Lifted by strong performances from young players, the Florida Marlins were a big surprise last season. The Washington Nationals hope a similar formula works for them in 2007.
The Marlins, with some of the majors' top young talent, look to get off to a strong start as they open the season Monday against the Nationals.
After starting 11-31 last year, Florida was one of baseball's best teams over the final 120 games and finished 78-84. The Marlins did it with a roster comprised almost entirely of rookies.
To Florida, though, 2006 is better off left in the past.
"We were there last year and we know what happened," said Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla, an All-Star rookie last season. "But that was last year, man. It's over with. This year's a new year, we've got some new faces, a lot of old faces, and nothing we did last year carries over into this year."
Florida relied on 22 first-year players and had three of the top four vote-getters in the NL rookie of the year race, including winner Hanley Ramirez (.292, 119 runs, 51 steals), the shortstop and leadoff man. The Marlins had four rookie pitchers hit double-digits in victories, a major league first.
Florida is looking forward to improvement from its young players, but they'll be playing for a different manager in Fredi Gonzalez. He replaced NL manager of the year Joe Girardi, who the Marlins fired after his only season with the team following his feuding with the front office.
Gonzalez believes his players understand the importance of avoiding another early season slump.
"You want to start good, but I haven't said I want to go 18-12 or anything like that," Gonzalez said. "What I want is the effort and the consistency, and from there, the wins and losses take care of themselves."
Dontrelle Willis (12-12, 3.87 ERA), who will take the mound for Florida on Monday, and third baseman Miguel Cabrera are the clear leaders of the team and the two remaining impact players from the 2003 World Series-winning club. They're still young, though, as Willis and Cabrera are 25 and 24 years old, respectively.
Cabrera is coming off another big season, hitting .339 - five points shy of the NL batting title - with 26 home runs, 114 RBIs and 50 doubles.
Willis went 1-1 with a 5.09 ERA in three starts against the Nationals last season, but is 9-4 with a 3.46 ERA in 14 career starts against them.
He'll match up Monday with John Patterson (1-2, 4.43), who will be Washington's No. 1 starter despite never winning 10 games or pitching 200 innings in a season. The right-hander has potential, but he made only eight starts in 2006 before undergoing season-ending arm surgery.
Two of Patterson's best starts last season came in matchups with Florida. He went 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 13 innings against the Marlins in 2006, and is 2-4 with a 3.72 ERA in nine career starts against them.
Patterson leads a pitching staff that is the focal point of the team's youth movement after the trading of Livan Hernandez to Arizona in August. Patterson will be followed by Shawn Hill, 1-3 last year, in the rotation. Left-hander Matt Chico moves up from Double-A, while Jason Bergmann and Jerome Williams were both 0-2 in the majors in '06.
With star Alfonso Soriano leaving to sign with the Chicago Cubs as a free agent, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman - who finished a close second to Ramirez in the rookie of the year voting - is the leader of a seemingly weak lineup.
"I'm shocked at how mature beyond his age he is," Nationals first-year manager Manny Acta said of the 22-year-old Zimmerman, who batted .287 with 20 homers and 110 RBIs last season.
Acta is also counting on catcher Brian Schneider, right fielder Austin Kearns, second baseman Felipe Lopez and first baseman Dmitri Young to provide the run production for his team.
After Washington went 71-91 for the franchise's third straight last-place finish last season, Acta is trying to be optimistic despite having to rely on a young pitching staff.
"They believe what I believe. That's important," said Acta, who replaced Frank Robinson. "It's very easy to be negative. If you're negative, you don't have to work. But when you're positive, you're going to have to work just to keep your word."
The Marlins won their final four games against the Nationals last year to take the season series 11-7.