The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Marlins Eliminated; What's Next?

It became official yesterday. With the loss yesterday afternoon, the Florida Marlins were eliminated from post-season contention. The loss was the Marlins sixth in a row and it dropped Dontrelle Willis’s 2004 record to 10 wins and 11 losses. Fittingly, the defeat came at the hands of the Atlanta Braves.

While the Marlins have won two World Series titles in their short existence, they have never won a division title. Each year the Marlins have existed that honor has gone to the Braves (even including the two years before the Marlins entered the National League; the Braves have won each title that has been awarded since 1991 and the Marlins started play in 1993).

So it’s a sad day today in Marlin-land. But it shouldn’t be necessarily. Tonight’s game in Montreal against the Expos will be the Marlins first “meaningless” game since late in the 2002 campaign and for that alone Marlins fans should be thankful. Since that time – up until yesterday’s defeat – there was always at least a glimmer of hope that the Marlins would be able to put it together and reach the post-season. And as we all came to know in the last year’s playoffs, the Marlins have yet to lose a post-season series. That streak will live at least one more year.

This offseason should prove to be an exciting one for Marlins fans too – or at least an interesting one. Last year Fish fans got to bask in the glory of a World Championship offseason. This year, that won’t be the case, but there will be many interesting goings-on to keep the flames of the hot stove season stoked until pitchers and catchers report in the winter.

What’s to worry about?
First and foremost, there are a lot of free agents and potential free agents. Armando Benitez will likely be on the market, and he likely won’t be back. It’s not that the Fish don’t want him back, it’s that they likely won’t be able to afford his asking price – particularly after the stellar year he had in Miami. Benitez might think twice though before he inks a lucrative contract somewhere else. For a ballplayer who’s had as many ups-and-downs as Benitez over the years, staying in the relatively tame media market of Miami (plus the lack of a state income tax) might be worth something to him.

Carl Pavano, who for much of the year looked not only like the staff ace but also like a Cy Young candidate, has also earned free agency. Much like Benitez, he’s likely pitched himself out of the Fish’s price range. Pavano is a little younger than Benitez, and hasn’t yet had the opportunity to cash in on a big pay-day, so don’t be surprised to see him in another team’s colors come opening day. Plus, he has to be itching to get out of town just to get himself away from everyone who’s heard the smack that Alissa Milano has been talking about him since their breakup.

Possibly the most disturbing loss of all is the potential free agency of Mike Lowell. Lowell’s situation is quite different from most ballplayers in that the four year deal he signed last offseason is contigent upon the team finding financing for a new ballpark. Based on the language in his contract, Lowell will have the right to opt out of his deal. Now it’s just a matter of whether he will or not. Indications are that Lowell would like to stay with the team – he’s as much of a Miami native as anyone – as long as there’s at least a chance they’ll remain competitive. If he’ll have to go through something like what the Marlins went through in 1998, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him opt for free agency. Teams will be lined up for Lowell’s services, and he’d likely even be able to manage a raise for himself in the process of picking out a new club.

Not all of the Marlins players are in such high demand though, and two such players will likely be clogging up roster spots for the 2005 season. One will be Jeff Conine, who is likely to play out the final year of his contract (which is set to pay him $3 million in 2005). That pretty much solidifies the first base position for the Marlins next year, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. At least the Marlins will only have to see the relatively affordable and much more powerful Hee Seop Choi a few times next season (assuming he’s still wearing Dodger blue).

The Marlins also find themselves saddled with out machine Juan Encarnacion as they prepare for the 2005 season. Even with all the magic that general manager Larry Beinfest has been able to work over the last few seasons, it’s highly doubtful that he’ll be able to pull off anything satisfactory with Encarnacion. About the only good thing you can say about having Juan in 2005 is that Beinfest and the Marlins acquired him in 2004 as they made a legitimate and concerted effort to reach the post-season in 2004. You may not agree with the moves they made, but at least they made moves and did something they thought would work. They leveraged the future for the present, and even took on some payroll to do it. In the end it didn’t work out, but it’s hard to fault them for trying. I’d rather see them go wrong like this once in awhile than to stand pat and not make the playoffs that way. This at least gave us an extra month or two of hope.

Hope is about all that Marlins fans have with regards to the return of catcher Paul Lo Duca and pitcher A.J. Burnett. Both are due for arbitration and substantial raises this year. Depending on the status of the free agents discussed above, the Marlins may or may not be able to afford one or both of these players. Lo Duca will likely be retained, if only to have a daily reminder on the field that the Dodgers trade was just not a rental deal.

Burnett’s situation is a much more interesting one. Coming back from Tommy John surgery this year, Burnett pitched much like the staff ace that he was before his arm troubles, although his record did not indicate it. When Burnett pitched well, the Marlins bats were often anemic. Also working against Burnett was a late season injury, which he feels he has recovered from well enough to return before the end of the week, but which will likely nonetheless cause doubts about his long term health and therefore the potential value of any long term contract he could sign. However, with the ability to go to arbitration, Burnett will likely be able to earn himself a healthy raise for the 2005 season, and the threat of that alone may be enough to scare the Marlins into trading him away before they have to start writing those checks.

The Positives
Don’t lose hope though. There are still plenty of positives.

First and foremost, there’s Miguel Cabrera. No one can say for sure yet where exactly he’ll be playing next year, but he most definitely will be playing. Cabrera brings a potent bat to the lineup that only the most elite players in the game can match. Hopefully Lowell will be back next year, or at least Lo Duca or Conine, to provide Cabrera with some protection in the lineup, otherwise, Marlins fans might start to see him treated like Barry Bonds lite. With only the likes of Alex Gonzalez, Juan Pierre, and Luis Castillo around him in the lineup, there’s not much reason to pitch to Cabrera. Miguel may play third base or somewhere in the outfield, but regardless – he will be one of the most exciting players in the league to watch next year, regardless of age. And when you take into account that he’ll start out the season as a twenty-one year old, it’s simply mind-numbing. There’s a great future ahead of this young man, and if you keep watching the Marlins, you’re likely to get to see an entire Hall of Fame career unfold before your eyes.

Second, and still quite possibly first, is young pitching. Yes, the Marlins might lose both Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett this offseason; it’s unlikely, but still possible. My best guess is that they’ll do their best to keep at least one of them. Still, without Pavano or Burnett, the Marlins will still have World Series MVP Josh Beckett and 2003 Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis.

Sure, there’s the possibility that we’ll be referring to Beckett and Willis with those introductions for the rest of their careers (meaning that they’ll accomplish nothing else significant from here on), but that’s unlikely. Both are young, and while both are inconsistent, both have the most important thing you look for in a pitcher – and that’s good stuff. Plus, Beckett and Willis have proved that their good stuff is good enough to allow them to succeed – and at the highest stages of the game – on the major league level.

It’s true, the Marlins will not be brining the 1927 Yankees to their 2005 Spring camp (heck, they’d be old anyway) – and they’re not even going to bring back their 2003 club. They still should field a competitive club, and with their current budget and stadium situation, that’s about all you can ask for.

It will at least be an interesting – if not tumultuous – offseason for the Marlins. Stadium deals, free agency issues, and arbitration hearings will likely steal the headlines. Fans will be left to hope that if a stadium is financed that it doesn’t work out like in Milwaukee, where the taxpayers are left footing the bill for a team that isn’t really competing, or even in Arizona, where the people paid for the park, but now the team isn’t worth paying to see. Hopefully though those things can be resolved and attention can turn back to talking about how good Miguel Cabrera might be and whether or not young pitchers like Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett will really put it together or not.


Post a Comment

<< Home