BY GUS GARCIA-ROBERTS AND TIM ELFRINK
Boy, were we pleased when Hanley Ramirez made an empty demand for a trade earlier this spring after the team forced him to mow his cornrows.
Our joy had nothing to do with wanting to see Han-Ram go. We would sacrifice our first-born to Jeffrey Loria if we thought that might improve the chances of keeping him after free agency. We were just refreshed to finally hear some proverbial water-cooler buzz about the Marlins that didn't include the phrases "global agreement," "Norman Braman," and "Michelle Spence-Jones."
After 18 public finance meetings about the stadium proposal in which not one commissioner adjusted his/her crotch or slid headfirst into a budget easel, it's nice to have the players back, even if they are pampered prima donnas.
This past Monday, the Marlins opened the season by clobbering the Washington Nationals, which is sort of like beating up on a 12-year-old with chronic wasting disease. But it still got us thinking: Could... we... go... all... the...WAY?
Last year's edition of the Fish was one of baseball's best stories. With a combined salary equal to that of Alex Rodriguez's kneecap, the Marlins finished 84-77, third place in the NL East. Fredi Gonzalez's young team stayed in the wildcard hunt, amazingly, until the final weeks of the season (and he didn't even tell the owner to go pine-tar himself.
In 2009, the Marlins are still Winn-Dixie coupon clippers in a division flush with Whole Foods yuppies. The Fish's starting nine includes a gaggle of young players that first made it to the bigs late last year or never before. And, as usual, the team dispatched two of its successes from last year: slugging first-baseman Mike Jacobs and closer Kevin Gregg.
Add it all up, and the experts don't like what they see. The stat-geek kings at Baseball Prospectus project the Marlins to finish dead last in the National League East, behind even those lowly Nationals.
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If Riptide were a wagering kind of column, we'd put some cash on the Marlins exceeding those expectations. They've still got Supercuts Ramirez -- who, after reversing his trade demand, remains our pick for MVP this year -- and second-base powerhouse Dan Uggla, whose bargain-basement contract expires next year.
Even without Jacobs, they're going to smoke a ton of home runs. The rotation is untested but promising. Plus they picked up some useful relievers: Scott Proctor and Leo Nuñez.
Put us down for an 87-75 finish, third again in the East, and a respectable wildcard contender. You heard it here first. Unfortunately, we're also going to predict another long summer of 600-fan turnouts, thunderstorm-shortened series, and incessant screeching over the new stadium deal. Welcome to Marlins country.
Oh yeah, and what if they fall out of contention, say, before the trading deadline? We'd recommend holding off on buying your kid that Uggla jersey. We're guessing it could be hanging on the $10 rack by August.