MIAMI (AP) - Sitting in the visitors' dugout one afternoon last September, Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel watched rain fall as he gushed about the Florida Marlins' precocious slugger, Mike Stanton.
"He's one of the best young hitters I've seen come along," Manuel said. "The ball really jumps off his bat. He's as strong as anybody I've ever seen."
Manuel went on like that for 15 minutes. Eventually the rain stopped, the game began and Stanton struck out four times.
Oh well; no one ever claimed Stanton would get a hit every time up. But there's a buzz building about the 21-year-old right fielder, whose propensity for prodigious homers is _ dare we say it? _ Ruthian. Or Mantlesque.
Or at least Pujols-ish.
"It makes BP-watching a lot more fun," teammate Gaby Sanchez said. "We're catching our groundballs and Mike will come up, and you're like, 'Hold on a sec. I don't want to miss this.'"
Stanton was called up from Double-A to make his big-league debut last June. His first home run was a grand slam, and in 100 games hit 22 homers, several of the tape-measure variety. He batted .259, including .312 with eight homers in the final month of the season, giving the Marlins reason to believe they're set in the cleanup spot for however long they can afford Stanton.
Others agree. One national publication even predicted he'll be this year's National League MVP.
"He's got awesome power," said Marlins special adviser Jack McKeon, not one for hyperbole. "With a little maturity and better pitch recognition, he's going to be something special."
Some sluggers make the ball sound different off their bat. Hall of Famer Tony Perez, a Marlins executive, said Stanton's bat sounds different even before he makes contact.
"When you're around the cage when he hits BP, you can hear the bat: "Sssshttp://wwwwhhhhh,'" Perez said. "It's bat speed. Only a few players have that."
Then there's the flight of the ball. Many of Stanton's homers leave a lasting impressive, such as the shot he launched last week that dented a video scoreboard 40 feet beyond the left-center field wall at the Marlins' spring training ballpark.
A right-handed hitter, he made upper-deck drives in batting practice commonplace last season, and cleared a building beyond center field during the first week of spring training in February. Mark McGwire cleared that same building in 1998, the year he hit 70 home runs.
"When a guy hits a ball that far, it doesn't matter how many times you see it, it still has that little wow factor," Sanchez said. "I can watch Stanton do it for the next 10 years and it's still going to be, 'Golly, that's unbelievable.'"
Stanton said he's not trying for tape-measure homers and is satisfied with clearing the fence.
"It's all worth the same," he said. "The length is for the fans. I don't care; otherwise I would be trying to do it every single pitch. It's not good to try to hit it farther and farther and farther. I figured that out once I got to professional ball. You need a sense of discipline."
Even so, when spring training began, Stanton came out swinging. In the first game, he homered on the first pitch he saw. Then he strained his right quadriceps in the next inning and was sidelined several weeks.
His first game back, he homered twice and drove in seven runs.
"Unbelievable," said 2009 NL batting champion Hanley Ramirez, who's glad to have Stanton batting behind him this season _ and perhaps for years to come.
The Marlins promoted Stanton to the cleanup spot this spring even though he never hit fourth last year and seldom did in the minors.
"I've hit third or fifth or sixth," he said. "I'll be in bigger situations a lot more often, and I'll be ready to step up and take care of business. Otherwise the spot's not going to be mine for long."
At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he looks the part. And with an appetite that leaves teammates in awe, he's still growing.
New Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, fired as the Marlins' manager last June, watched Stanton make the climb through the minors. They crossed paths again during spring training.
"I ran into him, and oh my goodness _ he has put on another 10 pounds of muscle," Gonzalez said. "Holy cow. I guess that's what maturity does. Or reaching puberty."
Yes, Stanton's still a youngster, and he's still learning when not to swing. He struck out 123 times last season and endured an 0-for-31 slump in August. In 324 minor-league games, he had 371 strikeouts.
But when he connects, the ball can go a long way. He hits homers to the opposite field; he hits line-drive homers; hit hits homers with plenty of hang time.
"It reminds me of when Miguel Cabrera came up," Perez said. "Miguel came up from Double-A the same way at the same age. He turned out to be a pretty good player. Mike has the same potential to be a great player."
And so the buzz builds _ but slowly. After all, Stanton's on a team often overlooked and playing in front of 65,000 empty seats.
The Californian said he was recognized by strangers only once or twice during the offseason. But his jersey is starting to sell in souvenir shops, which he finds amazing.
"It still blows my mind that I'm even in the majors," he said. "You dream about this all your life, and you're living it. It's surreal sometimes."
The Marlins are certain Stanton's for real. They figure any hitter who can dent a scoreboard is going to have a big impact on the score.
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
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