In My Opinion

Greg Cote: Even with Miami Marlins, spring can be a time of hope

gcote@MiamiHerald.comMarch 30, 2014 

When the 18th Century English poet Alexander Pope first penned the phrase “Hope springs eternal …” little could he have imagined that some 280 years later the concept would find such stubborn resistance with Miami Marlins fans.

I mean, from spring have sprung a million poems, good and bad, almost all of them seeing the season as a canvas for freshness, optimism and other good stuff. Baseball, the sport that blooms in spring, tends to get caught up in the metaphor.

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest,” wrote Ernest Hemingway.

“Where always it’s spring and everyone’s in love and flowers pick themselves,” wrote E.E. Cummings.

“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’ ” shouted Robin Williams.

Heck, in spring even Chicago Cubs fans think this could be the year!

In Miami it’s tougher. The team is coming off its second-worst record (62-100) in the franchise’s 22-year history, and if you find a baseball expert anywhere who is predicting a Marlins playoff season in 2014, chances are he was asked by his boss to take a Breathalyzer test.

In Miami it’s especially tougher to be optimistic because the club owner, Jeffrey Loria, is as unpopular and distrusted by fans as any owner in sports. When you see a wonderful new stadium built (in 2012) and still your customers are chasing you with torches and pitchforks, you are doing something wrong. In Loria’s case, it could be his propensity for penurious spending and getting rid of top players to cut costs.

But enough negativity!

It’s spring, remember!?

The new season starts fresh Monday, and if the poets have anything to say it will be a perfectly balmy Miami evening, open roof letting in ocean breezes. The downtown skyline will rise majestically under twinkling stars. Dan Marino’s ceremonial opening pitch will be a strike. Mustard will slather onto hot dogs, and the grass won’t just be green but emerald green, of course.

Ten reasons why Marlins fans, despite it all, should like this team and feel optimistic about this season:

•  1. Jose Fernandez: Miami’s opening-night starter is still only 21, and coming off a Rookie of the Year season that found him second in voting for the National League Cy Young award. He is a true phenom, electric and with enthusiasm delightfully unrestrained. He is capable of joining Marino and Dwyane Wade as South Florida sports’ greatest homegrown talent. Cuban-born and here for freedom first, fastballs second, he also is the quintessential Miami story. A year ago, Fernandez was a prospect whose spring-training locker was jammed in the middle of the clubhouse with the other minor leaguers nobody had heard of. This spring, he had a real locker. The day he reported, with a big grin on his face, he took a picture of it.

•  2. Giancarlo Stanton: Making a team-high $6.5 million this year, Stanton treated himself to a pricey, new, black Maserati. Fans should treat Stanton like one of those. Yes, he can become a free agent after 2016 and could be traded sooner, but if you have the keys to a Maserati, do you fret about how long you might have it? No. You enjoy the ride while you can. Stanton is healthy, seems happy, had a great spring. I asked him this week if he has a projected season home run total in mind. “It’s capable of being really high,” he said. If injury-free, Stanton could challenge Gary Sheffield’s 1996 club record of 42 homers.

•  3. Christian Yelich: This will be the first full big-league season for the young left fielder, a pure hitter who figures to be an early-in-the-batting-order force for the long term. The Marlins expect him to be a .300-plus hitter and a major answer to last season’s lack of run production.

•  4. The bountiful farm: Wait for the eventual call-up of Andrew Heaney, the top minor-league, left-handed pitching prospect in all of baseball. Drawing comparisons to Tom Glavine, Heaney could give the Marlins a lefty bookend to Fernandez. Justin Nicolino is another top pitching prospect waiting for his call among the stockpile of young arms. And Jake Marisnick is a promising outfielder with great speed and a great glove. (Oh, and Miami has the No. 2 overall pick in June’s draft, its highest selection since 2000. That means the Marlins are likely to get either Carlos Rodon or Tyler Kolek, both considered to be can’t-miss pitchers.)

•  5. Steve Cishek: Remember how much you hated Heath Bell in 2012? That’s how much you should love Cishek now. His 34 saves and 2.33 ERA last season made him one of the top closers in MLB.

•  6. The offseason moves: They were not flashy or splashy, but addition alone makes the lineup better: Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia coming over as a free agent from champion Boston. Miami’s catching was miserable last season, and Saltalamacchia is a huge upgrade who hit 40 doubles last season and has already proved himself a great leader and clubhouse addition. He’ll be a positive influence on a young pitching staff and provide a proven bat. Hopes also are high for new first baseman Garrett Jones, who averaged 20 home runs the past five seasons in Pittsburgh, and during that stretch spent zero days on the disabled list. (He replaces Logan Morrison, after whom the disabled list should have been named.)

•  7. The rest of the rotation: If the starting staff was Fernandez followed by Question Mark & the Mysterians you’d be worried. But Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner, Henderson Alvarez and likely fifth starter Tom Koehler round out what should be a solid rotation. Only Koehler is older than 23. Eovaldi has one of the fastest fastballs in the majors. Alvarez ended last season with a no-hitter.

•  8. Loria’s new restaurant: You wouldn’t bet how long it might last, but for now the naturally meddling Loria seems to be more of a hands-off, background owner willing to let his baseball people run the team. This is good, indeed. Oh, and Loria OK’d increased spending on scouting and player development, which was greatly needed. To also accentuate the positive on Loria — which admittedly isn’t easy — the much-criticized November 2012 fire-sale trade with Toronto that was so criticized at the time and made fans so angry … well, it has worked out better for Miami than for the Blue Jays. “Yeah, I think so, actually,” even Stanton, an initial critic, said in agreement this week.

•  9. Front-office upgrade: There is fresh blood in place of an old Marlins front-office regime that eroded into dysfunction. Harvard grad Michael Hill was promoted from general manager to president of baseball operations, and he seems sharp. Dan Jennings, Hill’s replacement, is a member of the scouts hall of fame. If the supposedly new-and-improved Loria (see above) leaves them alone, smart personnel moves could follow.

•  10. Anything-is-possible trend: The Red Sox won the World Series last season after finishing last in the AL East the year before. The Pirates ended a 21-year playoff drought last year. The Orioles ended a 15-season drought the year before. The notion of Miami contending for a postseason berth a year after being in the NL East cellar should not be seen at preposterous by anybody paying attention. “Boston just did it,” Saltalamacchia said after signing here in reference to the worst-to-first possibility. “Why not Miami?”

Those three words might in time seem a foreboding question, but for now they may be said as an exclamation.

See, it’s spring!

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