By Matt Josephs, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (83-79) - Third Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Antonio Alfonseca; 1B - Carlos Delgado; RP - Todd Jones; SP - Al Leiter; RP - Jim Mecir; RP - John Riedling
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Armando Benitez; RP - Chad Fox; SP - Carl Pavano; C - Mike Redmond
PROJECTED LINEUP: Juan Pierre (CF), Luis Castillo (2B), Miguel Cabrera (LF), Carlos Delgado (1B), Mike Lowell (3B), Paul Lo Duca (C), Juan Encarnacion (RF), Alex Gonzalez (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Josh Beckett (RHP), Al Leiter (LHP), A.J. Burnett (RHP), Dontrelle Willis (LHP), Ismael Valdez (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Guillermo Mota (RHP)
MANAGER: Jack McKeon
In order to best sum up last season for Marlins fans, we go to U.S. Cellular Field on September 13. On that day, the White Sox are nowhere to be found and Pro Player Stadium is awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Ivan. Instead, thousands of miles away from their home, the Marlins and Expos are playing in front of a sparse crowd of disinterested fans. Because of the September hurricanes, the Marlins finished the season on a murderous stretch with three doubleheaders and 30 games in 27 days. A pivotal home series with the Cubs turned into four games at Wrigley Field and a one-day doubleheader in Florida. The tired team struggled down the stretch forcing them to miss the playoffs after their World Series triumph in 2003.
As is the norm for Marlins offseasons, important players left the team and were replaced for the most part with cheaper alternatives. The team lost the ace of its staff and its closer that stabilized a very shaky bullpen. Carl Pavano got fitted for Yankee pinstripes, while Armando Benitez went to San Francisco to replace Matt Herges.
Pavano's spot in the rotation will go to 39-year-old Al Leiter who returns to the team looking to recapture the glory he had while on the 1997 World Series championship team. Leiter is coming off a year in which he went 10-8 with a 3.21 ERA. Management is hoping that he'll bring veteran leadership to the clubhouse and to a rotation that at times has shown its youth. Also returning from the past is relief pitcher Antonio Alfonseca. He was the closer for the 2000 team, and will be the main set-up man and first option to finish should current closer Guillermo Mota fail.
The Marlins did pull a rabbit out of the hat by managing to sign first baseman Carlos Delgado and preventing the New York Mets from getting him. Delgado fills a tremendous hole, as the Marlins only produced 21 home runs from the left side of the plate last season. Delgado is coming off his worst season since 1997 and his health has come into question, but there is no doubt as to his value on this team. He represents the protection that Mike Lowell and Miguel Cabrera haven't seen during their days as Marlins.
The division has improved drastically with the Mets and Braves both adding top pitching talents from the American League. Carlos Beltran also greatly improves a Mets team that under performed last year making this a tough year for the Fish to swim upstream.
The Marlins infield has stayed constant for the most part over the past five years. This year, however, Delgado will be playing first base. In his career he's only had 89 errors and will fit in nicely with the Gold Glove potential of Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez. Delgado battled a strained ribcage muscle throughout last season, but still managed to hit 32 homers. He's also shown the capability to hit the timely double, and is not considered an "all or nothing" power hitter.
Luis Castillo jumped around the lineup last year. For the majority of the season he was slotted second as the other table setter behind Juan Pierre. He enjoyed immense success there the past two years, but was moved to the bottom of the lineup once Paul Lo Duca arrived. Castillo has uncanny ability to get his bat on the ball and move runners through bunts or perfectly placed hits. Luis isn't quite the speed demon on base anymore and hasn't stolen as much since his injury after the 2002 season.
His partner in crime is Alex Gonzalez as the two were voted a top double-play combo. Gonzalez arguably could have won the Gold Glove at the position last year, committing a career-low 16 errors. Time after time he has made the highlights with spectacular catches and amazing throws from his knees. The excellence he shows in fielding makes up for the ugliness that is his hitting. Alex is prone to long slumps and hardly walks. Unlike Delgado, he is your typical "all or nothing" hitter. "Sea Bass," as his teammates call him, hit 23 homers last year.
