No late-season charge
Lost reliable pitchers
But then, Carlos came
With their new superstar slugger, can the Marlins reclaim their mojo that led to their improbable Series triumph in 2003? One of the final previews here at the Box features the National League entry from Florida. As always, additional senryus from Box readers are most welcome.
2004: Too Much Rain, Too Much Strain
One year after shocking the baseball world by toppling the Giants, Cubs and Yankees in the postseason en route to the World Championship, the Marlins were the midseason chic pick to do what the Astros ultimately did -- namely, make a run down the stretch to the National League postseason. It didn't happen, though, as the Marlins struggled with a brutal schedule and several key injuries, settling for a middling 83-79 mark.
An unprecedented rash of September hurricanes played havoc with the Marlins' schedule, effectively evicting them from Pro Player Stadium (now Dolphins Stadium) and saddling them with several inconvenient and unwanted doubleheaders. What could have been a pivotal four-game set with the Cubs in Miami turned into yet another road series for the rain-drenched Marlins -- and the makeup schedulers tacked on a bizarre afternoon game at U.S. Cellular Field against the Expos, certainly the only club in baseball with a less fair travel slate. Florida couldn't get their pitchers adequate rest down the stretch -- that is, if they were even healthy to begin with.
After all, talented but injury-prone ace Josh Beckett, fresh after toying with the Goliaths from the Bronx in the '03 Series, was a mild disappointment last season -- when he pitched. He took another three trips to the DL, making it a tidy seven stints already in his young career. And A.J. Burnett, who appeared to be all the way back from Tommy John surgery, suffered inflammation in the same elbow in September -- rather inopportune, since the Marlins had plenty of scheduled games against fellow wild-card contenders down the stretch. The Marlins also missed both the on-field and off-the-field presence of Pudge Rodriguez, whose 2003 contract terms made it impossible for the Fish to tender him. The rather blase tandem of Matt Treanor and Ramon Castro were woefully inadequate as replacements, and the team was noticeably invigorated when the fiery Paul LoDuca took over behind the dish.The Offseason: King Carlos Arrives!
It appeared to be yet another salary-dumping offseason for the Marlins, who have more rings in the last eight seasons (2) than they do taxpayer-funded baseball-only ballparks (0). Veteran starter Carl Pavano, who (to borrow a tired cliche) "really put it all together" in 2004, departed for the Bronx. Similarly, historically less-than-reliable closer Armando Benitez, signed for a reasonable one-year pact, dominated before departing to a longer-term deal in San Francisco. Sure, Al Leiter signed on, but his heavily deferred one-year pact was seen as more of a move to ease the club's future broadcaster into South Florida life than as a signing designed to help the team win now.
But then, everything changed. Carlos Delgado, Toronto's superstar of the past decade, surprisingly signed a lucrative contract with a club that few figured to be in the mood to open its chequebook. The deal certainly made sense from Carlos' perspective; a cosmopolitan, Latino-friendly city with excellent restaurants, diverse politics and a short flight to Puerto Rico seemed to fit his wish list to a tee. His lefthanded power bat adds not only production but balance to the Marlins' lineup, and his personality would fit in any clubhouse, let alone a generally harmonious one like the Marlins have enjoyed under Jack McKeon.
The Marlins also overhauled their bullpen this offseason. The job performed so effectively by Benitez will go to Guillermo Mota, who has seemingly battled that bizarre affliction in which relievers become less effective when asked to close out ballgames -- let's call it "Timlinitis." The rest of the bullpen will take on a different, more veteran look. Beinfest jettisoned the mediocre likes of Josias Manzanillo, Billy Koch, Rudy Seanez and Tommy Phelps, and dipped into the free agent market to scoop up the hopefully-somewhat-better-than-mediocre pitching arms of Antonio Alfonseca, Todd Jones, Jim Mecir and John Riedling.
Of course, the roster is still adjusting to its dramatic overhaul from last year's trade deadline, in which Beinfest and Paul DePodesta pulled off a daring, mutually risky trade of Hee Seop Choi, Brad Penny and Bill Murphy for Paul LoDuca, Juan Encarnacion and Mota. None of the players particularly shone in their new surroundings, although Florida appears more likely to win this trade in the short term, as LoDuca and Mota will each be important parts of what should be a contending team.
