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, March 31, 2005

Marlins Preview

Going into Spring Training we provided some previews and things to watch as the spring progressed. Spring Training is now winding down and the regular season is just a few days away. That, of course, means that it's time for predictions and previews.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a National League East roundtable over at MetsGeek. The full roundtable, with commentary from folks who follow each of the teams in the division, will be posted early next week. In the meantime, my contribution to the piece can be found below.

Although the roundtable isn't up yet over at MetsGeek, I'd still encourage you to stop by and check out their site. There's lots of great commentary and analysis over there.

Here we go...
Marlins Questions
1. Flashback to October: The season has just ended. What should be on your team's to do list? (via trades, acquisitions, promotions, non-tenders, etc)?

Carl Pavano is about to become a free agent. If his price tag stays reasonable, the Marlins should stay in the bidding. If his price goes north of $7 or $8 million per year, the Marlins should wish him good luck wherever he ends up because they have enough depth, and not enough payroll flexibility, to afford losing him at that point.

The Marlins bench situation is something of a mess. The backups are mainly aging, role players like Lenny Harris and Mike Mordecai. While they're nice guys to have in the clubhouse and understand the game inside and out, the value they bring to the club is limited. They are also probably taking up roster spots that could better be used to develop younger players.

Josh Willingham has been a top prospect for the Marlins for some time. He was originally a thirdbaseman, but the organization thought he was blocked at the major league level by Mike Lowell and eventually Miguel Cabrera. So, he was converted into a catcher, where he's found himself behind Ramon Castro (as a prospect) and Ivan Rodriguez and Paul LoDuca at the major league level. Like they always have been, the Marlins have been hesitant to try to contend with an unproven major league catcher, so Willingham has been forced to languish in the minors. He's getting older now though and isn't really of "prospect" age anymore (26). More importantly his bat is major league ready and they need to find a role for him.

Jeffrey Allison is another interesting case for the Marlins. Allison was the team's top draft pick in 2003. He hasn't pitched much for the Marlins though - at any level. He's only appeared in a total of nine minor league innings since signing. Indications are that he's beaten his addiction to OxyCotin.

Other offseason needs are bench depth and some power for the lineup (although the starting lineup could effectively be set with what the Marlins already have on their roster). The bullpen is a mess. The Fish need arms.

2. Did your team address all of its needs? What was the Best and worst moveof your team's offseason?

All things considered, the offseason was a huge success for the Marlins. Yes, Carl Pavano got away (to the Yankees) but his price tag was pretty expensive and his upside looking forward wasn't great (he'll likely be a very good pitcher for years to come, but not an ace).

As something of a replacement for Pavano, the Marlins signed Al Leiter to a one year deal. Most Marlins fans remember Leiter as a member of the 1997 World Championship team, but he's not that pitcher anymore. They've probably overpaid for his services, but hopefully he'll be a major influence on the team's young starters.

The surprise, and the team's best move this offseason, was the signing of Carlos Delgado. This move came as a major surprise - relative to October expectations - as hardly anyone thought the Marlins had the budget to acquire the likes of Delgado. With the signing, Delgado instantly becomes the best left-handed power threat in the history of the team (albeit a short history - but still the Marlins haven't had a lefty who hit 30 home runs).

The worst move this offseason, although it will likely be corrected during the year assuming the Marlins are in the playoff hunt, involved the bullpen. Going into the offseason the bullpen was an acknowledged weakness. While the Marlins acquired a number of new arms – Todd Jones, Matt Perisho, Chad Bentz, etc - they didn't acquire a high profile reliever or an unproven major leaguer with significant upside.

This is in line with the Marlins strategy (sans Delgado) of signing players to contracts that are values to the club. They normally expect their players to outperform the value of their contracts (this was a critical factor in the Marlins 2003 World Series championship season). They're counting on that happening again, or on acquiring another reliever via waivers mid-year, like Chad Fox in 2003, and having him set the world on fire.

