By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (91-71) - Second Place (NL East); World Series champions
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Armando Benitez, 1B - Hee Seop Choi, 1B - Wil Cordero, RP - Mike Neu, SP - Darren Oliver
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Armando Almanza, OF - Juan Encarnacion, OF - Todd Hollandsworth, 1B - Derrek Lee, RP - Braden Looper, SP - Mark Redman, C- Ivan Rodriguez; RP - Ugueth Urbina
PROJECTED LINEUP: Juan Pierre (CF); Luis Castillo (2B); Miguel Cabrera (RF); Mike Lowell (3B); Jeff Conine (LF); Hee Seop Choi (1B); Ramon Castro (C) Alex Gonzalez (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Josh Beckett (RHP); Brad Penny (RHP); Dontrelle Willis (LHP); Carl Pavano (RHP); Darren Oliver (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Armando Benitez (RHP)
MANAGER: Jack McKeon
While the Marlins didn't have a complete fire sale like the one following the 1997 World Series title, it will be tough for Florida to climb back to championship status in 2004. The year after winning their first World Series crown, the Marlins were literally cooked on a hot stove, losing a franchise- record 108 games. However, unlike 1998, a good portion of last year's team is still intact, even though free agency and trades took a bite out of the Marlins.
The team lost 10-time All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez, Gold Glove winning first baseman Derrek Lee, outfielder Juan Encarnacion, starting pitcher Mark Redman, and relievers Braden Looper and Ugueth Urbina from last year. However, they did re-sign more than a dozen players from 2003.
The Marlins will also have several new faces for manager Jack McKeon, who heads into his first full season as Florida's skipper. Last May 11 the Marlins were 16-22 and they fired manager Jeff Torborg and replaced him with 72-year-old McKeon. The Marlins made an incredible turnaround, snatching the NL wild card away from the Philadelphia Phillies and upsetting the San Francisco Giants in the Division Series. They then rallied to beat the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS and won the final three games to knock off the New York Yankees in the World Series.
With a new cast of players it will be hard for the Marlins to have a repeat run at the wild card, let alone a title in the competitive National League East. New to the team will be closer Armando Benitez, first baseman Hee Seop Choi and pitcher Darren Oliver. Ramon Castro will take over as the starting catcher, while 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera moves to right field.
The loss of Pudge will no doubt hurt the club's veteran leadership. Rodriguez was one of the driving forces in Florida's championship run as he hit .313 in the postseason. However, the team still has a solid rotation with World Series MVP Josh Beckett heading the staff. Brad Penny, NL Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis and Carl Pavano are also in the mix. A.J. Burnett, who missed almost all of last year due to Tommy John surgery, may not be back until the All-Star break.
Speed remains a huge asset for the Marlins, who led the majors in steals last season. Centerfielder Juan Pierre and second baseman Castillo spearhead that effort and are probably the most reliable 1-2 hitters at the top of a lineup in the NL. Over the last three seasons, Pierre and Castillo are second and third, respectively, among all major leaguers for most singles. The team also returns third baseman Mike Lowell and left fielder Jeff Conine, who will help in the offensive effort.
Choi is slated to start at first base following the loss of Lee, who was traded to the Cubs. The Marlins may not have much patience with Choi, who hit only .218 last year, but worked the second half of the year to overcome a concussion. If Choi fails then Conine or Wil Cordero will step in and play first. The 25-year-old Choi, a 6'5, 240-pound slugger from Korea, has a lot of upside, but only if he can harness his potential power.
The 28-year-old Castillo has made the All-Star team the last two years and in 2003 he captured his first Gold Glove. Castillo signed a three-year, $16 million contract to remain with the Marlins, rather than accept a deal to go to the Mets. He is so valuable to the Marlins because of his strength at the plate and in the field. Last year he hit .314 with 39 RBI and 21 steals. He's got great patience at the plate, as he had more walks than strikeouts (63-60) last year. He's hit at least .300 in four of the last five seasons.
Also up the middle defensively for the Marlins will be Alex Gonzalez, who agreed to a two-year contract in the offseason. Gonzalez, most remembered for his winning home run in Game 4 of the World Series, hit .256 with 18 homers and 77 RBI in 150 games last year, decent numbers for a shortstop.
Lowell inked a four-year, $32 million contract in the offseason with the deal contingent if the Marlins secure a new stadium. The two-time All-Star was slowed by a broken hand in September, but still managed to hit .276 with team bests in homers (32) and RBI (105).
Losing 10-time Gold Glove winner Rodriguez will no doubt hurt, but the Marlins will have to turn the page with Castro behind the plate in 2004. The 28-year- old hit .283 in 40 games last year. Mike Redmond, who hit .240 last year, may also see some playing time at catcher. Either way, the spot is a downgrade from 2003.