On the franchise front, progress continues to be haltingly made toward a new ballpark, as the various levels of state and local governments continue to consider various permutations of subsidies without firmly committing to a new home for the Marlins. (Private funding is, of course, completely out of the question.) That said, club brass is excited about the fan reaction to the Delgado signing in particular, and team president David Samson is hoping for a crowd in the neighbourhood of 55,000 on Opening Day. Expect attendance to break 2 million this year after Florida's 1.7 million turnstile clicks over the rainy 2004 season.The Lineup
Although the Marlins were below-average offensively in 2004, there are plenty of reasons to think the 2005 lineup should be a good one. Delgado is obviously a huge addition to what should now be a solid middle of the order. Miguel Cabrera, not even 22 years old yet, should only add to his impressive power totals. And a full season of Paul LoDuca behind the plate will be vastly superior to last year's insipid combination of Ramon Castro and Matt Treanor. The one warning sign, and it is a very real one, is the potential hit to the offence if Juan Pierre's injury keeps him out, or limits his effectiveness, for any meaningful length of time. His speed and on-base ability are crucial to the Fish, who lack a potent bottom of the order.
Paul LoDuca will be the starting catcher and will bat sixth in the lineup, behind Mike Lowell. He doesn't offer Ivan Rodriguez's all-around leadership behind the plate, but he's an above-average receiver and thrower who commands the respect of his pitching staff. He's unlikely to mash like he did when he had his breakthrough '01 campaign with the Dodgers, but he still makes plenty of contact and is in the right kind of park and team environment for his bat. Matt Treanor contributed very little in limited playing time last season, but he'll be the backup after impressing his coaching staff this spring. The Marlins had signed Mike DiFelice to compete for the #2 job, but the journeyman exercised his contractual out clause after it became clear that his opportunities to play would be limited.
The infield is a strength for the Marlins. Up the middle, the Marlins will once again feature the duo of Luis Castillo and "No, The Other" Alex Gonzalez. Castillo should continue to rack up singles and walks out of the 2-hole in the lineup, where McKeon appreciates his solid on-base skills. Defensively, he remains a tremendous asset, with excellent range and a good pivot on double plays. Unfortunately for his fantasy owners, he's been picking his spots far more selectively on the basepaths, and with real power following him in the lineup this year, 30 steals might be his absolute ceiling. Over at short, "No, The Other" Alex Gonzalez has proven that he can go yard, as he tallied 23 homers last season. Pretty impressive for a shortstop, eh? Problem is, his free-swinging offensive approach has apparently been to pursue the longball at the expense of all other offensive value -- witness his 126 Ks and his .270 OBP, worst among all big-league regulars and a full 78 points below the purportedly walk-challenged Shea Hillenbrand. (If you're looking for "Yeah, That" Alex Gonzalez, he's playing third for the D-Rays.) Defensively, "No, The Other" Gonzalez remained surehanded at short, but his range metrics took a surprising dip last season. Time will tell whether he's actually lost a step defensively, or whether this is Exhibit 14,209 of There Is No Reliable Defensive Statistic Yet; he's young enough to turn in several more good seasons with the glove.
Veteran Damian Easley will back up the middle infield, and he learned a lot about being a positive contributor off the bench from his former teammate Mike Mordecai. While Easley is very interested in applying for a minor-league managing or coaching job within the Marlins' organization, Mordecai is already there; he'll manage the NY-Penn League Jamestown Jammers this season. In what would be a supremely classy move, the Fish are considering making Mordecai a September callup so that he can earn the necessary service time to get a ballplayer's full pension.
Meanwhile, I would dare say that the Florida Marlins have the finest corner infield east of the Gateway Arch. I don't need to tell you, Gentle Readers, about what the newly acquired first baseman is capable of offensively. I will point out, however, that if the Marlins and Delgado exercise his option for a fifth year, Carlos needs only to average 33 homers per year over the length of his contract to hit the magical 500 mark. Delgado caused some hand-wringing for his new fans by starting his spring 0-for-12, but in his thirteenth official spring at-bat he belted a long home run off Victor Zambrano. Down on the farm, once-touted Jason Stokes possesses light-tower power. Unfortunately, his stagnation in the minors worried the Marlins enough that they paid Carlos a lot of money to organizationally block Stokes in the non-DH National League.
