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Marlins Spring Training preview
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01/30/2003 7:24 pm ET 
Marlins Spring Training preview
Speed, pitching and defense the focus for 2003
By Joe Frisaro / MLB.com

The closer role heading into Spring Training belongs to Braden Looper. (Denis Poroy/AP)
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MIAMI -- Forgive Marlins manager Jeff Torborg for not curbing his enthusiasm when discussing the upcoming season.

Upbeat by nature, Torborg is especially ecstatic over a series of offseason acquisitions that has raised the manager's optimism in 2003.

"I'm very excited for Spring Training to start," said Torborg, who sees a brighter season than the 79-83 fourth-place finish of a year ago. "I really like our chances."

For the first time since the dismantling of the 1997 World Series squad, the Marlins actually had a hot stove season. General manager Larry Beinfest and the front office were among the most active and creative teams, structuring innovative deals with an eye on being fiscally responsible.

complete coverage: spring training 2003

When the ink had dried on the new contracts, the Marlins' payroll zoomed in the neighborhood of $52 million, about $4 million more than originally budgeted.

The Marlins got the green light to increase payroll when owner Jeffrey Loria dipped into other business resources and used $10 million to sign 10-time All-Star and Gold Glove winning catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez.

    Ivan Rodriguez  /  C
Height: 5'9"
Weight: 218
Bats/Throws: R/R

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Critics squawked at the signing, questioning the logic of the cost-conscious Marlins dropping $10 million on a catcher three years removed from his best season and bitten by injury problems. Plus, there is no guarantee of re-signing Rodriguez after 2003.

Torborg dismisses the detractors and praises the move.

"This is a great situation for us," he says. "No way is this a negative. I think it shows a commitment from Jeffrey."

Proclaiming to be healthy, Rodriguez will enter Spring Training a trim 218 pounds. At the same time last year, he was 230 pounds, adding weight because he was coming off knee surgery and wasn't able to condition the way he would have liked in the offseason.

Rodriguez will be counted on to work with a young, hard-throwing pitching staff, which will be the key to the team's success.

Beinfest has repeatedly said that the Marlins will contend if the starters perform up to expectations. Although each has spent time on the disabled list, ace A.J. Burnett (elbow), Josh Beckett (blister) and Brad Penny (biceps) are hard-throwers with vast potential.

"We are going to move the staff along slowly in Spring Training," Torborg said. "They are now a year older and a year more experienced."

    A.J. Burnett   /   P
Height: 6'5"
Weight: 205
Bats/Throws: R/R

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Speaking of Burnett and Beckett, Torborg says: "Those two guys potentially can be 15-to-20 game winners [this season]. And Brad, if he's healthy, could be close."

The staff will shoulder a great deal of the weight of bringing Florida a successful season. The rotation adds lefty Mark Redman, formerly with the Tigers, and setup man Tim Spooneybarger, the ex-Brave who someday could become the closer.

Unlike a year ago, Braden Looper enters Spring Training knowing he is the closer. That wasn't the case in 2002 when Antonio Alfonseca was still with the club.

The additions of Rodriguez, outfielders Juan Pierre and Todd Hollandsworth, Redman and Spooneybarger have the Marlins feeling they can keep pace in the suddenly balanced National League East.

"People ask if we're concerned," Beinfest said of moves made by division rivals the Braves, Mets and Phillies. "Some of our rivals should be concerned because our lineup is formidable."

On the heels of pitchers and catchers reporting Feb. 15 in Jupiter, Fla., Torborg has scratched out a number of possible Opening Day lineups. While saying nothing is set in stone, he envisions his first lineup card to read as follows:

2B Luis Castillo
CF Juan Pierre
C Pudge Rodriguez
1B Derrek Lee
3B Mike Lowell
RF Juan Encarnacion
LF Todd Hollandsworth
SS Alex Gonzalez/Andy Fox

"Four through seven can change daily," Torborg notes of his highly-tentative order.

The restocked roster is minus several popular players who have moved to other teams or another country. Kevin Millar, who led the team with a .306 average last year, has signed with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan, while center fielder Preston Wilson and catcher Charles Johnson were traded to the Rockies. Outfielder Eric Owens has signed with the Angels and Tim Raines retired after 21 seasons.

The club's identity will be speed, pitching and defense.

By a wide margin, the Marlins' 177 stolen bases last season were the most in the Major Leagues. And the league's fastest team got even faster with the fleet-footed Pierre, who swiped 47 bases.

    Todd Hollandsworth   /   OF
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 207
Bats/Throws: L/L

More info:
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But overall, is there enough power, especially lefty pop? Hollandsworth is the only left-hander in the lineup with 20-home run potential. Lee led the team with 27 homers last year as he looks to have a breakout 35-to-40 homer season.

The health of Gonzalez remains a concern since he only played in 42 games due to a separated left shoulder.

If Gonzalez plays every day, Fox goes back to being a super sub, which would certainly strengthen the bench. Versatile veteran Mike Mordecai returns and the outfield depth will include Gerald Williams, Abraham Nunez and Brian Banks.

The plan right now is to again keep three catchers, with Mike Redmond and Ramon Castro providing relief for Rodriguez, who has averaged 103 games the last three seasons.

With a surplus of catchers, a trade certainly remains possible before Opening Day. But the Marlins are not pressured to move salary.

"What we've done this offseason is cut down on our strikeouts," Torborg said. "We've added more speed, and I believe our defense is as good as anyone in the National League."

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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