Pierre is the table setter for the offense; and although he doesn't have a strong arm, his speed is a huge asset defensively, especially in the spacious confines of Pro Player Stadium. Pierre had 204 hits last season, third most in the NL. His 65 steals were easily the most in the majors and his batting average of .305 and 100 runs scored enhanced his offensive abilities. An injured pinkie shouldn't prevent Pierre from playing at the start of the season.
More pressure will be on rightfielder Miguel Cabrera, who turns 21 in April. Cabrera was called up from Double-A Carolina last year and provided offensive spark to the middle of the lineup. He batted .268 with 12 homers and 62 RBI. Cabrera filled in for Lowell at third base while also playing the outfield last season. Now Cabrera moves to right to take the place of Encarnacion, who was traded to Los Angeles.
Conine, the lone holdover from both Florida championship squads, hit a combined .282 last season, but just .238 after being traded from Baltimore to the Marlins. The 37-year-old still has a good glove in left and is a career .297 hitter at Pro Player Stadium.
Despite the loss of Redman, Florida has a solid foursome going into this season and the fifth spot may turn out to also be a windfall, especially if Burnett can return at full strength in a timely fashion.
The 23-year-old Beckett, who will be the Marlins' opening day starter, went 9-8 with a 3.04 ERA last season. The righthander showed flashes of brilliance last year, as he pitched a five-hit shutout during the decisive Game 6 of the World Series. Beckett is eager to have a solid season, as he's 17-17 with a 3.32 ERA over his three-year career. He has excellent pitch location and throws hitters off guard. Last season, Beckett compiled 152 strikeouts, against just 56 walks in 142 innings.
Righthanders Penny and Pavano both have the ability to eat up innings, which may give Florida's retooled bullpen a rest. Penny will likely be the No. 2 starter, in front of Willis. Pavano is expected to be in the No. 4 slot, ahead of Oliver for the start of the season. Pavano pitched 201 innings last year with Penny throwing 196 1/3.
Penny was 14-10 with a 4.13 ERA in 32 starts last year. He tied for the team lead in wins with Redman and Willis. Penny also compiled a 2-0 mark and a 2.19 ERA in two World Series starts, making him only the fourth pitcher to beat the Yankees twice in the Fall Classic. The 25-year-old Penny (40-34) enters the season two wins shy of Ryan Dempster's team record.
Pavano went 12-13 last season with a 4.30 ERA in 33 games, 32 starts. The 28- year-old also went 2-0 in the postseason with a 1.40 ERA while making eight appearances, including two starts.
Willis, the 22-year-old high-kicking southpaw, finished his rookie season with a 14-6 record and 3.30 ERA, striking out 142 batters and providing the Marlins with a nice early-season spark in their lengthy run to the playoffs. Called up from Double-A Carolina in May, he was 9-1 with a 2.08 ERA before the All-Star break, but leveled off later by going 5-5 with 4.60 ERA in the second half. He set Florida's record for wins by a rookie. On June 16 against the Mets, Willis became the first Marlins rookie to toss a one-hitter.
Willis was moved to the bullpen for the playoffs last year and either he or Oliver may be moved into a relief role again once Burnett returns. That isn't expected to become an issue for at least a couple of months.
Oliver, a 33-year-old lefthander, has struggled throughout his career with an ERA of 5.02. However, he will be given a chance at the back of the rotation. He was 13-11 with a 5.04 ERA in 33 games last season for Colorado, including a career-best 32 starts. He fell one shy of a career-high in wins, set with the Texas Rangers in 1996.
Burnett went 12-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 2002, but his recovery from Tommy John surgery is taking longer than expected and he still has pain in his right elbow.
This is by far the weakest part of the Marlins. Benitez, a 31-year-old hard throwing righthander, will be under a lot of pressure as the new closer following the losses of Urbina and Looper. Benitez, who pitched for the Mets, Yankees and Mariners last year, blew eight saves in 29 opportunities. Yet, he has still converted 85 percent of his save chances in his career.
Righthanders Chad Fox and Blaine Neal will serve as setup men, along with lefthander Mike Neu, who was acquired from the A's in the Redman deal. Lefties Michael Tejera and Tommy Phelps will likely fill the role of long relievers.
Brian Banks and Abraham Nunez will be used as reserves for the outfield, while Mike Mordecai has the ability to play several infield positions. Cordero hit .278 with 16 home runs and 71 RBI in 130 games last year for the Expos. However, Florida lacks a power hitter off the bench. Perennial pinch-hitter Lenny Harris and infielder Damion Easley were also fighting for spots on the team in spring training.
After their magical run to winning the World Series last year, the Marlins are no longer the big secret in the National League. Their starting pitching may be the best in the NL East, but their bullpen is loaded with question marks. Lowell and Conine are keys in the middle of the lineup. Team chemistry was instrumental last year for the Marlins, but without Pudge in the clubhouse McKeon's young players will have to pull together. A repeat run to the playoffs will be difficult.