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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Florida Marlins Pre-Spring Preview Part Four: Bench

Today we give you the fourth installment of the Marlins pre-Spring preview, which focuses on the bench.

As discussed in earlier previews, expectations for the Marlins starting lineup are high. Because of this, expectations for the bench are much lower than they have been in past years. The starters are generally established and known entities. However there, are some definite roles that the bench will need to fill this year.

The role of the fourth outfielder will be filled by the loser of the Juan Encarnacion/Jeff Conine battle for a slot in the starting lineup. Conine can fill in as an outfielder or at first base, which definitely adds to his value. Also, he would be a more fearsome threat as a pinch hitter than Encarnacion. Based on this, and Encarnacion’s premium defense, I expect Conine (assuming there are no injuries to key players) on the bench.

Injuries are of particular concern at the catcher position, where the Marlins lack both experience and depth behind starter Paul LoDuca. At LoDuca’s age and given the South Florida heat, it’s unfair to expect him to catch 140 or 150 games behind the plate, so someone will need to fill the void for some games and innings throughout the year. Matt Treanor and Josh Willingham are the two other catchers on the Marlins 40-man roster going into Spring Training. Treanor is three years older than Willingham, but Josh has been the more highly touted prospect over the years. Willingham, at 25, is at (or possibly past) the cut-off point where teams like to send a youngster to the minors for more seasoning instead of allowing him to languish on the bench at the major league level. My guess is that Willingham will make the big club out of camp this year and fill in behind the plate and at the corner infield positions when needed.

While in some regards, it may make sense to keep both backups on the active roster once the season begins, this will likely not be an affordable luxury for the Marlins. At the start of the year – or at least as long as the bullpen situation is a question mark – it’s expected that the Fish will carry a pitching staff of twelve. That leaves thirteen spots for position players, eight of which will go to starters, obviously. Of the remaining five spots, one will go to either Encarnacion or Conine, another to a backup infielder or outfielder, one to uber-pinch hitter Lenny Harris, and another to the backup catcher. That leaves room for only one more reserve, and that role will likely be filled by a more versatile player than a third string catcher. In recent years, particularly with the Angels’ Chone Figgins last year and the Mariners’ Mark McLemore in previous seasons, successful teams have filled at least one roster spot with a “jack of all trades”. Such a player provides the flexibility to rest a starter on a given day and to fill in for an injured player the next. In all likelihood, the Marlins would like to find such a player, and it is definitely not either Treanor or Willingham.

That super-utility role could be filled by Damian Easley, who played a variety of positions for the Marlins last year. While Easley is old in baseball years at 35, he brings a depth of knowledge and experience at the major league level to the game. That said, the Marlins would prefer to have such a role filled by the likes of Figgins, but such young and versatile players don’t exactly grow on trees. If an opportunity is available, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Marlins make a move this spring to find a utility player, but I don’t see that happening.

Assuming that Easley fills the utility role (and is used primarily as an infielder), the biggest bench battle for the Marlins this Spring will likely be for a 5th outfielder. Chris Aguila and Eric Reed are the most likely candidates for this role, as both are currently on the 40-man roster. Neither has significant major league experience and both are young (25 and 23 respectively). Between them, they have amassed a total of 45 major league at bats (all of which were taken by Aguila). This is not an ideal situation for a team that intends to contend for a pennant.

Having a youngster fill the 5th outfielder role can be a positive if that player is actually going to see some significant playing time (otherwise they would be losing potential developmental time in the minors by sitting on the bench in the majors). With the Marlins though, Juan Pierre traditionally doesn’t miss many (or any) innings, so there’s not much opportunity in center. If all goes as planned, Miguel Cabrera should also see very few days off. And although neither Juan Encarnacion nor Jeff Conine will likely receive 140 starts independently this year, in total they probably will. That doesn’t leave a lot of playing time for one of these youngsters. Still, my guess is that if Aguila has a strong spring, he could win the 5th outfielder role. If not, I’d expect the Marlins to pick up a more experienced player off of waivers or via a trade near the end of spring training. This player would fill the role that Gerald Williams filled for the Marlins in 2003 – he likely wouldn’t see much playing time, but would be dependable when needed.

The Marlins bench is filled with role players, although none of them stands out as anything spectacular. This bench will not be confused with the Yankees for depth or the Red Sox for interchangeability. Still, for their payroll, there are a fair number of interchangeable parts. There’s the possibility for upside out of Treanor, Willingham, Aguila, and Reed – although none of those players may receive enough playing time to realize any of that upside.

The question marks surrounding the bench are:
1) Who will the backup catcher be? In order to compete throughout the summer, someone will need to step up and provide quality innings when LoDuca needs a rest.

2) Who will be the fifth outfielder?

3) Can the Marlins upgrade their bench at all? A power hitting, back-up outfielder would be a huge luxury to have. It seems that role will be filled by Jeff Conine, but at this point in his career he’s more of a hitter than a power hitter.

4) How big of a drop off will there be from the starters to the bench?

The Bottom Line
As you follow the Marlins throughout Spring Training keep Abraham Nunez in mind. In his days with the Fish, Nunez was renowned for his abilities in Spring Training. Unfortunately for everyone, this success did not make a one-for-one translation to the regular season. Some other relatively unknown player may step up this spring, but that doesn’t mean that he’s the next Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux, or even Miguel Cabrera. The context of how the player generates his stats must be considered (is his .500 batting average a result of fattening up on minor league pitchers late in spring games?), as well as the fact that he may be peaking in March – as opposed to October – must also be considered.

All said, this is where the Marlins lack of payroll flexibility catches up to the team. There are some nice players and nice guys filling out the Marlins bench, but there clearly isn’t the depth here that you see on the big budget teams. They may get lucky on the waiver wire and fill in some needed holes, but overall the hope will be that the starters stay healthy and productive. If Jack McKeon is forced to go very deep into his bench, it could become a long summer for the Marlins.


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