All Mike Lowell did was turn in another fine season at third base, and only the poor showing by the rest of his lineup limited his "counting" stats. Lowell brings a powerful bat, an increasingly patient approach and a reliable glove to the table. He'll bat fifth, right after Delgado. With three years left on his deal, the Marlins don't need to sweat over whether Miguel Cabrera could be ready to man the hot corner at the big-league level. The Fish, as usual, have an incredibly thin bench -- so much so that 40-year-old Lenny Harris will back up the corner position. Were Harris 30 years old, he still wouldn't offer much insurance.
The Marlins' outfield situation is somewhat unsettled. I said in last year's Marlins preview that Juan Pierre was a "lock" to score 100 runs and steal 50 bases; I slightly overreached, as Pierre put up 100 and 45. This spring, Pierre sustained a calf injury while chasing down a deep fly early in the exhibition schedule, and hasn't played since. The injury has left the speedster hobbled, and denying Pierre healthy legs is a little like denying El Kabong his guitar. In addition to the obvious fantasy baseball alert related to a possible decline in his typically-prolific stolen base total, Pierre has been frustrated by his inability to follow his rigorous daily (year-round) practice regimen. Feeling more comfortable of late, Pierre has vowed to play on Opening Day, though the Marlins may put him on the DL as a precaution. Expect the game Pierre to return as early as possible, and he may not be as effective as he usually is while he gets back into shape. And he's usually highly effective: fantastic range in centre, disruptive speed on the bases, and an underappreciated on-base ability at the leadoff spot. A healthy Pierre would score plenty of runs with a Delgado-enhanced lineup, and McKeon has specifically cited Juan's OBP to be the key stat for the Marlins offence this season.
You want me to say something negative about Miguel Cabrera? It's awfully tough. The truth his, you can pitch to the holes in his swing; he can be jammed, and he will chase the pitches many young hitters chase -- fastballs up and sharp breaking balls away. But those holes are small, and getting smaller. The easygoing Venezuelan blasts line drives and home runs to all fields, so much so that some in the Marlin organization would rather see him get a bit more pull-happy. Once he gets a bit more discipline, there's no reason he can't become a Manny Ramirez-type hitter (at age 22!) Cabrera struggled a bit in right field, but should do well patrolling the less-spacious left field at Dolphins Stadium. His instincts are good, his throwing arm is very good, and the Marlins haven't given up on him as a third baseman. He'll hit third, with Delgado looming on deck.
Jeff Conine and Juan Encarnacion are currently slated to split time in right. I say "currently," because Encarnacion, who's always been capable of great play but has seldom delivered it, may not be a Marlin much longer. Although he can still hit mistakes a long way, Encarnacion's offensive profile features an unwelcome mix of high strikeouts, low walks and a low batting average, and his defence is ordinary. The banged-up Pirates are interested in becoming the next team to take a chance on him. Conine starts the season as the fourth outfielder, and if Encarnacion is dealt, he'll become the everyday right fielder. Some may question the wisdom of asking an aging veteran to cover all that ground in right in Miami, but the Marlins are committed to making Cabrera feel comfortable in left, and Conine has stayed in exemplary condition. Chris Aguila will make the club primarily as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. Jeremy Hermida, arguably the organization's top prospect, has demonstrated a nice blend of speed, size and a sound mental approach at the plate; he's got both tools and skills. Expect to see him called up in September. Unfortunately, the Marlins' farm system is otherwise very weak, especially at the upper levels.
So on balance, the Marlins have a good-to-very-good lineup, but little depth in case of injury or slumps. One interesting facet of the Marlins is that after being perceived, accurately, as a "young" club ever since the 1997-98 fire sale, the Marlins aren't all that young anymore. Cabrera's awfully young, and Gonzalez and Pierre are still peaking, but if Conine supplants Encarnacion as the regular right fielder...the Marlins will actually statistically be older than the average National League club for the first time in franchise history.
