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.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Florida Marlins Pre-Spring Preview Part Five: NL East Rivals

In the previous pre-spring previews, we highlighted some things to keep an eye on as you follow the Marlins throughout Spring Training. In today’s edition, we’ll focus on the other clubs in the National League East, who the Marlins will be battling with throughout the season as they aim for a third World Championship in less than a decade. These descriptions don't go too in depth and probably highlight a lot of information you already know, but hopefully they'll help you recall some of the key issues each club faces heading into the 2005 campaign.

While the Marlins obviously don’t play exclusively against NL East clubs, they do play each opponent in their divisions 19 times. That means that a total of 76 of their 162 regular season games come against the Braves, Mets, Nationals, and Phillies. So, the games against those teams will go a long way into determining whether the Marlins reach the post-season this year or not.

Atlanta Braves
As seems to happen every year, John Scheurholz has remade the Braves lineup and pitching staff. While the offensive overhaul isn’t quite as drastic as it was coming into last season (when the Braves lost Gary Sheffield and Javier Lopez), there will still be a lot of new names in the lineup this season.

Despite the changes, the biggest constant for the Braves is their strength up the middle. It’s probably no coincidence that an old adage is that in order to win, you must be strong up the middle. With Johnny Estrada behind the plate, Rafael Furcal at shortstop, and Andruw Jones in center field, the Braves are most definitely strong (and still pretty young – even if it does seem like Andruw Jones has been around forever).

1) Who’s going to fill the corner outfield positions? Chipper Jones will most likely be moved back to the infield. While you can argue the merits of that, particularly because the Braves have a third base prospect who’s ready to take the reins at the major league level and they don’t have an equal replacement for the outfield, it’s just reality.

One youngster is in the mix in the outfield – Ryan Langerhans. Over the years the Braves have had a number of outfield prospects who ultimately really haven’t panned out. Langerhans is probably more likely to have a major league career like Mike Kelly than David Justice, so Scheurholz went out this offseason and picked up veterans Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan. Yes, that Brian Jordan. Yes, it’s 2005 and not 1995. Still, until proven differently, you have to give Scheurholz and crew the benefit of the doubt here. The next time the Braves don’t win the division title will be the first time since 1990. At that time, Ryan Langerhans was closer to pre-school than middle-school; it was a long time ago – at least in baseball years.

Still, it will definitely be worth watching how the Braves outfield situation develops over the spring.

2) The Braves biggest offseason move was acquiring Tim Hudson from the A’s. While Hudson can be counted on for a huge year, much of the rest of the rotation is a question mark. At least it would be if we were talking about any team other than the Braves. The rotation’s biggest question mark is John Smoltz.

Obviously, Smoltz is a great pitcher – depending on who you talk to, he’s a future Hall of Famer (at least one worthy of debate). He’s a former Cy Young winner and has been a dominant closer for the Braves. However, he wants to be a starter and based on the team’s needs, the club wants him to start too. But, he’s 37 and the transition from reliever to starter is much more difficult than the reverse move. How Smoltz adjusts back to the starter’s role will be key to the Braves success in 2005. While it may not be easy to gauge in Spring Training, where innings are limited, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

3) The Braves were able to afford the risk of moving Smoltz into the starting rotation because they acquired closer Dan Kolb from the Brewers in another winter move. This is a curious trade and will be interesting to watch. Their were two Dan Kolbs last year. The first dominated the first half of the season with a 1.62 ERA and a WHIP of less than 1 (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) and appeared in the All-Star game. The second was dominated in the second half, with an ERA of 4.88 and a WHIP of 1.41.

The issue with Kolb is that he doesn’t make people swing and miss. The hallmark of a good pitcher who is expected to have continued success in the major leagues is the ability to make hitters swing and miss. It’s what scouts look for in prospects and it’s what general managers look for in free agents and trade targets. Kolb has never excelled at making hitters swing and miss. He has excelled in getting hitters to put balls in play and depending on his fielders to turn those balls into outs. That didn’t work too well for Kolb in the second half last year. With the help of pitching guru Leo Mazzone, there might be a significant turn around for Kolb in 2005.

New York Mets
If nothing else, the Mets won the battle for headlines this offseason (excluding steroid related issues). They signed the premier pitcher on the market (Pedro Martinez) and the best position player (Carlos Beltran). While they lost out on Carlos Delgado, it wasn’t a huge loss for them, as their lineup was completely revamped and they even picked up Doug Minckeitwitz from the Red Sox. Doug will improve their defense somewhat (he’s arguably the best defensive first baseman in the game, albeit at a relatively unimportant defensive position), and will be adequate offensively.

