round out the impressive young staff, are Josh Johnson, Scott Olsen, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez, who tossed a no-hitter last Sept. 6 against Arizona.

A year ago, Marlins starters ranked third in the National League in ERA at 4.22. Compare that to the World Series champion Cardinals, who rated 12th in the NL with a 4.79 ERA. The Mets, winners of the NL East, ranked eighth at 4.67.

When Florida's pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter on Saturday, the coaching staff will instill in the starters the need to adjust.

"Big league hitters, when they see a guy for the first time, the pitcher, I believe has the advantage," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "Now, they pretty much know what they throw. It's time for us to step up. Obviously, we're going to stay with our strengths. We never go away from our strengths, and early, we're going to see what the league has and how certain teams and certain hitters try to approach us."

Kranitz has been given a great deal of credit for the maturation of the staff. A year ago, he had the daunting task in Spring Training of first evaluating who the starters might be. It was an open competition with dozens of candidates for four spots.

"Starting pitching. It's the hardest thing to find, and we talk about growing our own," Beinfest said.

Promoting from within has become a trademark of the Marlins.

To remain competitive with a low payroll, developing quality, young pitching is essential. A review of what top pitching is getting on the free agent market is proof. Consider that in an offseason in which the Giants signed lefty Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126 million deal, the Marlins projected rotation appears to be the biggest bargain in the league.

Florida's projected five starters will collectively earn $7.970 million. That's Willis at $6.45 million plus Johnson, Olsen, Sanchez and Nolasco each at $380,000.

"Pitching, I think it's so valuable," Beinfest said. "It can get very expensive with free agency. ... I think this winter demonstrated it."

The depth in the rotation has the Marlins feeling they have a collection of starters that ranks up with some of the best the game has seen in recent years. Willis, Olsen and Johnson, for instance, have the makings to rival the staff of the A's a few years ago, when Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson anchored the Oakland rotation.

Stockpiling pitching in Florida certainly has been by design.

After the 2005 season, the Marlins made drastic roster changes, trading away high-priced veterans. A number of them were pivotal parts on the 2003 World Series title team. In all, six major trades were made from Nov. 24 to Dec. 16, 2005. Of the 15 players acquired in those deals, 11 were pitchers.

Going back to 2002, Beinfest's first season with the club, the team has made more than 20 transactions. In all, 51 players were obtained in those deals, with 34 being pitchers.

Additionally, the organization leans heavily toward pitching in the annual First-Year Player Draft. In the 2002 draft, Johnson and Olsen were selected in the fourth and sixth rounds, respectively.

The 2002 draft was the only year of the current administration in which a pitcher wasn't taken by Florida in the first round.

The desire to pick pitchers was punctuated in 2005, when the team used all three of its first-round selections, plus two sandwich picks, on pitchers. In all, five pitchers were claimed before Florida made its second-round selection.

Already, scouts around the league are marveling at the 2005 class, which includes Chris Volstad, Ryan Tucker, Sean West and Aaron Thompson. And the top pick in 2006, Brett Sinkbeil, is a rising star in the Minor League ranks.

"You never have enough," Beinfest said. "I think to break ties, we'll take pitching. We believe you can, if you need, trade pitching for position players."

Beinfest's thought process to lean heavily toward pitching emerged while he was in the Seattle system in the mid-1990s.

"We had tremendous offensive teams, and we were a little light on the pitching," he said. "It was hard to win as consistently as you wanted. That's when I really started to think about that. Now this isn't a new idea, but pitching really is the catalyst if you really want to be successful consistently.

"That was really cemented when we got to this ballpark [Dolphin Stadium] and when we watched the team in '02, and we came forward in '03 with the pitching, speed and defense. It just appeared that in the National League and this ballpark, pitching was essential."

Beinfest pointed out to obtaining stars like Sanchez and Gabby Hernandez, another rising talent in the system, came at a high price. Sanchez was brought in from Boston as part of the Beckett/Mike Lowell deal. Hernandez, who has a chance to be called up during the season, was a product of the Mets' system. He came to Florida for Paul Lo Duca.

"We traded some really good players to get the pitching back," Beinfest said. "Anibal Sanchez, Gabby Hernandez and some of the players we got back, they aren't available unless you trade some parts that are premium. A year ago, we had to do that."

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