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Expansive Hopes for Future : Marlins, Rockies to Struggle, but Have Youth on Their Side

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Colorado Rockies approach their National League debut next Monday, they no longer require the name tags that pitcher Bryn Smith gave his 62 new teammates during the first week of spring training.

The identity crisis is over.

The Rockies and the Florida Marlins, their expansion brethren, all know each other by name now.

History indicates that they might wish they didn’t. History indicates that anonymity can be a blessing for expansion players.

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Each of the 10 previous expansion teams lost at least 90 games, and five lost 100 or more. The average first-year record is 59-103.

No one associated with the Rockies or the Marlins is making any predictions, but if expansion is best measured by the numbers, consider these--or what do you expect for a $95-million entry fee and another $40 million or so in start-up costs?

--The Rockies’ probable rotation of David Nied, Alan Ashby, Bruce Ruffin, Butch Henry and Smith had a cumulative major league record of 15-20 last year, and only Henry spent the entire season in the majors.

--Injuries have made it difficult for the Marlins to project a rotation, but this much is certain: Of the 27 pitchers they started with, you could pick any five and come up with only 14 major league victories last season. Charlie Hough won seven games, Jack Armstrong won six--he is 14-34 since starting the 1990 All-Star game for the National League--and Richie Lewis won one. Hough and Armstrong probably will be joined in the rotation by Ryan Bowen, 0-7 at the major league level last season, and Chris Hammond, acquired last weekend from the Cincinnati Reds, with whom he was 7-10 in 1992.

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--The Rockies’ probable lineup of first baseman Andres Galarraga, second baseman Eric Young, shortstop Fred Benivedes, third baseman Charlie Hayes, left fielder Jerald Clark, center fielder Alex Cole, right fielder Dante Bichette and catcher Joe Girardi totaled 42 major league home runs last year, an average of six per player, but as manager Don Baylor says, “I’m more worried about ERAs than HRs.”

--Orestes Destrades, a 30-year-old Cuban, will bat cleanup and play first base for the Marlins, whose lineup also includes Bret Barberie at second base, Walt Weiss at shortstop, Dave Magadan at third base, Benito Santiago at catcher, Jeff Conine in left field, Chuck Carr in center field and Junior Felix in right field. Destrades hit 154 homers in his last 3 1/2 seasons in Japan, but has hit fewer in the big leagues than Hough, who has one.

None of that has dampened the enthusiasm of fans in South Florida or the Rocky Mountains, nor is the reborn Santiago, signed as a free agent by the Marlins, dissuaded from jabbing the San Diego Padres, his former team.

“It’s kind of sad, they had so much talent there,” he said of the Padres’ turnover. “I think (the Marlins) are a better team than San Diego now.”

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The Marlins have sold 19,000 season tickets. The Rockies have sold 26,000 season tickets and 2.6 million tickets in all. They have put up 4,000 auxiliary seats at Mile High Stadium and expect to draw 80,000 for the April 9 home opener, topping the mark set in 1958 by the Dodgers when they played their first game in Los Angeles against the San Francisco Giants at the Coliseum and drew 78,672.

“This franchise is important to an entire mountain area,” said Baylor, making his managerial debut with the Rockies. “I’d like to set new standards.”

While refusing to define those standards, he presumably meant surpassing the first-year expansion record of 70-91 by the 1961 Angels, and performing at the level of a more experienced team. “We want to be able to throw strikes and catch the ball,” said Jerry Royster, former Dodger infielder and minor league manager who will be Baylor’s third base coach.

“None of us want to be part of something that looks sloppy. A good year would be if we went out and played like a team that had been together for a while and worked up to a more competitive and contending level by the time we go into the new stadium (Coors Field in 1995). I mean, this is so different (from) the expansions of the 1960s and ‘70s. None of those teams cost $95 million and drew 3 million (fans) from the start. We just can’t look bad.”

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If that compounds the pressure, the Rockies and the Marlins, unlike previous expansion teams, were able to build from several sources and on the surface are younger and stronger than those previous teams. The average age of the 36 players drafted by the Rockies was 24.5, by the Marlins 24.3.