Meet the Marlins offence:C: #16 Paul LoDuca
You won't find a GM in baseball that wouldn't kill for three starting pitchers with the ability, mental toughness and youth of the Marlins' Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Dontrelle Willis. Despite their enviable position, the Marlins do still face questions regarding the health and consistency of their rotation. And their bullpen could be a real weakness for a club that aspires to qualify for postseason play this year.
Josh Beckett retains all of the confidence of a kid who dominated the Yankees in the World Series at age 23, but his durability simply has to be questioned after getting sidelined twice with blister problems and once with an oblique injury in '04. When healthy, he has tremendous movement on his fastball and a sharp curve that is far more effective against righties. He'll strike out about a batter per inning this year, and the question of how many innings will be a crucial one in determining whether the Marlins succeed this season. He's had a great spring, and will get the ball on Opening Day.
A.J. Burnett, by contrast, has had an inconsistent spring and has worried Marlins fans with his apparent lack of focus. In this, his contract year, he has annoyed the organization by publicly musing to the press throughout the preseason not only about how his forthcoming great season will get him paid, but also about the clubs with whom he'd consider signing this offseason -- including the Blue Jays, who employ his favourite pitching coach (Brad Arnsberg), and the Yankees, who signed his best friend (Carl Pavano). The good news for the Marlins is that Burnett regained virtually all of his post-Tommy John velocity and movement last season. The bad news is that Burnett nevertheless experienced some elbow inflammation that led the Fish to shut him down last September until the last week of the season. Burnett swears that he's fine this year.
Old friend Al Leiter returns to the site of his third World Series ring in Florida. Although he's no longer a power pitcher per se, Leiter's fastball and cutter still have some zest to them, and he remains effective at sawing off righthanded hitters and coaxing grounders. The celebrated postseason broadcaster does not like to get hit, and will nibble with (and risk walking) batters rather than challenging them over the heart of the plate. Leiter is a wise strategist on the mound, and should be an effective mentor for his youthful teammates -- particularly fellow southpaw Dontrelle Willis.
Speaking of the ol' D-Train, Willis turned in a solid year but did not come close to matching his inspirational Rookie of the Year form from 2003. Release point and deception -- aided considerably by his coiling, high-kicking delivery -- are essential to Willis's success, since he doesn't possess devastating stuff beyond a frisbee slider that causes lefties to bail and/or chase. When he struggled with his release point in '04, Willis was noticeably less successful, particularly against righties who are less susceptible to his slider. Despite not having a gazelle-like frame, Willis is a deceptively fine athlete who has semi-legitimate gap power at the plate and even runs the bases aggressively. Willis was having a brilliant spring until the Mets lit him up last week.
Ismael Valdez suffers from severely declining peripheral statistics, and should be no better than serviceable as a fifth starter (and could be considerably worse than that). He did reassure the Marlins' brass somewhat with a fine spring outing this week. Nate Bump isn't much of an option as a spot starter, but the Marlins don't have anyone better.
If the rotation stays healthy, it will be one of baseball's best. The same cannot, however, be said about the relief corps in Miami.
After becoming accustomed to Armando Benitez's ninth-inning excellence, Marlins fans will quickly have to readjust to the short-relief stylings of Guillermo Mota, an important component of the Penny trade. If your National League awareness is anything like mine, Mota was probably neither as nasty nor as young as you believed. Mota does have a mid-90s fastball, tough slider, and middling change, but struggled down the stretch with the Marlins. Can he handle the pressure, particularly if Florida's jockeying for a playoff berth?
Building the bridge to the newly-minted closer will be a quartet of free agents and an '04 surprise. Not satisfied with the performance of his low-rent setup brigade, Beinfest decided to spend on a bunch of Proven Veteran types, trusting the devils he knew. Ex-Brave Antonio Alfonseca is something of a different pitcher from the erratic but hard-throwing righty who once graced the Marlins' bullpen; after getting sprinkled with some Mazzone pixie dust, he became an efficient sinkerballer who aimed to coax grounders rather than attempt to blow hitters away with high heat. The Marlins are counting on him to limit his walks and continue his recent success as a setup man.
From the Phillies, Beinfest poached Todd Jones, who was surprisingly sharp in the Great American "Small" Park in Cincinnati before his midseason acquisition by Philadelphia. He wasn't as tough with the Phillies, suffering with the same bouts of wildness that have plagued him through his entire career. Like Alfonseca, but somewhat less convincingly, Jones has transitioned from "thrower" to "pitcher."