Still, these are the Mets and everyone has seen their splashy offseasons before. The question now is whether or not the Mets can translate their offseason “success” into regular and post-season success.

1) Does Pedro Martinez still have it? Will pitching coach Rick Peterson be able to help Pedro get some of his old stuff back? As Red Sox fans circa 2003 know all too well, Pedro is great until he gets tired. Once he gets up around one-hundred pitches, he nearly instantly transforms from all-time great into all-time goat. For the Mets to be successful, they’ll need to prolong his stretches of all-time greatness. That will help the Mets preserve their bullpen, which they’ll likely need fairly frequently for the four out of every five days that Pedro doesn’t take the hill.

2) Was Carlos Beltran really worth all that money? Yes, Beltran had a great 2004 post-season. Yes, he’s young. But he’s going to be paid significantly more (and for more years) than reigning American League MVP Vladimir Guerrero. Who would you rather have on your team? That’s not a no-brainer. It’s a real question. Vlad is a more accomplished player, but he’s also had more injuries. Beltran’s career .353 onbase percentage and .844 OPS are nice, but certainly not the marks of superstars (Guerrero’s comparables are a .390 onbase percentage and a .979 OPS).

Beltran is a great player and this is a move that the Mets probably needed to make. Whether they needed to pay so much for him is another issue (there are rumors that their final offer was more than $40 million more than the next highest bidder). It’s also somewhat worrisome – at least in my mind – that as of late the Mets have been where premier free agents and players have gone to die (not literally of course). Recent headliners such as Mo Vaughn and Robbie Alomar come to mind as recent Big Apple busts. Will Beltran join that list or a list or will the tune be changed to “Willie, Mickey, the Duke, and Carlos”?

3) What happens with Mike Cameron? Mike Cameron is one of the games best defensive center fielders. While Beltran is not as skilled of a defender as Cameron, his contract and more than adequate defensive abilities will force Cameron to right field. This is a necessity for the Mets, but it negates much of Cameron’s value. Unless he has a monster Spring offensively, which given his track record is unlikely, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cameron moved to a team that needs a centerfielder.

The Detroit Tigers wouldn’t surprise me as a team that develops some interest in Cameron. They’re a club that needs an established center fielder and they have an expansive outfield to patrol. Cameron could be a good fit in Motown.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies biggest move this offseason was firing Larry Bowa. With Bowa gone, it will now be incumbent upon the players to produce and to prove that Bowa, and not the players, were really the issue. First and foremost amongst those players who needs to step up in 2005 is (former Book of Mike classmate) Pat Burrell. Burrell was reportedly very outspoken about and very unhappy with Bowa. Burrell’s production suffered in both 2003 and 2004.

1) Billy Wagner – can he stay healthy? If he does, the Phillies bullpen is much different than it is without him.

2) Who will play centerfield? While the Phillies corners are stacked with Burrell and perennially underrated Bobby Abreu, center field is an abyss. Kenny Lofton and Marlon Byrd will likely battle this spring for playing time, but the best option the Phillies might have in their organization right now is Jason Michaels (another former Miami Hurricane, but not someone that the Book ever had a class with). While Michaels is certainly capable of being a solid major leaguer, he’s ideally suited for a corner outfield position. The Phillies aren’t likely to win a championship with him in center, and the fact that Michaels is their best option right now is a sign that that Phillies need to go out and acquire someone else.

Washington Nationals
Quite honestly, there’s not a whole lot to worry about here, from a Marlins perspective, in terms of competition from the Nationals. While each of the other teams in the division will enter the season with legitimate hope of reaching the post-season, the Nationals are most definitely on the outside looking in. The biggest story lines for the team this offseason have been relocating from Montreal to Washington, working out the details of their new stadium with the District, developing new uniforms and a color scheme, and finding a new owner for their former mascot Youppi! (who, sadly, was not invited along with the team to relocate to the capitol).

The storylines to follow with the Nationals this season will likely be more business than baseball related. On a sad note, we’ll likely watch all-time great Frank Robinson suffer through another year with talent that he, at the age of 69, might still be able to outplay. The Nationals will also be soliciting new ownership (as MLB still owns the club) with MLB officials reporting that new owners could be in place by the All-Star break. But we’ve heard this “resolution by the all-star break” thing with the Expos/Nationals for years now. One can only assume that its either developed into an inside joke or is some form of a euphemism.

Enjoy Spring Training! This will be the last post of the week, as The Book of Mike's world headquarters will be relocating tomorrow.


Post a Comment

<< Home