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Gonzalez out to reverse Florida fortunes

Gonzalez out to reverse Florida fortunes

JUPITER, Fla. -- Being part of a building process is challenging, frustrating and rewarding all wrapped up in one.

For that reason, manager Fredi Gonzalez faces a difficult yet appealing situation in his second season in Florida.

The 44-year-old went through a feeling-out process in a tough-luck 2007. Injuries crippled the starting rotation early, and the team never was able to sustain any consistency. The end result was a disheartening 71-91 record and last-place finish in the National League East.

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To Gonzalez, the quickest way to reverse the misfortunes of a year ago is for the young players to learn from their mistakes while taking additional steps toward making the team a serious contender.

Raised in Miami, Gonzalez is in his second stint with the Marlins. He previously managed in Florida's Minor League system, and he also coached the Marlins at the Major League level.

In addition, from 2003 to 2006, he was Bobby Cox's third-base coach with the Braves, a stint that prepared him for his first Major League managerial job.

Gonzalez is in a rough spot because he is managing a team that has limited economic resources. Once again the Marlins will rank at or near the bottom in player payroll, and the squad remains very young. There also are numerous questions regarding the rotation, which has health and lack-of-experience issues.

Yet Gonzalez, his staff and the organization remain committed to restoring the Marlins to the glory of their 2003 championship season. It may take some time, but the pieces are in place to make the squad respectable in 2008 and strong in the seasons afterward.

Gonzalez recently spent some time with MLB.com to address what is expected from the team in 2008.

MLB.com: You have so many young players. What are you looking for in their continued development?

Gonzalez: I want to see our young players defensively make better decisions. We talked about this in our meetings. We are telling them, "Don't get so wrapped up in the game that you are making poor decisions that cost the team. You are costing yourself errors, and costing extra bases [to opposing runners] and extra outs." I think that comes with maturity and playing at the big league level, where every out is important.

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MLB.com: Do you feel that some players have tried to do too much, especially defensively?

Gonzalez: The plays you see on ESPN, don't try to make them. Those plays come one out of 100. Make the routine play. As a team, we're looking for the routine ground ball to an infielder. You've got to get an out.

MLB.com: Offensively, what improvements are you hoping to see this lineup make?

Gonzalez: In our situational hitting, I'm looking for us to move the runners. With runners on third and less than two outs, get the runner in. Let's get the ground ball and get the guy in. I want us to keep getting better that way.

MLB.com: Last year you were feeling out this team, and guys were still getting their feet wet in the big leagues. What are the steps you are hoping to see to get this team winning consistently?

Gonzalez: The object is to win, and you have to do all that, all the little things, to become a winner. To win consistently in the big leagues, you have to move the runners and make smart decisions.

MLB.com: What encourages you the most when you look at the talent of this roster?

Gonzalez: I'm really impressed with our young pitching, and it is getting closer to the Major League level. Last year we had some problems in the middle of the year because of injuries, and we had a gap there. Our young guys weren't close to the big league level. Now I think our young pitchers are closer to the Major League level and closer to being able to compete at the Major League level. That's encouraging.

MLB.com: What are the toughest things that weigh on your mind in dealing with pitchers?

Gonzalez: The hardest thing, for me, when you are going with a young pitching staff, is them wearing down. We experienced that a little bit last year with [Rick] VandenHurk and [Sergio] Mitre. We had [Josh Johnson] get hurt. When you lose the innings, those 200-plus you count on from starters, those are the things you've got to be careful of with a young pitching staff.

MLB.com: One of the best managers at working with his pitching staff is Cox. You were with Bobby all those years in Atlanta. What are some of the things he told you, or you picked up, dealing closely with him?

Gonzalez: He takes care of those pitchers. That's what wins games. He would say, "Pay attention to when they come into the dugout." ... Another thing with Bobby, he is big on keeping the rotation in line, making sure the starters get their next turn. So he would watch how they were going to make sure they could go again in five days.

MLB.com: You obviously want your starters to go deep into games, to get through the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. What do you look for to get them to last longer in games?

Gonzalez: [Pitching coach] Mark Wiley and [2007 pitching coach Rick Kranitz] are experienced guys, and they do a good job looking at the starters. I want those pitchers to get through those situations and prove to you that they can. For the most part, unless the pitch count is ridiculous, we're going to push those guys to get through those innings. You can't keep going out there and getting them every time they get into a little bit of trouble. You don't want what happened last year, where you keep counting on your bullpen. We're going to see if those guys can get through those innings.

MLB.com: I imagine that you want guys prepared to go nine innings. You at least want them thinking about a complete game.

Gonzalez: Absolutely. We want a complete game. I was reading an Earl Weaver book, and in one of the chapters, he talks about going with eight or nine pitchers on his entire staff [with Baltimore 30 years ago]. To him it was more important for him to have an extra position player than to have a 10th pitcher, because that pitcher never pitched back in that era. But he also had guys like Jim Palmer. I don't know if we'll ever get to the point where we are going to carry 10 guys, but sure, I'd like to be able to have two or three guys in that rotation where the bullpen says, 'Hey, we're taking a breather today.' The [Josh] Becketts of the world. Those types of guys, where the bullpen says, 'We might get up in the ninth.'

MLB.com: You lost an innings-eater in Dontrelle Willis, but do you still have a number of young pitchers capable of becoming big-time players?

Gonzalez: I think so. We've got arms, quality arms. Now it's about getting them through the middle of the games and keeping that pitch count down. But we've got the talent.

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

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