Marlins' Ozuna is next big thing

Marcell Ozuna, who just turned 24 in November, quietly tallied 23 homers and 85 RBIs in 2014. Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

A couple of years ago, much of the baseball world mocked the Marlins as they tore apart a veteran nucleus assembled just one year earlier for the opening of Marlins Park.

No one is laughing now.

The franchise has a youthful nucleus, both homegrown and reaped via the same deals that stripped their 2013 club to the bone, that is ready to blossom. There are many individual gems here, most notably franchise cornerstone Giancarlo Stanton. But be sure not to miss Marcell Ozuna, who is currently standing in Stanton's shadow.

After many years of relative stasis, the NL East is in serious flux. Sure, the Nationals still look strong, but the recently proud Phillies have officially hit the reset button and the Braves appear poised to join them at least temporarily, purportedly planning to contend again once their new digs are ready in 2017. There are new competitors rising to take their place in the battle for division supremacy, including the Mets, on the back of a wave of young pitchers, and the reconstituted Miami Marlins.

Besides Stanton, there's a true rarity, a legitimate old-school leadoff man in Christian Yelich. There's the exciting, athletic middle-infield tandem of Adeiny Hechavarria and newly acquired Dee Gordon. There's the hard-throwing starting rotation featuring Jose Fernandez (when he returns), Jarred Cosart, Henderson Alvarez and trade acquisition Mat Latos. And then there's Ozuna. Did I mention that the oldest of this crew, Latos, is still just 27, and that most, like the 24-year-old center fielder Ozuna, are under 25?