Thrifty Marlins gave Uggla hefty raise

JUPITER, Fla. — Dressing at his locker, Dan Uggla grinned when a stranger in the Florida Marlins clubhouse stopped by Tuesday to introduce himself.

It was Bucky Dent.

"I went to your camp when I was 13," said Uggla, a Louisville native.

That was news to Dent, who invited Uggla to make a guest appearance at the camp in Delray Beach this summer.

"That would be great for the kids," Dent said later. "They can ask him questions on how he did it."

What Uggla did was transform himself from a struggling minor-leaguer five years ago into a two-time All-Star second baseman who this month was awarded a $5.35 million contract in arbitration.

For the thrifty Marlins, that's a hefty salary. The only Florida players to make the same kind of money in recent seasons were Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, both now departed.

The Marlins' annual paring of the payroll sent Josh Willingham, Mike Jacobs and Scott Olsen elsewhere this off-season. But Uggla's back.

"I'm not really that surprised," he said. "I actually had a really good feeling that I would be back. I don't know why."

Maybe it's because he knows the Marlins appreciate power from a middle infielder. Dent hit one of the most famous home runs in history, but the most he had in one season was eight. Last year Uggla had 32 home runs and 92 RBI, both career highs, and his total of 90 homers over the past three seasons is the most among second basemen.

And Uggla's more than mere muscle. He had a .360 on-base percentage last year, thanks in part to 77 walks. He's consistent and stays healthy. And he set a good example on a young club.

"He's a great teammate," Manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He only knows how to play the game one way. You never see lack of effort."

The Marlins are so fond of Uggla that during his arbitration hearing, they resisted any temptation to bring up last year's All-Star Game.

He became the first All-Star to commit three errors, and all came in extra innings. To make matters worse, he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts while his dad cringed in the stands at Yankee Stadium.

"That was not the toughest night of my life," Uggla said. "Hanging out with two sick kids by yourself is way harder."

But was it his toughest night on a baseball field?

"Probably," he said. "But that kind of stuff doesn't bother me. Obviously I would have liked to have had a better All-Star Game, but you're going to have bad nights. I've had plenty of them before. I've made five errors in a game."

That would have been in the minors, where Uggla endured some rocky times. His career appeared to be heading nowhere in 2004, when he was mired in Class A in his second season with the Lancaster (Calif.) JetHawks. Uggla's big break came the following year when the Marlins acquired him from Arizona in the Rule 5 draft.

He won a starting job in 2006 and set a major-league record for homers by a rookie second baseman with 27. Now he'll be second to shortstop Hanley Ramirez in salary on a team with baseball's lowest payroll, and the many youngsters in the Marlins' clubhouse are sure to take note.

"The perfect example of somebody with this team is Dan Uggla," said catcher John Baker, who's entering his first full major-league season. "He was in A ball in 2004 and struggling and gets Rule 5, and three years later he signs a deal for $5 million. That's the kind of team we have."

There are flaws in Uggla's game. He ranked fourth in the majors last year with 171 strikeouts. He tied for fourth among second basemen with 13 errors, and that doesn't even include the All-Star Game. He turns the double play well, but his range is below average.

The Marlins likely cited those deficiencies in arbitration. Uggla said he hopes to avoid the process in the future, but his raise from $417,000 last year took some sting out of any critical comments by management.

"I've got a great relationship with all those guys," he said. "You've got to realize it's just business. It's not that they don't love you, because they do."