If the baseball season was only 81 games, then Lowell would be a Hall of Famer. The third baseman starts out the season on fire, but has had a long track record of fading in the second half of the season. He's a .245 hitter in the month of August and an overall .268 hitter after the All-Star break. Lowell hit 27 HRs last year, but only nine of them were with runners on base.
Lo Duca is another Marlin who struggles in the second half of the season. This can be expected from a catcher as he goes through the wear and tear of a long baseball season. Lo Duca hit .337 in August, but in September his average dipped to .189. His debut for the team was memorable last year, as he hit a homer in the ninth inning against the Expos, endearing himself to the team and more importantly the fans.
Pierre is the team's heartbeat. As he goes, so does the team because of his ability to get on base via the bunt or a slap hit, which gives the club early runners in every game. For the third time in four years, Pierre had 200 hits. He's a demon on the bases, although he had a down year last year. He was caught a career high 24 times out of 69 chances. Pitchers threw over to his base more often, causing his leads to shrink each time. The only weakness in Pierre's game is his noodle arm in the outfield. Runners frequently take an extra base on any ball hit to center. To make up for this, Pierre has an uncanny ability to run down almost any ball hit to his area, including the Bermuda Triangle out in Pro Player's spacious center field.
In his second stint with the team, Juan Encarnacion did not get off to the hottest start. Perhaps his badly damaged labrum limited his production. Encarnacion hit a woeful .229 after the All-Star break. He managed to finish in the bottom 10 in on-base percentage in the league. When healthy, he can hit a few home runs and steal a couple bases. He's considered to be a good fielder with an excellent arm, but is prone to laziness on tough plays.
Cabrera stands to benefit the most from the arrival of Delgado. The 21-year- old has managed to put up staggering numbers in only two seasons. In his first full season as a Marlin, Cabrera hit .294 with 33 HRs and 112 RBI. Some compare his numbers to Hank Aaron as the home run king hit five less homers and had one more RBI then Cabrera in their first two seasons. Even more impressive is that Cabrera increased his walk total from his rookie season. Cabrera also has managed to play three positions in those two years, moving from third base to left to right field. He has shown mental lapses at times fielding the ball and misplaying fly balls, but has a strong arm to make up for those mistakes.
The much-hyped Marlins rotation returns for another season with 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett expected to be the Opening Day starter. He may be one of the biggest head cases in baseball. The talent is there, as seen by his performance in the playoffs, but a recurring blister problem and a standoffish attitude has prevented him from being the ace he can be. Beckett comes at hitters with a solid curveball and a fastball that tops out at 97 mph. Last season he pitched a career-high 156.2 innings, which illustrates the injury problems he's endured. The righthander finished the year 9-9 with a 3.79 ERA, including three stints on the disabled list.
The most talented pitcher on the team is A.J. Burnett, but he's also got durability issues. These issues stem from overuse in 2002 when he threw more then 120 pitches 10 times and eventually needed to have Tommy John surgery. Burnett routinely touches 100 mph on the gun and has a curveball that makes even the best hitter's knees buckle. Last season, he went 7-6 with a 3.68 ERA. Burnett is pitching for a contract, so don't be surprised if he contends for the Cy Young this year and makes a huge impact on the team.
In stark contrast to the two fireballers, lefthanders Dontrelle Willis and Al Leiter don't depend on overwhelming fastballs to get outs. Leiter has become more of a finesse pitcher in his older years and has relied on getting out of frequent deep counts. Leiter led the league in pitches-per-batter and is close to the top in throws over to first base.
The reigning Rookie of the Year found his sophomore year tougher as batters adjusted themselves to the high leg kick and the jerky motion. This motion makes his fastball seem faster then it really is. Willis went 10-11 with a 4.02 ERA last year. Willis did not manage to string together three quality starts all season. His durability came into question also as he was able to last beyond five innings only nine times. Willis is dominant against lefties, yielding only a .205 batting average against them all season. His problem is with the righties who hit .287 against him.
Rounding out the rotation is late season addition Ismael Valdez. The picture of mediocrity, Valdez really doesn't have a specialty. The 31-year-old righthander went 5-3 for the whole season with a 4.50 ERA for the Marlins. He only struck out 30 batters in his 11 outings for the Marlins, so he benefits from the solid fielding behind him.
