Third in a series

JUPITER, Fla. - No big-league team has a can't-tell-the-players-without-a-scorecard history quite like the Florida Marlins. They've built world championship clubs, then torn them apart. Twice. Plenty of big-name stars have worn the teal-and-black. Most have just been passing through town.

The Fish are on an upswing again, surprising most observers by staying in contention much of last season and ending up with 84 wins, just 7 1/2 games behind the eventual world champion Phillies.

Then they went through their annual postseason salary purge, with outfielder Josh Willingham, first baseman Mike Jacobs, lefthander Scott Olsen and reliever Kevin Gregg leading the exodus up the Florida Turnpike.

What's different this time is that the Marlins finally have a face-of-the-franchise player, a guy they think they can build their next legitimate contender around.

That would be 25-year-old shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who is at the beginning of a 6-year, $70 million contract. And, remember, that's on a team whose total payroll is expected to be around $33 million this year, tiniest in the majors.

That's how good Ramirez - who came to the organization from the Red Sox in November 2005 when Florida decided it could no longer afford Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell - is. At least, it's how good the front office thinks he can be.

Third baseman Wes Helms plays for the Marlins. Back in 2007, though, he was with the Phillies, which gave him a unique perspective of Jimmy Rollins' MVP season.

He won't argue with the fact that Rollins was voted the best player in the entire National League that year. With all due respect, though, he believes the Phillies' sparkplug is now only the second-best shortstop in the National League East.

"The thing that Hanley has that Jimmy doesn't, Hanley has more power," Helms said earlier this spring before an exhibition game at Roger Dean Stadium. "I think fieldingwise, baserunning, stuff like that, they're pretty much in the same category. But when it comes to power, that's where Hanley separates himself.

"He can be as good as he wants to be. The only thing that would hurt him is himself. He's your A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez], your [Albert] Pujols. He's the core of your team. He's a franchise player. If he continues to work hard and gets better every year, you're going to see one of the best shortstops who's ever played the game. He can do it all. I definitely think he could be a 40-40 guy if he just stays within himself."

Because of his undeniable talent - and at least in part because of the Willingham and Jacobs departures - Ramirez will be moved from the leadoff spot to the prestigious No. 3 spot in the lineup this season.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez thinks he can get even more out of a player who batted .308 while hitting 79 homers, driving in 207 runs and stealing 137 bases the last 3 years from the top of the order - and led the NL with 125 runs scored in 2008 - but concedes he's tinkering with success.

"Every manager tries to do what's best for his particular team," he said. "I mean, if all of a sudden we make a trade and we get Albert Pujols - I'm just using an example - Hanley goes back to first. But [Ramirez] is one of the best three-hole hitters we have.

"Talentwise, the sky's really the limit with him. But you know what? What he's done the last 3 years has still been pretty good. I don't think I'm going to say he needs to hit .400 or hit 45 home runs. I think if he does what he does for a lot of years, we're going to be talking about him being in the history books."

To prepare for his new role, Ramirez followed a new workout program this winter and added about 25 pounds to his 6-3 frame.

"I'm going to just keep doing what I'm doing. Get on base, steal a base. Nothing's going to change," he said. "I worked hard in the offseason and my goal is to play 162 games. So I have to stay in shape.

"I don't worry about home runs or RBI. I'm playing for that ring, for a championship. That's what I'm here for."

Said rightfielder Cody Ross: "He brings everything to the table. He has every tool you can possibly have. Everybody I've talked to around the league, the only word that describes him is, 'Wow.' He's a huge part of this team. He's our leader. We rely heavily on him. How good a season he has is probably going to be equal to how well we do."

Hmmm. Ramirez is a key, no doubt. But no matter how big a year he has, it probably won't matter if Florida doesn't get good pitching. The Marlins believe they're well-armed in the rotation, but the bullpen could be an issue. The top three starters - Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson and Chris Volstad - were a combined 28-13 with a 3.40 earned run average in 2008.

Florida had a winning record, even though Johnson and Anibal Sanchez missed the first 3 months of the season with injuries and Volstad didn't make his major league debut until July.

Projected closer Matt Lindstrom was injured during the World Baseball Classic, though, and setup man Scott Proctor has been fighting elbow soreness. So the Marlins are braced to open the season without the top two back-of-the-bullpen guys and with unproven Leo Nunez as the closer.

The staff focus is neatly summed up by a sign just inside the clubhouse door: "STRIKES!" it says simply, with a Marlins logo underneath.

Outside of Ramirez (who has his own Web site, there are also some questions about the lineup. Can rookie Cameron Maybin (or Emilio Bonifacio) replace Ramirez as the leadoff hitter? How many home runs will the Marlins hit after bashing a franchise-record 208 last season? And, more importantly, can they cut down on strikeouts after leading the majors with 1,371?

"We just need to be more consistent," Ross said. "We're right there for the league lead in home runs. And we're at the top of the league in strikeouts. Top of the league in errors. If we can lower those two stats and keep the home runs around that level, get our pitchers to throw more strikes and not walk as many guys, those are the keys."

Now that they've finally nailed down their new stadium, assuring that they will remain in South Florida, it gives them a chance to keep Hanley Ramirez around for a while, instead of becoming just another star who passed through town. *