3. Evaluate your team's lineup, starting rotation, bullpen and bench.

Lineup: The Marlins starting lineup is one of the strongest in the National League (it definitely falls behind the Cardinals though). This is also the Marlins strongest starting lineup in recent history, even outdoing the 2003 World Champs. They have power in Delgado, Cabrera and Lowell. They get average and speed from Castillo and Pierre. With Paul LoDuca behind the plate they get good defense and a solid all around game.

Expectations for Juan Encarnacion and Alex Gonzalez are also high this year. Both have shown flashes of hitting for high average and for power, but neither has really put together the full season yet that many expect that they are capable of. If that comes together this year, the Marlins offense could be scary for opposing managers.

Defensively, the Marlins are also solid. Many regard Alex Gonzalez and Luis Castillo as the best double play duo in the National League. Mike Lowell fits into the infield defensively quite well. And it's fortunate for the Marlins to have that defensive wizardry in the infield because that relieves some of the pressure from Carlos Delgado, who isn't as great as the others.

In the outfield, Juan Pierre nearly makes up for his shortcomings with his arm with his good range. Juan Encarnacion plays excellent all around defense. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about Miguel Cabrera - who will patrol left this year for the Fish. Defense is about the only aspect of Miguel's game that isn't superior, but he does have a rifle for an arm.

Starting rotation: This is the make or break area for the Marlins this year. They picked up Al Leiter as a free agent. He adds veteran leadership to the rotation, which is one thing they were clearly lacking.

Once again the Marlins rotation is filled with promise and question marks. A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett are arguably two of the most talented young pitchers in the game. Dontrelle Willis is no slouch either. But Burnett and Beckett have been plagued by injuries and haven't lived up to their hype. Willis came on phenomenally strong in 2003, but he's been prone to bouts of wildness.

The fifth starter for the Marlins will likely be Ismael Valdez. That's not such a bad thing, but it's not so great either. Most unfortunately, the Marlins early schedule will require them to use all five starters off the bat, so they won't likely be able to get an extra turn in for their top guys early in the year.

Bullpen: This is the Marlins major question mark. Some people are still high on Guillermo Mota, but that's mostly as a setup guy. He's unproven - relatively - as a closer. Behind him in the bullpen you'll find Antonio Alfonseca, Todd Jones, Jim Mecir, Matt Perisho, and John Riedling. Those aren't exactly names that inspire fear in hitters.

Eventually the Marlins could regain the services of Tim Spooneybarger, who, in addition to having a really cool name, is a very talented pitcher and is still only 25. Spooney hasn't pitched in the majors since 2003 because of injuries. Getting him back could significantly upgrade the bullpen.

Bench: The Marlins bench includes Jeff Conine (unless he wins the job over Encarnacion), Damion Easley, Matt Treanor (Catcher), Chris Aguila (token youngster), and Lenny Harris (as the designated pinch hitter extraordinare). The remaining spot on the opening day roster will likely be filled by Joe Dillon or Mark Little.

Obviously, this is not the Yankees bench. This is the team's biggest weakness. Well, at least it will be as soon as a starter goes down with a significant injury.

4. Who are your team's top prospects? How far away are they from helping atthe major league level?

Position Player: Jeremy Hermida (OF) - Hermida slipped to the Marlins with the 11th pick in the draft in 2002 and the Fish pounced. He was expected to be a top 3 pick until teams were scared off by his interest in Clemson and college baseball. He is a solid hitter and should develop power as he gets older and stronger. Defensively he still has some room for improvement, but the Marlins expect him to be the everyday right fielder in 2006.

Pitcher: Scott Olsen (LHP) - Olsen was only a 6th round pick, but his fastball tops out in the mid-90s and he's developed into a pitcher (not just a thrower) in the minors. He's succeeded everywhere he's been so far, but he hasn't pitched higher than High-A ball so far.