“I was with the ’62 Mets, and there’s no comparison,” said Don Zimmer, who is in his 44th spring training and will be Baylor’s bench coach.

“That was a group of veteran, older players on the downslide. This is a group of younger players who may be more inexperienced, but have greater potential. You don’t know what to expect, but I don’t buy it when people say we’ll automatically lose 100 games. There’s no dominant teams. Everything has been watered down.”

Said Bob Gebhard, the Colorado general manager: “We want to make ’93 as good as it can be without losing sight of the big picture. We’re not going to force-feed our younger players simply to be successful this season. I can be satisfied with hard, aggressive play and constant improvement.

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“I’ve told our ownership that the way to build is through sound scouting and a good minor league system. Toronto and Kansas City are the model expansion franchises and both built with young players, yet how long did it take them to reach .500? I mean, I’m not putting a timetable on it.

“We don’t have to worry about attracting fans. We probably have a two-year honeymoon in that regard. Then we go into the new stadium, and that should extend (the honeymoon) for a couple of years.”

The Kansas City Royals reached .500 in three years, the Toronto Blue Jays in seven. The Rockies and the Marlins were awarded their franchises in November of 1991 and had more than a year to organize and scout every player in baseball. They were the first expansion teams eligible to draft from both the American and National leagues, and the first to sign players from both the major and minor league free-agent markets. They also took part in the Rule V draft of unprotected minor leaguers and were the first to participate in every round of the June amateur draft in their first year.

Said John Schuerholz, general manager of the Atlanta Braves: "(The Rockies and the Marlins) have a chance to start off stronger, but I’m not sure what that says. I mean, I think they can be respectable, but I don’t think they can be competitive in the context of a 162-game season, primarily because of pitching.”

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Gebhard agreed, saying that pitching is the obvious concern for both expansion teams. He brought 36 pitchers to the Colorado camp, including Darren Holmes, who was drafted from the Milwaukee Brewers and will serve as the closer for the uncertain rotation despite having only nine saves in his career.

The rotation?

“I’m not sure I can give you five names etched in stone, but for an expansion team it may take three years or more to etch five names in stone,” Gebhard said.

One name is etched. The Rockies will build their pitching around Nied, their No. 1 selection in the expansion draft. The 24-year-old right-hander was 3-0 in six games with the Braves last season and was 32-12 the last two years, starting in Class A. He will pitch the Colorado opener and was exposed to the Rocky Mountain high when he appeared at a downtown Denver hall during a draft-day open house that drew 20,000.

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“It’s amazing,” Nied said the other day. “I’ve never had my adrenaline flow like that. It’s as if my whole life changed in one day. I mean, it’s exciting, but I kind of want to say, ‘Look, I’m not John Elway. I’m not a savior. I’ve had a cup of coffee in the majors is all. I’m still a rookie. Give me the latitude to fail now and then.’ ”

Fans might have to be reminded that patience is a virtue.

Baylor already knows it. Gebhard said it was one reason he was hired as manager, along with his reputation as a tough and aggressive player who holds the major league record for being hit by pitches. “If Don Baylor gets 25 players to play the way he did, we’re going to be an interesting club,” Gebhard said.

Said Baylor: “We’re not going to be the type of team that can sit back and wait for the home run because we don’t have anyone who can (hit homers) consistently. We’re going to be a doubles and triples type team, and I think we can surprise people in that regard, but we have to be aggressive and fundamentally sound.

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“Nothing will come easy for us. I’ve had to do a lot more teaching than I expected. There are things I’ve had to remind them about every day.”

That’s the way it is with expansion teams, although the Rockies actually have more experience, along with their youth, than anticipated. Gebhard cited Hayes at third, Clark in left and Girardi behind the plate, all selected in the expansion draft. He traded for Bichette on draft day and used inexpensive free agents such as Galarraga and pitcher Smith to fill the cracks.

