Today, they say it's great to be young and a Marlin

Most contenders fielding top players well under 30

Wild, Wild, (nl) East

Dispatches from a division where every team is in the playoff race

September 06, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The soft face that opens readily into a big smile. The bearhugs thrown around unsuspecting buddies. Florida Marlin Miguel Cabrera looks and acts like a happy-go-lucky 22-year-old - until he grabs a bat.

Then, he's about as menacing as they come. He showed it yesterday, drilling a two-run homer over the center-field fence for his team's only scoring in a loss at division rival Washington.

"He's a lot smarter than 22," said Nationals starter John Patterson before yesterday's game, the first of four between teams fighting for a wild-card spot.

Cabrera is the furthest along in a wave of stars casting a youthful tint on baseball's most competitive division. All five teams in the National League East are in contention, and most have at least one youngster to thank for it.

It's a stark contrast to say, the American League East, where the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are led by stars 30 and older.

In Atlanta, the Braves are pulling away with the divisional lead, and 21-year-old outfielder Jeff Francoeur is a major reason why. Francoeur's free swinging might hint at inexperience, but when you hit .343 with 12 homers during a pennant push, nobody much cares about patience.

Philadelphia is phenom-free, but Chase Utley, 26, has been one of the league's best second basemen and among the team's best hitters in his first season as a full-time starter.

In New York, 22-year-old third baseman David Wright has been the best everyday player for the fifth-place Mets. Wright hits over .300, he hits doubles, he hits homers, he runs the bases well and he has Mets fans thinking he might be the face of the franchise for the next 10 years.

But no team personifies the youth movement more than the third-place Marlins. Cabrera is their leading hitter and 23-year-old Dontrelle Willis is their ace on the mound.

"I don't think it's any different than 2003 with Willis and Cabrera," said Marlins manager Jack McKeon. "If they're good enough, you don't have any hesitation using any of them."

Patterson said opponents don't care if the Marlins are led by youngsters.

"A lot of those guys in that clubhouse won a World Series two years ago," he said. "They beat the Yankees."

If the Marlins need reassurance, they need only look at Josh Beckett, 25, who two years ago pitched one of the best clinching games in World Series history.

The fourth-place Nationals are the only team in the division that doesn't prominently feature a young star. Their freshest face belongs to 20-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whom general manager Jim Bowden has compared to Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken. Zimmerman, the Nationals' top draft pick this summer and the fourth choice overall, sounded like a youngster when describing his first major league at-bat Thursday against the Braves.

"It's cool, man," the Virginia resident said. "Turner Field was one of the first places I ever saw a game."

But Zimmerman looked mature in his first home at-bat Friday, when he lined a double to left, and yesterday, when he turned a whip-quick double play and singled in his only at-bat.

Manager Frank Robinson was peppered with questions about why Zimmerman had batted just five times since his call-up last week. He said that it wouldn't be fair to the rookie or the veterans.

"Yeah, there's reluctance," Robinson said. "You don't want to shatter a young kid's confidence if he doesn't come through in a tight spot."

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