The Rockies and Marlins are looking to rebound from last-place finishes in their respective divisions a year ago. Colorado's operating on a dramatically smaller budget than its National League West counterparts in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Miami's up against a consensus favorite in Washington and an Atlanta club that won 96 games in 2013.
But both clubs have reason to believe in 2014 as their seasons begin tonight at Marlins Park.
For the Rockies, look no further than superstars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. If they're healthy and playing well, Colorado could be a contender in the NL West.
"You're going to have players put up good numbers, and at the end of the year you're going to have batting titles and Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers," Gonzalez said. "That's why it's so difficult to believe we're not going to be contenders. If we all stay together, we're going to be a really hard team to beat.
The Marlins, meanwhile, have the kind of high-end young pitching every team desires. That starts at the top with reigning NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Jose Fernandez, who will start on Opening Day after an incredible debut in '13.
Yet, for each team, there are questions. How is Miami going to score runs? That question has recently taken on another life inside the Marlins' clubhouse and morphed into a different question. What is the identity of the 2014 Miami Marlins?
"Obviously, it's pitching. But we've got to find ways to score runs," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, one of a few veterans brought in to provide some leadership for the club's talented young players. "So we've got to run the bases right. We've got to make sure we don't make any errors on the field. Just that gritty way of playing."
Saltalamacchia mentioned that the Marlins need to think like the Rays and A's, who are among the teams to beat in their respective divisions despite their low payrolls.
"It's a process. A lot of times, when you're the underdog, and people look up, you've already passed them," he said. "That's what we're looking to do."
"Obviously, everything starts with pitching. That was really the strength of what this team was all about last year. What you didn't have last year was that veteran leadership," said veteran outfielder Reed Johnson, who made the club as a non-roster invitee. "I think hitting is all about approach. There are a lot more people in the big leagues who are a lot more talented, who are bigger, stronger, faster than I am. But I feel like my approach is a pretty good approach at the plate. If you can relay that to a young player, that makes all the difference in the world to those guys.
"Obviously, the more you play and the more experience you have, the better your approach becomes as far as being able to give a quality at-bat. If you can help younger players with that, I think that can make a difference."
The biggest question facing the Rockies is a lot more simple: How can they keep Tulowitzki and Gonzalez on the field? Tulowitzki played 126 games in his All-Star 2013 campaign and only 47 in 2012. Manager Walt Weiss has nixed the idea of putting Gonzalez, who played 110 games last year, in center field, something that had been under consideration earlier in the offseason.
"The big thing is we want to keep [Gonzalez] on the field. Risk and reward has kind of swung the other way," Weiss said. "We are in a different place than we were in the fall. That's what it comes down to."
Rockies: De La Rosa ready for Game 1
• Left-hander Jorge De La Rosa didn't put together the most impressive Spring Training numbers leading up to his Opening Day start against the Marlins, but he showed in his final outing that he's ready to go now that the time is right. Facing the Giants on Wednesday, De La Rosa struck out seven batters over six scoreless innings, allowing only three hits and a walk in his final tuneup.
"To finish throwing like this gives you a lot of confidence," De La Rosa said Wednesday. "I'll try to take that into my next game and keep doing the things I did today."
The Opening Day nod is certainly an honor for De La Rosa, who missed 16 months from May 2011 to September 2012 after Tommy John surgery. He bounced back with a 16-6 record and 3.49 ERA in '13 and convinced Weiss he should be given the ball come Game 1.
"He's worked really hard, and he deserves it," Weiss said earlier this spring. "He's a great pitcher for us, a great pitcher at our park."
Marlins: Jose ready to go
• Fernandez hasn't pitched in an official game since Sept. 11, his final outing before his innings limit came into play. He wound up pitching 172 2/3 innings last year as he posted a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA and 187 strikeouts. Not bad for a guy who was ticketed for the Minors around this time a year ago.
Now, the 21-year-old righty will become the youngest Opening Day starter in franchise history and the youngest pitcher to get an Opening Day assignment since a 20-year-old Felix Hernandez took the mound for the Mariners in 2007.
"I think every player remembers their first Opening Day start, whether you're a position player or a pitcher," manager Mike Redmond said after naming Fernandez the Marlins' Opening Day starter. "I think about how far he's come in the last year, from last year slated to maybe go to Double-A to pitching in the big leagues starting the season and winning Rookie of the Year.
"So that's a pretty amazing year. And he just keeps going. Opening Day starter, which is a day he'll remember for the rest of his life."
• Fernandez held current Rockies hitters to a .163/.182/.233 batting line in 44 total plate appearances last year. For the sake of reference, the pitcher batted .220/.216/.340 in his 58 plate appearances in 2013.
• Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino will throw the ceremonial first pitch for the Marlins on Opening Day, and the club also plans to recognize Henderson Alvarez, who no-hit the Tigers in the 2013 season finale, in a pregame ceremony.