JUPITER, Fla. -- The Marlins watched Roy Halladay go to the Phillies. They watched the Mets add Jason Bay. They saw the Braves add Billy Wagner and Troy Glaus.
They even saw the Nationals sign Jason Marquis and Pudge Rodriguez.
"All these teams talk about bringing guys in left and right," Marlins outfielder Cody Ross said. "We talk about keeping guys."
True, but look who they kept. And look what it might mean.
"You're not going to see any more fire sales," said Josh Johnson, the guy they kept.
Feel free to wonder whether he's right. Feel free to believe the Marlins only agreed to Johnson's four-year, $39 million deal because the players association complained they were violating rules by not spending enough of their revenue-sharing money.
We've seen too many Marlins teams broken up before, too many talented players sent away because they were -- or were about to become -- too expensive.
But if things really are going to change in Florida, now is the time, with a new stadium finally on the way. Now is the time and Johnson is the right guy, a hugely talented pitcher just coming into his own, an All-Star who could be on his way to much more.
"He's a guy I think everyone realizes you want to have on your team," fellow Marlins starter Chris Volstad said. "He's someone you can build your team around. Any team would want him as their No. 1 guy."
Think of it this way: When the Marlins head into Citi Field in New York on opening day, they won't feel bad about their matchup with Johan Santana. They'll feel that Johnson can beat him -- because he already has.
In a division that features Santana and Halladay -- and will soon feature Stephen Strasburg as well -- the Marlins have an ace of their own.
They had to keep him if they were at all serious about building (and keeping) a winning team.
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The Marlins front office understood. And, it seems, owner Jeffrey Loria understood, too.
People in the organization believe Loria always intended to keep Johnson. Loria even made a point of telling Johnson last summer that a new contract would get done.
"He came up to me a couple of times," Johnson said. "It was like, 'We will get something done this offseason, I promise you. Just don't worry about it. Just go out the rest of the year and stay healthy.'
"I knew it was going to get done, one way or the other."
The fact that it did get done, and the fact that the Marlins never traded second baseman Dan Uggla -- after constant talk that they would -- had an impact in the Marlins clubhouse this spring. More than one player mentioned how happy they all were to still be together, which tells you how much they think of each other and also how Marlins history has taught them (and us) to believe that Marlins teams don't stay together for long.
"I'm glad they brought everyone back," Ross said. "It's definitely a good feeling in our clubhouse. We feel we have a legitimate chance to compete."
The belief increases substantially on the days Johnson pitches. The Marlins were 22-11 in his starts. They won twice when he matched up against Santana, once when he matched up against St. Louis' Chris Carpenter, once when the opponent was the Yankees and A.J. Burnett.
As impressive as that is, Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez brought up Johnson's leadership skills when he was asked about his ace this spring. He talked about how the other Marlins starters have begun to look to Johnson, how they've begun to follow what he does.
"The other day, I was watching during batting practice and there was a group of 10 pitchers standing around together in the outfield," Gonzalez said. "He peels off and starts power-shagging, and all of a sudden, everyone is power-shagging.
"And I didn't need to say anything."
Sleeper ... Anibal Sanchez: He's a work in progress who'll have to make up for lost time, but considering his velocity -- typically the concern with shoulder injuries -- is back where it was when he threw his no-hitter in 2006, he's not as far off as most people think. You won't have to draft him in mixed leagues, but if he looks good in his first couple of starts, his upside makes him worth a waiver claim.
Bust ... Jorge Cantu: Given his poor plate discipline, he has a long climb to get back to the numbers everyone assumes he'll repeat. And when you think of those numbers as the best-case scenario instead of the most likely scenario, his upside isn't much more than that of teammate Cody Ross, who tends to go undrafted in mixed leagues. Cantu is worth a late-round look if you need a corner infielder with power, but if someone wants to reach for him in the middle rounds, let them.
Breakout ... Ricky Nolasco: Why exactly Nolasco struggled in 2009 is a question better left for smarter men, but pitchers with WHIPs in the 1.25 range who average more than a strikeout per inning don't finish with ERAs over 5.00. Cliff Lee had a 3.22 ERA with numbers worse than that. Dismissing his 2009 as a fluke, Nolasco is potentially an elite option available in the middle rounds.
-- Scott White
Top Marlins Prospects (2010 destination)
1. Mike Stanton, OF, Double-A
2. Logan Morrison, 1B, Double-A
3. Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Majors
4. Matt Dominguez, 3B, Double-A
5. Kyle Skipworth, C, Class A
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Johnson just turned 26, and he's anything but loud, so he doesn't stand out right away as a leader. But his fellow pitchers see how he approaches his workouts, and they see how he shows up to watch them in their bullpen sessions, and most of all they see how he acts when he's on the mound.
"He's such a bulldog, such a competitor," Ross said. "Nothing gets in his head. It's tough to get in J.J.'s head. Not to mention his electric stuff."
That stuff includes a fastball that fangraphs.com says averaged 95.1 mph last season. Johnson also relies on a hard slider, and you only need to talk to hitters who have faced him to know that he's one of the most talented pitchers in the game.
He's good, and that doesn't shock us, because we know the Marlins come up with good players. He's good and he's still here, and that makes more of an impact.
It's true that the Marlins signed Hanley Ramirez to a long-term contract a year and a half before they signed Johnson, but it's also true that even after the Ramirez signing, even some within the Florida organization remained skeptical that times had changed.
Some Marlins people even wondered if they had become victims of their own success, if ownership had come to believe it was easy to come up with great young talent, because over and over the Marlins front office did it.
They knew that to be successful, they needed to keep the special talents around. They knew that Johnson was one of those special talents, one of those guys it's hard to replace once you let him go or trade him away.
They knew Johnson was a test case, and Johnson's teammates seemed to know it, too.
Johnson said he was sure a deal would get done, once Loria gave him the promise last summer. Ross and others weren't sure.
"I thought there was a question," Ross said. "Just because in the past, we hadn't kept guys."
This winter, they did keep them. They kept Josh Johnson.
And it sure looks like they kept the right guy.