If Valdez falters, the Marlins could turn to retreads Brian Moehler, Frank Castillo, Nate Bump or Ben Howard. It got so bad for the Fish last year that they turned to Single-A pitcher Logan Kensing during that fatal stretch in September. Kensing went 0-3 with a 9.88 ERA. The Marlins could have used heralded prospect Trevor Hutchinson, but he went down with a torn rotator cuff in spring training.
Armando Benitez came into this job last year as a shaky closer, who Marlins fans hoped wouldn't blow as many leads as he did in New York. Benitez only turned in one of his best seasons in his career. He went 2-2 with a 1.29 ERA and 47 saves. He only managed to blow four saves, surpassing everyone's expectations. Naturally, a big payday came and out Benitez went. In to take his place is Guillermo Mota, who has set up for Benitez and Eric Gagne. Mota registered a 1.97 ERA for the Dodgers in 2003, but that slipped to 3.07 last year. He had three saves as a Marlin and 13 holds, and also blew four saves and has led Marlins brass to believe he may not be able to handle the closer role. First in line to replace him is Antonio Alfonseca. After toiling under Leo Mazzone last year, Alfonseca's ERA fell from 5.83 to 2.57. In 2000, he saved 45 games for the Marlins.
Matt Perisho is the only other holdover from last year's bullpen and is one of only two lefties in a relief role. Perisho specialized in getting out Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu and J.D. Drew. He managed to strike out Thome in six of nine at bats last year. Perisho's ERA isn't too glorious at 4.40, but he's held left-handed batters to a .207 batting average.
The rest of this year's bullpen features brand new arms. Tim Spooneybarger, whom the Marlins received in the Mike Hampton trade, is coming off Tommy John surgery and hopes to regain pre-surgery form. He has a career 3.24 ERA and has electric stuff. Most likely though, Spooneybarger will be starting his season at Triple-A, but a call-up will be coming early in the season. Joining him is John Riedling who experienced a heavy workload the last two years in Cincinnati. He's had 125 appearances in the last two years leading to his high ERA. The 29-year-old had sub-three ERA's the first three years of his career and will hope to recapture that with a lighter workload.
Todd Jones and Jim Mecir round out the new righthanders in the bullpen. Jones has pitched for four teams in the last two years and hasn't really been able to find a groove lately. Jones went 11-5 last season, but managed to blow six of his eight save situations. Mecir was getting shelled in spring training, but has the potential to be a diamond in the rough. He's got a tough screwball, and last season was 0-5 with a 3.59 ERA for Oakland with 49 K's in almost 48 innings.
The wild card in the pen is six-foot-nine lefthander Luke Hagerty whom the Marlins got in the Rule V draft from the Orioles. Hagerty has yet to pitch in the majors, but scouts say his size and fastball are intriguing enough for a look. That is if the Marlins don't lose him since he may not be on the Opening Day roster.
Jack McKeon isn't really known to play his bench that often. Willis was used nine times, illustrating this point. Jeff Conine will be platooned with Encarnacion, but the Marlins can't expect much from him. The 38-year-old hit .280 last season, but is coming off a shoulder injury in the offseason playing racquetball. He should be ready by opening day, but will platoon in RF.
Lenny Harris has the league's pinch hit record and will be best known for his clutch hit off Gagne, giving the Marlins a victory off the tough closer. His skills are diminishing, but he's a big influence in the clubhouse. Damion Easley and Wilson Delgado represent the utility infielders for the team and Matt Treanor and Mike DiFelice will compete for the backup catcher's spot on the team. Joe Dillon, Josh Willingham and Chris Aguila also represent possible options on the bench. Dillon is a career minor leaguer with good power while Willingham and Aguila have the potential to come off the bench with clutch hits.
The Marlins have a lot of question marks. Can the starting rotation that's been touted with lots of hype finally stay healthy as a group and pitch up to their potential? Can a bullpen filled with mediocrity hold enough leads in order for the team to win? Can a lineup that is prone to a lot of dry spells score enough runs to offset the bullpen? The team has the talent to win this division and make a run in the playoffs. Delgado represents the left-handed bat this team needed and Leiter can be a 12 game winner. Injuries will hurt this team as they lack depth at almost all positions. If the pitching recaptures the fire they had in 2003, they could be back to the Fall Classic.