Screwballer Jim Mecir arrives from the A's, where he wasn't always as effective as Oakland would've liked. Still, he was reliable in '04 when healthy, and McKeon has observed that the righty can be used situationally against tough lefthanded hitters thanks to his uncommon out pitch. Rounding out the foursome is another ex-Red, John Riedling, who throws hard but has no true out pitch. He struggles with his control both within and without the strike zone. A curious signing, Riedling will get a chance in Florida to finally harness his heat into something useful. Unfortunately, both Mecir and Riedling have been prone to walks this spring, and Riedling has complained of tightness in his pitching shoulder to boot.
Matt Perisho had by far the best year of his career last season, when he was an effective LOOGY for McKeon et al. His walks are a bit disconcerting, but he was undeniably tough on lefthanded hitters. Tim Spooneybarger is getting close to a full recovery from Tommy John surgery, and should see early-season action with the Fish. The Marlins are taking one last long look at Rule V lefty Luke Hagerty, but the thinking is that he is unlikely to break camp with the club. Scott Olsen, an unheralded lefty with strong strikeout rates, is the only pitching prospect close to making an impact with the big club. Ben Howard, who came over from the Padres last season, is out of options and was outrighted to AAA this week. As with the hitters, the farm system on the pitching side of the ledger is unpromising.
Bottom line: McKeon and veteran pitching coach Mark Wiley will likely face a season-long dilemma concerning what to do when the sixth or seventh inning comes along. Do they stretch out the effective but fragile arms of their rotation? Or do they liberally employ the collection of journeyman relievers? They're leaning toward the latter approach, but Burnett in particular is accomplished at clamouring to stay in ballgames. We'll see how Jack manages this staff.Without further ado, the pitchers:
Forgive Jack McKeon if he seems a bit blase about spring training, since he's been around big-league training camps since 1949, when the eager 18-year-old unsuccessfully tried out for the Pirates as my grandparents dreamed of one day emigrating to Canada. He never did achieve his major league dream as a player, but in his fourth decade as a manager, he's not complaining. Quite the contrary, in fact -- with the help of Kevin Kernan of the New York Post, McKeon has authored I'm Just Getting Started, in which he vows to keep managing. McKeon hopes his second book will inspire his fellow septugenarians.
Obviously an old-timer, McKeon manages by instinct, and allows his players to play the style of ball that suits them. In particular, his willingness to let players hit or pitch their way out of slumps makes him a popular leader despite the obvious generation gap. Then again, if your rotation's in the training room and your home games become road games due to weather, there ain't much you can do. McKeon really needs to pay close attention this season to the strain his young hurlers might be putting on their arms. There ain't much in the hopper to fill in.MGR Jack McKeon
OK, so the Marlins are the trendy pick to take the NL East. I like them, and I really like a lot of the players they have -- there's no shortage of talent. Florida's got a fine infield, a rising superstar in left, a dangerous centrefielder if healthy, and three starting pitchers capable of dominant seasons. There just aren't many teams, especially in the Senior Circuit, who can boast of a similar treasure chest heading into the season.
That said, I just don't feel that the stars are properly aligned for the Marlins to make the postseason, as several of the hallmarks of a championship club are conspicuous by their absence. Consider: starting pitching (yes), durability (no), power (generally yes), contact ability (yes), patience (top-heavy, but yes), speed (yes, but considerably less so than in the past), depth in case of injuries (definitely not), defence (generally yes), strong back end of the bullpen (maybe not), a wealth of tradeable prospects for midseason help (no), financial resources to take on more money mid-season (questionable), good manager (yes), good bench (no), versatility up and down roster (no). There are an awful lot of non-affirmative answers here to pick a team to unseat the still-kicking Braves, Raul Mondesi notwithstanding. The Marlins are just so prone to key injuries, and so peculiarly ill-suited to cope with key injuries, that I can't predict a first-place finish.
Put me down for an 86-76 mark for the Marlins, with no wild card. We're all pulling for Mr. Delgado, but I don't think this is the year for Carlos to have the parade he so dearly loves.