Powerhouse Pair Sets Dizzying Pace

MIAMI–They’re running out of baseballs at Monsignor Pace High.

The school hasn’t been robbed. The culprits are seniors Adrian Cardenas and Chris Marrero, who are blasting balls with such regularity that it’s causing trouble at next-door Saint Thomas University in Opa Locka, Fla.

“We’re losing baseballs every practice,” pitching coach Chuck Lyman said. “Students and teachers from Saint Thomas are getting so agitated their cars are getting dented by home runs, they’re starting to fight back. The balls we are finding are being cut in half. The ones we aren’t finding, somebody over there is keeping.”

Maybe they’re keeping some as souvenirs. Any ball Cardenas or Marrero hits over the fence these days could become a hot item on eBay one day if their futures pan out the way some expect.

Cardenas, a 6-foot, 190-pound shortstop, had belted 13 home runs this season–six shy of the Florida record. Marrero, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound third baseman, has seven. Both are expected to be high draft picks in June. And many believe they could be as talented a duo as any to ever play together in Miami-Dade County history.

“You would be hard pressed to find a better shortstop-third baseman duo anywhere at the high school level,” said Westminster Christian coach Bill Henderson, a first-round draft pick of the Tigers in 1987. “If you asked me which one will go the furthest, I’d tell you Marrero. Knowing what pro scouts are looking at, you see that body and that physique with his baseball skills–it’s a tremendous upside.

“If you ask me which guy I want on my college baseball team next year, I’d say Cardenas. In the college game, he could wreak havoc. They’re both very, very good players.”

Henderson got to see both when Monsignor Pace, then ranked No. 2 in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association top 50, pounded Westminster Christian 12-0. Cardenas went 2-for-3 and hit a 360-foot line drive off the center-field wall at Florida International University Stadium. Marrero went 3-for-3 with a 400-foot home run that landed in FIU’s soccer field.

“The only tandem that I can compare them to is when we had Alex Rodriguez starting at shortstop and Mickey Lopez at third back in the early ’90s,” Henderson said. “Everyone knows what A-Rod has done. Lopez played at Florida State, then spent 10 years in the minors. And that was pretty darn good.”

Rodriguez is the only player in county history to be drafted with the first overall pick. Neither Marrero or Cardenas is expected to go that high. But Marrero, a Miami signee, is considered the best hitter in this year’s high school class, and could be taken in the top 10 picks.

Cardenas’ Rise

Cardenas, a Florida signee who has put on one of the most impressive hitting stretches in state history, is quickly climbing the charts as well.

“Marrero was already drawing 15 scouts on average for batting practice,” Spartans head coach Tom Duffin said. “The way Adrian is playing now, scouts are telling me he could go in the first round of the draft, too.”

Cardenas took advantage of the dozens of scouts who flocked to South Florida to see his teammate, and while he lacks the tremendous raw power and arm strength of Marrero, he has stood out as one of few draft-eligible position players to show significant progress from last fall to this spring.

He was ranked No. 92 in the high school class by Baseball America before the season, but has risen to No. 26 in the most recent rankings. Not only did Cardenas have 13 home runs in 18 games, but he was also batting .653 with 39 RBIs. In a two-homer effort against Belen Jesuit of Miami, he broke the Spartans’ school record for home runs in a season (which was 10).

With three regular season games left, Cardenas, a lefthanded hitter, not only could eclipse the Miami-Dade County record of 15 home runs (set by Westminster Christian’s Ronald Caridad in 1989), but he also had a shot at breaking the state record of 19 (set by three players).

“What this kid is doing in a competitive state like Florida, where you have so many first-round draft picks and players who end up in college and in the major leagues, is not human,” said Duffin, who also expects Pace’s season record batting average (.533), which he set in 1985, to fall. “I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s a great kid.”

Cardenas had at least two hits in all but two games this season. He also had a stretch when he had eight home runs in eight games.

“I’ve always been able to hit; it’s just now I’m not missing any pitches,” said Cardenas, who has added 10 pounds in the past year. “The thing is, I also have an advantage nobody else has: I’m fortunate to hit in front of the man.”

Steady Marrero

That man-child would be Marrero, whose nickname, Nene, means baby in Spanish.

Although his numbers this season (.391-7-19) weren’t as strong as Cardenas’, Marrero, who bats righthanded, has been one of the Spartans’ most consistent players. A four-year starter, he hit .440 with five homers as a freshman, .389 with three homers as a sophomore and .430-7-35 last year.

“I would say he might have been knocked back a little bit when Cardenas came out as hot as he did,” said a scout with a National League organization. “He stole some of his shine.

“But what we want to see is him take it back. This kid can really hit, and we’ve seen the power for a long time. I think he’s probably still the best (high school) hitter out there, it’s just a matter of him showing us he can use those tools.”

Marrero’s file is thick. He helped Team USA’s youth squad win a silver medal in 2004 at the Pan Am Championship in Mexico, leading the tournament in home runs (five) and RBIs (16) while going 15-for-36. He injured his hamstring during USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars in Joplin, Mo., last summer, and did not join many of his former national teammates in international competition in 2005. He recovered in time for the Aflac All-American Classic in August, and showed some rust, making three errors and going 1-for-4 with two RBIs.

Marrero reaffirmed his status as the class’ top position player with a strong finish to the year, though, showing off a shorter, quicker swing in several high-profile events, including the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Fall Championship in Jupiter, Fla., where he was ranked the No. 1 prospect.

As the state playoffs drew closer, Cardenas and Marrero say leading Pace to a state Class 4-A title is more important than draft speculation.

Despite holding the No. 1 ranking at some point in each of the past two seasons, Pace has failed to get out of the district playoffs with losses to sub-.500 teams, and it dropped two late-season games to fall to No. 16 in the national poll.

The last two Pace teams featured a handful of high draft picks and more than a dozen college signees, including Marrero’s older brother Christian, who is an outfielder at Broward County (Fla.) Community College after being drafted by the White Sox last year. This year’s team features six Division-I signees.

“We’re tired of being labeled chokers,” Marrero said. “Coach deserves for us to leave him with something more than another picture on the wall of fame.”

Manny Navarro covers high school sports for the Miami Herald.