The Rockies’ payroll--for both major and minor leaguers--is about $11 million.

The Marlins will also attempt to build from within, but are looking for a quicker return. They will pay about $11 million to five players alone in 1993: Santiago received a two-year contract for $7.2 million as a free agent; Destrades returned from Japan with a two-year deal for $3.5 million; Hough and Magadan, signed as free agents, will receive base salaries of $800,000, and Bryan Harvey, guaranteed $10.75 million over the next three years, was acquired in the expansion draft.

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Because the Marlins probably won’t have that many games to save, Harvey might be traded to a contender, with the Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies reportedly the most interested once Harvey has re-established the soundness of his elbow. Manager Rene Lachemann said the Marlins would do what’s best for the organization, but that he hoped Harvey would stay.

“Our intention in drafting Bryan was to win the games we’re in position to win,” Lachemann said. “Nothing takes more out of a club mentally than to lose late-inning leads, especially a young club. It becomes a disease. The players start to think, ‘Well, how will we lose today?’ There tends to be some of that with an expansion team anyway, and I don’t want to build on it.’ ”

Lachemann spent the last six years as coach for the Oakland Athletics under Tony La Russa. He previously managed the Seattle Mariners and the Brewers, learning a painful lesson about predictions that he now avoids.

“I went to Milwaukee and told the media how nice it was to be in a situation where we would win 90 to 100 games rather than losing 90 to 100 as we had in Seattle,” he said. “Unfortunately, when I was sitting there in September with 94 losses, I knew I wouldn’t be back and that I should keep my mouth shut in the future.”

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Lachemann said he learned another lesson from La Russa. “All Tony asks and all I ask is that they play the game hard and play it right,” he said. “Do that, and you’ve got a chance to win. It’s particularly critical with a team short on ability.”

The Marlins are shortest in starting pitching.

Hough, 45, will work next Monday’s opener against the Dodgers in Miami. The knuckleballer said he expects this year or next to be his last. He says that the resources and ability of the Marlin management, combined with the talent of the younger players selected in the expansion and June drafts, will produce comparatively quick rewards.

“We’re not going to contend, threaten or win it all while I’m here, but I don’t expect it to be terribly long before this is a very good team,” he said.

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The checkbook of owner Wayne Huizenga, who operates the Blockbuster video chain and the world’s largest waste disposal company, casts a long shadow, and he is believed ready to spend when the Marlins reach a point where they need only one or two more players.

In the meantime, can Destrades maintain his Far East groove in the National League East? Can Weiss, who sat out 309 games because of injuries during his last five years in Oakland, stay sound enough to give the Marlins stability at shortstop? Can Conine, the UCLA product who was once a highly regarded first baseman in the Kansas City system, make the transition to left field and regain his power after two wrist operations?

Can Santiago--"I can’t wait to get up in the morning and go to the park"--recapture the All-Star form that critics in San Diego said he lost? Can the orange troll that sits in the locker of infielder Alex Arias provide magic powers to pitchers who have been without a prayer in the past?

Time will tell, but this much seems certain: Given the avenues that were available to them, given baseball’s parity, the Marlins and the Rockies should come along faster than previous expansion teams.

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The Rockies are already talking about a future double-play combination of shortstop Jason Bates, a June amateur selection from Arizona, and spring sensation Roberto Mejia, the second baseman whom the Dodgers left exposed during the second round of the expansion draft.

The Marlins are already talking about a future outfield of Nigel Wilson, Carl Everett and Darrell Whitmore, all selected during the expansion draft.

Both the Rockies and the Marlins are optimistic about the pitching that will be in their minor league systems this season, possibilities for 1994 and beyond.

In the meantime, 35-year-old Bryn Smith, coming back after elbow surgery while with the St. Louis Cardinals and knee surgery earlier this year, stood at his locker in the Colorado clubhouse and reflected on this opportunity for young players and those “who have been around, like myself.”

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Smith added: “There’s a little of everything with expansion, and it’s uplifting to see people excited about coming to the park. It’s an environment almost free of negatives.”


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