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Veteran imports key to Miami Marlins turnaround

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The first chapter of the 2014 MLB season has been written and with two games into May, the Miami Marlins are 15-14 and appear as world-beaters in Marlins Park. The Marlins are so powerful in the "Blood Diamond", not even Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and 2003 World Series hero Josh Beckett could stop their momentum on Friday.

At home, the Marlins are 13-2 and have scored 105 runs, both numbers tops all in baseball. Yet they are 2-12 on the road and have scored a league low 32 runs.

This season, the Marlins are going through the best of time and the worst of times, all in one month. This Jackal-Hyde squad is the best team in baseball and the worst team in baseball. It all depends on what color pants they wear on a given day.

But at least they’re experiencing good times. They got their 15th win on the second day of May. The 2013 Marlins got their 15th victory in June. It took the hyped up, Ozzie Guillen led 2012 Marlins five more days to get win number 15.

What makes this Marlins team better than ever since moving into their new ballpark is the group of veterans that general manager Dan Jennings and head of baseball ops Mike Hill brought over during the offseason. Every one of their veteran free agent acquisitions has had a major impact in the transformation of the franchise.

“The game is a game of experience,” veteran outfielder Reed Johnson said. “So the more at-bats and the more experience you have, the better player you can become. I feel like I’ve become a better player every single year. I’ve learned certain weaknesses about my game and have been able to fix those things and if you can share those with a player, especially a 21-22-year-old player and give them those experiences that you’ve basically created over the last 12 years, you’ve basically advanced his career.”

When it comes to the new veteran-laiden culture in the Marlins clubhouse, approach is the name of the game. The Marlins also made a change in hitting coaches after the Tino Martinez debacle symbolized their 2013 season and it evidently paid off.

“That’s why I think Frank Menechino is so good,” Johnson said. “He’s not hell bent on mechanics. He likes to talk approach. He likes to talk about what a pitcher can and can’t do, whether or not he can throw to one side of the plate or the other. That way as you’re going up there for you’re at-bat you can narrow it down to one side of the plate, one pitch, and suddenly you job becomes that much easier.”

This Marlins team reminds Johnson of the 2008 Chicago Cubs team who surrounded their star power with competent, high character veterans such as Mark DeRosa and Jim Edmonds and himself and went into the postseason with the best regular season record in the National League. However, this team seems more comparable to the Boston Red Sox who went from worst to first in 2013 by supplementing their core with veterans that can hold their own and keep the team above water.

Third baseman Casey McGehee has gone from playing in Japan to being the Marlins leader in batting average (.312) and smartest under the radar signing since Jorge Cantu. First baseman Garrett Jones started slow but has hit .368 with three home runs and seven RBIs in the last ten games. And the anchor of the group, the South Florida native veteran catcher of the 2013 World Series Champion Red Sox who signed a three-year deal to return home, leads the team with a 1.011 OPS and is among the top 5 in the National League.

Their presence has also helped and as Johnson said, advanced the careers of the Marlins young core. A healthy Giancarlo Stanton leads baseball with 33 RBIs. Outfielders Marcel Ozuna and Christian Yelich, as well as shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, are all hitting over .280.

Second baseman Derek Dietrich’s stats don’t necessarily look good right now but has a .932 OPS against right-handed pitchers. When veteran infielder Rafael Furcal finally returns from the disabled list and makes his first appearance since 2012, the switch hitter should platoon with Dietrich to put them both in the right position at second base.

“We need that leadership cause we have a great group of young guys who can really play and are really talented,” Dietrich said. “Combine that with the veteran leadership that we have now with that talent, it’s a recipe for success.“

“Part of it is recognizing how good you are,” Johnson said. “A lot of these guys in the clubhouse, a lot of younger players know how good they are and they need these veteran players to come in and reassure that for them.

“If you look at our lineup from top to bottom,” he continued, “and we might not wow you with the names we’re putting out there and the stats we’re gonna put out there, but I guarantee you that you’re not going to find a group of guys in the big leagues that are going to fight harder and fight you harder. In the end of the day, we might lose, but we’re going to continue to get up and continue to fight. That’s why you’ve seen a couple of comeback victories already this year and we’re doing basically the complete opposite of this team did last year which was struggle offensively.”

Because Marlins Park seems to be the source of the Marlins’ power at this point of the season, the public does not seem ready to give this team the collective vote of confidence. That’s okay because team has no problem earning the respect they long for.

“There’re certain teams that I’ve been on in the past where you doubt those teams and all the naysayers start coming out and it makes you just rise to the occasion,” Johnson said.

After they take care of the Dodgers and Mets at home, they’ll have another chance to exercise their road demons in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. If they can’t win in the east coast, how about try to win in the west coast?

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