10/26/2003 2:40 PM ET
Marlins rotation rising fast
With Burnett back in '04, it might be the best in baseball
By Mychael Urban / MLB.com
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NEW YORK -- Take a quick look around baseball with an eye on next season, and a couple of remarkable starting rotations jump out at you.
In the American League, it's the five-headed monster in Oakland. Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder have all finished either first or second in a Cy Young vote, they're 25, 25 and 28 years old, respectively, and they've got 28-year-old Ted Lilly and phenom-in-training Rich Harden, 21, behind them.
In the National League, it's the Cubs who command your attention. Mark Prior, 23, and Kerry Wood, 26, have the look of a 1-2 punch that might someday soon rival the Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling combo for pure power, 22-year-old Carlos Zambrano has frightening potential, and Matt Clement, 29, appears to be just now tapping his.
What about their fifth, you say? Hey, throw yourself into that mix and it's still the most imposing young rotation in the senior circuit.
Or is it? If they're intact and healthy for 2004, the World Series champion Florida Marlins -- go ahead and say that out loud a couple of times so it can truly sink in: "World Series champion Florida Marlins" -- might have a rotation even better than the A's and Cubs.
"No doubt," staff ace and World Series MVP Josh Beckett said after his five-hit masterpiece snuffed out the vaunted Yankees on Saturday night in the Bronx. "We've got six guys who give us a great chance to win whenever they're out there.
"If someone doesn't look at us and think we're not right there with those top staffs, they haven't been watching us very closely."
Beckett makes a good point when he uses the number six, because most fans didn't get to know these Marlins until they started their Wild Card run. So when they think of the Florida rotation, they think of Beckett, first-half marvel Dontrelle Willis, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and Mark Redman.
Beckett, believe it or not, is the only one of the five who didn't win at least 12 games; he missed most of May and all of June with an elbow issue. But with several nights of eye-popping power pitching in the playoffs, the last and best of those on three days of rest, he proved without a doubt that he's the best of a very good bunch.
He might not have gotten that chance, however, were it not for an injury to A.J. Burnett. A 26-year-old righthander with electric stuff, Burnett went 12-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 2002 and was drawing comparisons to some of the game's best, but after 23 innings in 2003 he underwent Tommy John surgery in April and missed the rest of the year.
He's not even profiled in the Marlins' postseason media guide, but if he can come back strong from the surgery -- Chicago's Wood and several others have proven that it can be done -- he'll bump one of the five starters with whom Florida stunned baseball to the bullpen.
"People seem to have forgotten all about A.J. and how good he is when he's healthy," Beckett said. "That dude can pitch, man, so when he comes back, watch out."
Beckett, Burnett, Penny and Pavano are right-handers, Redman and Willis lefties. Redman is 29, Penny 25, Beckett 23, Willis 21 and Pavano 27. None of them are signed for next year yet, but none of them are eligible for free agency, either.
So they'll all be back. And they hope that catcher Pudge Rodriguez, who is eligible for free agency, will be back with them.
"Pudge is such a pro," said Pavano. "It's incredible the way he handles this staff."
"Pudge isn't a pitcher, but he knows more about pitching than I do," said Redman.
"Pudge is the glue," said Willis.
"Pudge deserves a lot of credit for what we've done as pitchers," said Penny.
As for Pudge himself, he wouldn't commit to another year in South Florida in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's celebration, but when asked about another year with the Marlins' young moundsmen, he broke into a smile.
"That's a lot of good arms, isn't it?" he said. "They're going to be special for a long, long time."
It is sounding like they are going to have a pretty solid rotation.