Should Florida stick to Spring Training?
State has teams, players, stadium, success, but lacks support
There was Josh Johnson standing on what will be the pitching mound in what will be the Marlins' first real ballpark, and you realize that one of the best pitchers in baseball is going to be working off that mound in 2012. He's not going anywhere. Neither is Hanley Ramirez.
You appreciate the fact that the Marlins have had winning records five of the past seven seasons, and that the only National League East team to win more games the last two is the Phillies. Yes, the Fish have won 12 more games than the Mets and 13 more than the Braves in 2008 and 2009. And you think about them having a retractable roof and what that means to families driving down from Broward and Palm Beach counties and the stability it promises to a pitching staff, which, because of rain delays, has always had to have at least 12 active arms. Hey, for years, Larry Beinfest has waited until he knows the game is going to start before calling his wife to tell her it's OK to come to the park.
The Marlins have won 84 and 87 games the last two seasons, and that can be 90 and a run at the playoffs if Cameron Maybin breaks through, and if a couple of their young, talented pitchers like Andrew Miller and Chris Volstad turn the corner ... even in a division where the Phillies and Mets have two of the three highest payrolls in the National League.
Then you go anyway you like -- through Indiantown or a left at Yeehaw Junction -- and look at the Rays and see that if B.J. Upton has grown up the way they think he has, and if David Price and Wade Davis are what they may be, that even in the mega world of the Yankees and Red Sox, there's every reason to believe that this young, athletic Tampa Bay team that has been to the World Series and won 181 games the last two years can be right in the race in the AL East.
Competency is not an issue. The Marlins and Rays are two of the best-run organizations in the sport, progressive, well evaluated and imaginative.
The Marlins hope they are solving one long-term problem with their new stadium, which they believe is close enough to I-95 and the Turnpike that fans can easily access it, and that they can drive an hour knowing there will be batting practice, games and no delays.
The Rays haven't been able to solve their venue issue. The Trop is stuck in a place that no one East of Tampa -- such as the Orlando market -- will drive to; a place Peter Ueberroth once said was only suited for tractor pulls; a market such that after its team won 97 games and the American League pennant, attendance and revenues stayed flat. There are smart people in the Major League Baseball offices wondering if there's hope of even discussing a potential move of the Rays to New Jersey or Southern Connecticut over certain protests from the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Phillies.
The Marlins and Rays share a broader issue -- Florida. Yes, it's South Beach and Worth Avenue, St. Pete Beach and Siesta Key. It's also Orville Triebwasser's House of Taxidermy and Fort Lonesome, the Fossil Museum and miles and miles and miles and miles of cattle and hurricane remnants and foreclosures. It's as though people came to Florida to get away from something and somewhere else and, oh yeah, the Mets, Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox may be coming to the vicinity this season.
We know the Phillies are going to be very good again and that the Braves aren't going away and that if the Mets are at all healthy they can approach 90 wins in a heartbeat. We know that the Yankees and Red Sox have been projected to win 100-110 games by people who project those things, that the Orioles are about to be resurrected, that you can throw in two more good years from the Jays and that four teams in the AL East can draw 3 million fans and have $100M payrolls.
What we don't know is whether South Florida is really going to care about the Marlins in 2014, after the thrill is gone. Or whether the Tampa-St. Pete market is ever going to care. What we don't know is whether Florida is a Major League Baseball state.
The Marlins played in a stadium that may have had more names than the team had relievers and still scored more runs (772) and had a higher OPS (.756) than anyone in the NL East but the Phillies. They kept Dan Uggla, who Beinfest says he likes "for the toughness he brings more than the 30 homers." Cody Ross hit 25 homers. Chris Coghlan was Rookie of the Year. If the immensely talented Maybin, who hit only .250 in 2009, takes off, and either Logan Morrison or Gaby Sanchez grabs first base -- and Morrison's left-handed bat would balance the lineup -- they can be one of three or four best offensive teams in the league.
Which brings them back to their young starting pitching. Johnson is a legitimate No. 1 with his 15-5 record. But every one of the other eight potential starters had his ups and downs, and so the rotation finished with a 4.57 ERA and fewer quality starts (74) than anyone in the division other than Washington.
Ricky Nolasco finished 13-9 but had an ERA over 5.00 and got into such a funk that he was sent back to the Minors. Volstad finished 9-13, 5.21. Miller was 3-5, Anibal Sanchez 4-8, Sean West had a 4.79 ERA, Rick VandenHurk 4.30. There should be three or four legitimate starters out of that eight, and if there are, the Marlins will be in the race for the Wild Card, at the least.
Then go to the AL East, scroll past the Yankees and Red Sox and there are the Rays, who'd be the favorites in the AL Central. They were fifth in the AL in run differential, runs, homers and OPS, and first in steals. They picked up Kelly Shoppach to be their regular catcher. They picked up Rafael Soriano to give them a regular at the back of the pen.
They can pressure mediocre defenses. They can hit home runs. Ben Zobrist should have been in the top five in the MVP vote, after finishing fourth in the AL in OPS and seventh slugging while starting at seven different positions, including the two in the middle of the infield. All-Star hero Carl Crawford and AL home run co-champion Carlos Pena are in their free-agent years, so they're fired up. They'll look at Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac at second, or they can play Zobrist at second and try Matt Joyce, Fernando Perez, Gabe Kapler and maybe even Desmond Jennings in right.
Offensively, one of their biggest keys is Upton. Two years ago in the postseason, he hit seven homers in 16 games and mashed a .985 OPS. But nothing seemed right in 2009, and the .241 average, .313 on-base percentage and .686 OPS were, by his admission, an underachievement. "I think he was embarrassed," says Andrew Friedman. "He's worked like crazy all winter."
Hey, Upton is 25. He was coming off a shoulder injury. Whatever, this winter he has shown hitting coach Derek Shelton more range of motion, more length and lift through the hitting zone, as well as a diligent work ethic.
Put a productive Upton in with Evan Longoria, Crawford, Pena, Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, et al, and the Rays can climb further toward the offensive elite.
The focus Joe Maddon, pitching coach Jim Hickey and Friedman have put forth is that their five starters -- James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, Price and Davis -- all throw 200 innings, a goal they've been carefully raised to reach. Garza, Shields and Niemann were but 32-30 last year, an underachievement because of Garza's 8-12 season. Price finished 6-3 the last two months of the season and now is past the weight of unfair expectations, while Davis has the stuff of a front-line starter and demonstrated unusual maturity in good and bad starts the final month. One scout who saw him a half-dozen times last season predicts "he will be a star in his first full season."
The Rays could be one of the three best teams in the American League and not make the playoffs. They could also be in the playoffs, and there are no indications that the Tampa area will embrace them. "They're as much fun to watch as any team in the league," says another AL East GM. "It's inexplicable as to why they aren't the toast of the area."
But they are not. They can reach the World Series for the second time in three years, and they know Crawford still won't be around in 2011. And if they're eight to 10 games out come June 15, Crawford will almost certainly be marketed to big revenue teams.
Florida has Ramirez, Johnson, Maybin, Longoria, Crawford, Price, Zobrist, Upton and two of the best front offices. Still, there are times when one thinks that maybe they should move a couple of Interleague games to Yeehaw Junction, because if Major League Baseball can't succeed in Florida with these players, these organizations and a real stadium with a retractable roof in Miami, then maybe Florida should stick to Spring Training and Kevin O'Sullivan's Gators and let the big leagues move to where the snowbirds came from, in the first place.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.