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.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Florida Marlins Pre-Spring Preview Part One: Starting Pitching

There's less than one week now until pitchers and catchers report for duty at Spring Training, so it’s about time to start looking ahead to the 2005 season. We can finally put aside talk of contracts, stadium financing, and all of the other financial details and just talk about baseball (well, I say that now, but inevitably something will happen very soon to get me all worked up and I’ll start harping about the business side of things once again).

This is the first in a pre-spring series on the 2005 Florida Marlins. Today the focus will be on the starting pitchers. Future pieces, which should follow over the next few days, will focus on relievers, the starting lineup, bench players, key questions for the season, and prospects.

Starting Pitching
If the Marlins are to make a run at the post-season this year (and surprisingly, despite winning two World Championships in the last decade, winning their first ever division title is a distinct possibility) they will likely be led by their starting pitching. Without a doubt, the potential for greatness exists up and down this rotation. Ok, maybe not greatness throughout the entire rotation, but at least from three of the five expected starters, and a fourth is a quality, known major league entity (the fifth starter is just a known major league entity - note the lack of quality).

Al Leiter, signed as a free agent this offseason, is that fourth starter (although technically he’ll probably assume the third slot in the rotation this year). Greatness is not expected from him (at least not in the sense of accumulating twenty wins or taking home the Cy Young award). In his second stint with the Marlins (remember his first time in teal? Leiter threw a no hitter and was a key cog in the 1997 World Championship machine), Leiter will be relied upon as a mentoring influence on the team’s young and talented staff.

That staff will be led by three young arms that are high on potential and relatively low on results. Josh Beckett is the most well known of the young guns, if for nothing else because of his World Series MVP worthy performance in 2003 (although being the second overall pick in the draft gains you some notoriety as well). However, in the regular season, Beckett has proved to be much more of a mere mortal. His .500 winning percentage is not quite what the Marlins have hoped for, and as Beckett inches closer to free agency, he’ll be hoping to turn in more spectacular regular season performances as well.

Beckett’s career has been plagued by injuries – mainly blisters on his throwing hand. While the team likely could afford to lose Beckett for a small stretch this season (because of their depth), ideally he would be healthy all year and win close to twenty games and amass somewhere in the neighborhood of two-hundred innings. Both of those marks would be career highs for Beckett, who has never totaled more than nine wins or 156 innings in a single season. 20 wins and 200 innings per year are benchmarks for staff aces. If Beckett wants to be regarded along those lines, he’ll need to start putting up the numbers (at twenty-five, this will be Beckett’s fifth season in the majors). Otherwise, the reputation that Beckett started to gain last year - for relying on his stuff, and not being a pitcher and for not following the recommendations of team doctors and trainers - will start to carry more weight than his potential.

Another Marlins’ potential ace who needs to start producing those sorts of numbers (in order for the team to contend and for him to live up to his billing) is right-handed fireballer A.J. Burnett. At 27, Burnett is a few years older than Beckett, and despite having Tommy John surgery in 2003, he is arguably the staff’s ace. Still, he has never won more than twelve games in a season. Despite this, scouts (and anyone else who has seen him pitch) would certainly tell you that A.J. has the “stuff” to win twenty games.

Whether or not Dontrelle Willis has the “stuff” to be a top flight major league pitcher is still up for debate. Most of the so-called experts would argue that Dontrelle doesn’t have it. They’d say that he’s more style over substance and that it’s just a matter of time before major league hitters catch up to Dontrelle’s herky-jerky motion.

The D-Train would beg to differ with that assessment, and his 2003 Rookie of the Year award would back him up. Still, Dontrelle’s accomplishments in the majors have been as much emotional (he contributed as much to the team’s resurgence in 2003 as any single person – player, coach, or front office person) as performance related. Still, Dontrelle is a young (23 years old) left-hander with a healthy arsenal of pitches, including a fastball that tops out in the low-90s. That’s a recipe for opportunity in the major leagues, even if some question marks surround his ability. Dontrelle has significant upside – maybe not as much as Burnett and Beckett, but few in the majors do. If Willis is able to solidify himself as a number three or four starter in this rotation, the Marlins will be well on their way to the postseason.

The starting rotation is rounded out by veteran Ismael Valdes (note the “s” and not the “z” at the end of his name). While Valdes is not anything spectacular, he is a solid fifth starter, and that’s more than most teams are taking into Spring Training.

Overall the Marlins rotation is very solid. There’s a mix of experience (Leiter and Valdes) and potential (Burnett, Beckett, and Willis). It’s also extremely positive that two of the pitchers high on “potential” bring post-season experience (and success) to the staff (Beckett and Willis).

The question marks that surround this pitching staff are:
1) Will Burnett and Beckett stay healthy? If they do, there’s little reason to doubt that they will perform exceptionally well.

2) Is Willis the real deal or was he a flash in the pan? The jury is out on this one, but Dontrelle reportedly worked on his mechanics and mental preparation in the offseason. Debate about the merits of his mechanics will likely follow Dontrelle throughout his career, but they are probably at least as much to credit for his success as they are reason for his struggles. The mental preparation issue is an interesting one. Much of Willis’s game revolves around his self-described mantra of “fun and excitement.” While this is well and good and brings a lot to the clubhouse over the course of a 162 game regular season, at times when he’s on the mound it can cause him to overwork and use energy unnecessarily. If Willis has learned how to channel that energy, it could aid him greatly on the hill.

3) Does Leiter still have it? Leiter is 39 and will be pushing 40 by the time the end of the season rolls around. Whether or not he can continue to maintain his track record of excellence is a question. He obviously has so far, but eventually he won’t be able to. For every Roger Clemens (who succeeds at this age) there are hundreds and thousands of pitchers who retire (or fail). A solid year from Leiter is critical in allowing the Marlins to be successful in the coming year.

4) What role will Ismael Valdes fill? Going into the season, expectations are that Valdes will be the Marlins fifth starter. For this role, he is ideally suited. Valdes is not blocking a youngster in the organization, and he can be counted on for solid (but probably not spectacular) innings when needed. However, if injuries to Beckett and/or Burnett (or anyone else on the staff) force the Marlins to give Valdes a bigger role, it puts the Marlins in a precarious position, as they’ll be forced to fill a spot in the rotation with a lesser pitcher. Realistically though, this is the situation that nearly every team in baseball faces. Ask the Yankees – even their starting rotation doesn’t run seven or eight men deep.

The Bottom Line
On a team with many strengths, the Marlins starting rotation stands out as one of the team’s strongest suits. At least it does on paper. The potential is there for a great staff, but that largely hinges on the health of Burnett and Beckett. If they remain healthy, it’s not unreasonable to expect something in the neighborhood of twenty wins from each of them, fifteen more from Leiter, and a dozen each from Willis and Valdes. That would total up to 79 wins, which on paper sounds great (because the bullpen can easily chime in with the other 10 to 15 wins that they’ll need to reach the post-season). 79 wins is probably optimistic, but not out of the realm of possibility. If they're in that neighborhood, you can expect to see the Marlins playing deep into October.


Post a Comment

<< Home