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Marlins tasked with determining direction

LOS ANGELES -- Bringing in a high-profile manager and signing marquee free agents were steps the Marlins took in hopes of becoming a contender.

On paper, the plan entering the season looked promising. But the performance didn't live up to expectations. Rather than moving in the direction of playing deep into October, the Marlins find themselves in last place in the National League East.

What went wrong specifically is hard to say, because there have been breakdowns in so many different areas. In the 16-team NL, the Marlins rank 14th in runs scored, 11th in starters ERA and 14th in errors committed. In all phases, there have been issues.

How the team responds in the final six weeks will be critical for a number of players, as the organization ponders what to do next.

According to manager Ozzie Guillen, to move forward, the first step the franchise must take is to accurately assess its personnel.

"We've got to sit down, look at the talent and be realistic about the talent that we have," Guillen said. "The front office, they know better than me, this team. But we cannot miss too much more on the evaluation of the ballclub, of the team."

An honest assessment will determine where the club is headed. Will it go young, find core players and grow together? Or will it brush off 2012 as a bad year, regroup and make the necessary additions to make a strong run in '13?

"If we're going to be younger here, then OK, what kind of young team are we going to have?" Guillen said. "Are we going to go forward, or are we going to stay the same? If we're going to go young, just go young, and suffer for a couple of years and see what happens.

"Or are you going to compete, and make a mix [of veterans with young players]? Then who's coming here to make the mix? It's all a process."

Guillen went through a transition situation with the White Sox. In 2004, his first season in Chicago, the team went 83-79. A year later, the White Sox made the big leap, winning 99 games and ultimately the World Series.

"One year to another, we just changed everything, and we had a nice run, a very nice run," Guillen said. "Hopefully, that happens here, too."

Aside from a record-setting 21-8 record in May, the Marlins never came together. If the team pitched, it didn't hit. If it hit, the pitching floundered. Or the bullpen would break down. On top of that, the defense also has contributed to rough days.

Miami's four-game split at Arizona this week mirrored what's gone on for most of the year. On Monday, the Marlins won, 12-3, collecting a season-high 20 hits. And on Tuesday, they overcame a five-run first-inning deficit to win, 6-5. But in Wednesday's doubleheader, they scored just two runs in two games and were swept by the D-backs.

"It's tough," said Josh Johnson, the team's ace. "Bad break here. Bad break there. Wrong pitch, wrong time. It's not good to fail. But you need failure to make guys not take anything for granted. Not that we are. But it's a reminder that any day, it could be your last. You could be traded or whatever."

Simply put, the season lacked a smooth flow.

"We're 25 different guys, and we just didn't come together as a team," said Heath Bell, who converted 19 of 25 save chances before being moved to a setup role in the second half. "I honestly think that's what happened. We only had a couple of months together before we were trading some guys."

Four deals leading into the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline changed the personality of the clubhouse. The moves also put players more on edge, forcing them to wonder if they are staying or going.

Hanley Ramirez and Randy Choate were sent to the Dodgers. Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez were dealt to Detroit. Edward Mujica was traded to the Cardinals, and Gaby Sanchez was moved to Pittsburgh.

In order to build a winning environment, Bell said the players must first get to know each other better. A major free-agent signing, the veteran joined Miami after three straight All-Star campaigns with the Padres.

In Spring Training, he noted that players were trying to recognize each others' faces.

"Pretty much how we build it, you talk to the young guys, and the older guys," Bell said. "Like me and [catcher John] Buck really know each other now. ... We didn't know each other, even two months ago. We were still learning everybody two months ago."

Once a rapport has been established, the team molds together.

"Everybody knows you in Spring Training," Bell said. "It's like, 'What did you do during the winter?' This year was like, 'Hey, my name is so and so.' Now, we're all going to know each other. Next year in March, we're all going to be fighting for the same goal, and we're all going to be pulling for each other. We're not going to have to be learning everybody, except one or two guys."

Meshing personalities in the clubhouse is part of the building process. But ultimately, the results come on the field.

Now that Ramirez is gone, Giancarlo Stanton projects to be the face of the franchise. The slugger earned All-Star status at age 22, although he had an injured right knee that prevented him from attending the Midsummer Classic.

Stanton has been impressive, especially on the road trip, where he has five home runs in seven games.

From his perspective, Stanton sees a Miami offense that has struggled with sustaining consistency. When the team goes into a collective slump, it plays into the mindset of the players.

"You look up and see two hits in five, six innings," Stanton said. "You're like, 'He's pitching a good game, so no one's hitting.' That type of thing. You feed off that. When you see the guys in front of you hit a homer or smoke a double or something, and you're like, 'OK, [my turn].'

"Obviously, we're big leaguers, and we've got to look past that. But it's also a subconscious thing that kind of takes over sometimes, when you see over and over again something happening. That's kind of something I'm seeing going on. Baseball is a contagious sport. Not too many times you see one guy go 3-for-3, 4-for-4 and no one else hitting. It's very rare. You've got to collectively do it."

Miami Marlins, Heath Bell, Josh Johnson, Giancarlo Stanton