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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Florida Marlins Pre-Spring Preview Part Three: Starting Lineup

Valentine’s Day is behind us now and pitchers and catchers are officially reporting to camps in Tampa (Yankees), Melbourne (Nationals), and Sarasota (Reds), so the 2005 baseball season is starting to become a reality. Still, off the field news is making the headlines as most of the recent attention has been paid to Jose Canseco’s new book “Juiced”, which has been ranked as high as third on’s best-seller list.

Surprisingly, one book that’s receiving less attention is The Sporting News’ 2005 Official Baseball Record book. I received my advance copy last week – gratis no less. It’s the first book that I’ve ever received an advance copy of, and this copy made its way to me because of my contributions to the White Sox section. However, unless you’re an announcer or a stats junkie, this probably isn’t the book for you. Still, I will be holding a signing party at some point in the near future and will also gladly sign any copies of the book that you send to me (as long as you include a self-addressed, stamped envelope). The trick will be finding it though. In years past I have seen it at neighborhood bookstores, but this year’s edition is not yet even available for pre-order on Amazon. Oh, the horror!

Today it’s time for the third edition of the Marlins pre-spring forecast, which focuses on the team’s starting lineup.

Starting Lineup
From top to bottom, the Marlins lineup looks like it could be one of – if not the – most potent lineups in the National Leauge and all of baseball.

As it has for the past two seasons, the top of the lineup will include Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo. While both are great on base men and table setters for the meat of the lineup, both have stronger reputations as base stealers than actual, recent accomplishments. Pierre was thrown out stealing a career high twenty-four times in 2004 and Castillo has seen his stolen base attempts slowly diminish (reportedly due to an arthritic hip condition).

Over the off-season, for the second consecutive year, Pierre spent four days per week at Cris Carter’s speed camp. While he worked on a variety of things, the focus of Pierre’s efforts were on getting better jumps on the basepaths. Marlins officials reportedly discouraged Pierre from doing this offseason work, as they felt that his struggles last season were due more to being tired than anything else, but Pierre persisted anyway. Only time will tell who was right.

If either Pierre or Castillo struggles in one of the top two spots in the lineup, it would not be surprising to see catcher Paul LoDuca moved up to the two hole. While not a speedster, LoDuca is a solid contact hitter and would also bring some power to the top of the lineup.

The middle of the Marlins lineup is filled with power potential (if not defense). In all likelihood, Miguel Cabrera will bat third (and play left field), Carlos Delgado will hit clean-up and play first base, and Mike Lowell will play third and bat fifth. Of the three, Lowell is far and away the best defensive player. All three bring high power, high average bats to the lineup. They will form a fearsome threesome throughout the year. Also, their order in the lineup could be ordered in many combinations, but the Cabrera – Delgado – Lowell combination is the most likely, if for no other reason than to further Cabrera’s development.

Following Lowell in the lineup will be the aforementioned LoDuca. As also mentioned before, LoDuca brings a solid bat and decent power to the lineup, although nothing along the lines of the three that hit before him. About the only baseball related negative to the Delgado signing, and this is a minor one, is that it blocks the opportunity for LoDuca to take some “easy days” at first base as he often did with the Dodgers. One of the knocks on LoDuca throughout his career is that he has faded down the stretch. By having the luxury to play him at first base once a week or so, his body can be rested a little better. However, in the National League (i.e. without the DH) this is unlikely to happen, because resting LoDuca is not reason enough to take Delgado’s bat out of the lineup.

The seventh spot is where it starts to get tricky for the Marlins. It will most likely be either Juan Encarnacion or Jeff Conine batting in this slot. If it is Encarnacion, he will play right field. If it is Conine, he will play left field (my guess – not going on any official word here). My preference would be to use Conine off of the bench. He makes for a great threat to pinch hit when he’s there, plus he can also be used to spell Delgado or Cabrera in the field when they need a day off.

While Encarnacion is not likely to bring Conine’s bat to the plate this year, he would represent a huge upgrade over Cabrera in rightfield. While Cabrera may be on a Hall of Fame path as a player, it certainly will not be for his defense, mobility or speed (although he does possess a very strong arm from the outfield). Encarnacion does bring great defense (and a very good arm) to the Marlins outfield. In this year’s Marlins lineup, his bat will be better hidden (plus, having him on the bench as a potential defensive replacement is not much of a benefit).

