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1. FLORIDA MARLINS

Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H13

It is a bit of heresy to suggest that anybody but Atlanta can win this division, for it hasn't happened since George Bush was president -- George H.W. Bush. But then, count the number of World Series titles during this span: Florida 2, Atlanta 1. And this might be the Marlins' best team during that span.

No team in either league poses the threat of speed that the Marlins have at the top of the lineup. In their two seasons together, Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo have combined to score 390 runs and steal 152 bases. "Against this lineup," Washington right-hander Zach Day said, "you have to keep the little guys off base."


Juan Pierre is expected to keep things running smoothly at the top of Florida's lineup. The Marlins' center fielder has stolen 110 bases and has scored 200 runs over the last two seasons. (Carlos Barria -- Reuters)


Miguel Cabrera is not yet 22, but he is one of the game's budding stars. Mike Lowell has driven in at least 85 runs for five straight seasons. And Carlos Delgado is the first veteran slugger the Marlins have had since 1997, when Gary Sheffield helped Florida to the first of its World Series titles.

Even with that kind of offensive firepower, the Marlins' strength could, potentially, lie in its rotation -- even after losing right-hander Carl Pavano, who went 18-8 last season before signing with the New York Yankees. A.J. Burnett made only 19 starts in 2004, Josh Beckett only 26, and they combined to win just 16 games. But when healthy, they're an excellent one-two presence, and Al Leiter will add a veteran influence. Dontrelle Willis had a bit of a sophomore slump -- going 10-11 with a 4.02 ERA -- and if he can capture his form of 2003, the rotation might be the best of any in the National League.

The weight, then, falls on Guillermo Mota, who has all of five saves in his major league career. In 2003 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was a stud setup man for Eric Gagne, striking out 99 in 105 innings. Antonio Alfonseca provides a veteran in that role now. But how Mota handles the pressure of being the closer on a team that expects to contend will go a long way toward determining whether the Marlins will break up the Braves' run.


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