Alex Gonzalez will play shortstop and hit eighth. For those that have followed Gonzalez over the years, you know he has been an enigma. While he hasn’t lived up to Dave Dombrowski’s hype of being better than Edgar Renteria, he has certainly been serviceable. At times he provides power and he always provides a good glove in the field. In fact, this offseason named Gonzalez and Castillo as the best double play combination currently in the majors.

If you read this far, I’m assuming you realize that the 9th place hitter for the Marlins will be the pitcher.

Defensively, the Marlins lineup is solid in a number of areas. Up the middle defense, traditionally a hallmark of a championship caliber ballclub, is particularly strong with the Marlins middle infielders. The double play combination of Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez was named the best in baseball by this winter. The tandem has not only spent each summer since 1998 together, they are also very skilled.

However, the up the middle defense is not quite as strong behind the plate, which is manned by the 33-year old Paul LoDuca, or in the outfield, where center field is patrolled by the weak-armed Juan Pierre. This is not an all-out knock on either LoDuca or Pierre, who are two of my favorite players in the game today. It’s just the sad truth. LoDuca is an aging catcher and the Marlins don’t have a proven, serviceable backup of any sort; Pierre is a wonder at the plate and on the basepaths, and at times even tracking the ball down in the field, but he doesn’t have an arm that inspires fear in anyone.

Still, overall the team is adequate defensively. Cabrera provides the potential to turn any ball into an adventure in the outfield. The only question is whether it will be a fortuitous adventure for the Marlins (i.e. gunning down a runner at the plate with a strong throw) or a disaster (i.e. forgetting his sunglasses or having his sunglasses on his hat when they should be over his eyes). If Juan Encarnacion wins a starting role, it will be a major upgrade to the defense.

Like the corners in the outfield, the Marlins corner infield spots are equally opposed. Carlos Delgado is as much of a liability defensively as Mike Lowell is an asset. Fortunately for fans of offense, few will likely notice as Lowell and Delgado are likely to have standout offensive seasons.

The Marlins lineup will clearly be the strength of the team. The addition of Delgado to the lineup not only adds much needed power, but it adds a solid left-handed presence to what was mainly a right handed lineup. This is a team that will score a lot of runs. There is power in the middle, speed at the top, and even speed at the bottom of the lineup. There’s even the potential to have breakout years at the bottom of the lineup from Encarnacion and Gonzalez. Even if that doesn’t happen, you should still expect the Marlins to score a lot of runs.

The question marks surrounding the lineup are:
1) Who will hit seventh? Having the first issue be this low in the lineup is not such a bad problem to have. Either Encarnacion or Conine will hit seventh. If Encarnacion hits seventh, he will play right field, which frees up left for Cabrera. If Conine is the starter and hits seventh, this likely leaves Cabrera in right (hopefully Miguel will remember when and how to use his shades out there this year).

2) What will the Marlins get from Alex Gonzalez? Will Alex’s defense be accompanied by a bat that hits for average and power? If so, the bottom of the Marlins lineup will be solid.

3) What about Juan Encarnacion? Has he devolved into a defensive specialist, or will the Fish be able to count on his bat for production?

4) Will Paul LoDuca be able to produce over the life of the season?

5) Has Juan Pierre’s speed returned? Will Pierre lead the league in stolen bases this year?

6) Can Luis Castillo re-introduce at least the threat to run, or has his health rendered him unable to do this?

7) Will Miguel Cabrera have an MVP type year? With Carlos Delgado hitting behind him and Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo filling up the base paths ahead of him, he surely could. Realistically though, Miguel probably won’t put up those types of numbers for another year or two.

The Bottom Line
Offensively, the Marlins will instill fear into the hearts of opposing managers all year. This lineup should generate plenty of runs and make things a lot easier for a questionable bullpen. This team has three legitimate power and average hitters (Cabrera, Delgado, and Lowell) in the middle of the lineup. There’s speed at the top (in Castillo and Pierre). The lower part of the lineup also has some potential. LoDuca will be solid, and there’s hope for improvement from Encarnacion and Gonzalez.

Defensively, they’re not as outstanding as they’ve been in years past (specifically 2003 with Pudge behind the plate and D Lee at first base), but they’re good enough.


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