Still, if he succeeds in AA to start the year, it's not out of the realm of possibility for the Marlins to call him up to the big club if there's a need this season. Keep in mind that both Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera came up to the big club straight from AA in 2003. I don't expect to see Olsen until 2006 though.

While Hermida and Olsen are clearly the Marlins top prospects right now, the Marlins should bring in a strong haul of prospects in the 2005 draft. With their compensatory and normal picks, the Marlins will have three of the first 33 picks in the draft. That might allow them to take a risk on a high-risk, high-reward type of a player (a la Jered Weaver) who could immediately vault to the top of the club'sprospect list.

5. What should be the goals of your team for this year? What is the best wayof achieving these goals?

The Marlins goal this year is to reach the post-season. As they proved in 1997 and 2003, they don't need to win the division, as they can win the World Series with merely the Wild Card. Winning the division would be nice though - as it would be the first time in the franchise's history that they've done it.To achieve it, the Marlins will need to stay healthy. There is very little depth amongst position players, and with the signing of Delgado, there is probably not much flexibility to add any depth.

The same is true, but to a greater degree, with the starting rotation. If A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett stay healthy for the full year, the Marlins should easily be looking at playoff contention. Both pitchers could even contend for the Cy Young Award if they are healthy.

NL East
1. Which team had the best and which had worst offseason?

Best - Part of me would like to be a homer and give the Marlins credit for picking up Leiter and Delgado, but the rest of me thinks that their penny-pinching ways with Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, and Miguel Cabrera will come back to bite them. Beckett, Willis, and Cabrera are not yet eligible for free agency or arbitration, so the team can automatically renew their contracts. With Willis andCabrera, the team has given them miniscule raises the past two seasons. Beckett, who because of his high draft status already had a major league contract and a healthy salary, has taken a few paycuts through this process. In the long run I think this will cost the Marlins a player or two down the road because of ill will once these players are eligible for free agency.

Given that, and probably even ignoring all of that about the Marlins, the Mets get credit for having the best offseason. This is an award that the Mets seemingly win regularly, but the Beltran signing alone could make it prove true this time. Beltran is undoubtedly a great player and will likely be one for a long time, I still question why the Mets didn't make this move a year earlier with Vladimir Guerrero, who's probably a better all around player.

Regardless, they have Beltran now and Pedro Martinez too. Pedro's not going to be the guy we all remember from his days with the Red Sox, but he'll benefit frombeing in the National League. Many have knocked the contract the Mets gave him, but the marginal cost of the fourth year wasn't really all that great. All told, the Mets should be happy with these moves (Benson, Mientkiewicz, etc too) for a few years. I think they should move Mike Cameron though. His defensive talents will be wasted in right field.

Worst - Washington. While the Nationals made some moves, they generally overpaid (Cristian Guzman), picked up players of questionable value (Jose Guillen), and guys with their best year(s) behind them (Esteban Loiaza).

2. What was the best move in the division? What was the worst move?

Best - In the short term, the Marlins signing of Carlos Delgado is the best move. He'll have an immediate impact on the team and will help them to be able to compete this year. In the long run though, his contract is likely to tie the Marlins hands for years to come (particularly with the deferred money).

The best move in the long run is probably the Mets signing of Carlos Beltran. Unless he goes all Mo Vaughn on us, Beltran could wear a Mets cap into Cooperstown one day.

Worst - Cristian Guzman, 4 years, $16.8 million

3. Which team has the best: Starting Rotation, Lineup, Bench, Bullpen?

Starting Rotation - If John Smoltz continues through in the regular season with a performance anywhere near what he's looked like in spring training, this goes to the Braves. My pick is the Braves, but if the Marlins are all able to live up to their potential (but there are probably too many question marks for them to all do it this year), the Marlins could win this crown.

Lineup - 1. Marlins; 2. Phillies; 3. Mets; Without the Marlins' acquisition of Delgado, this list would look a whole lot different. With him though, the Marlins have at least three legitimate power threats and two sparkplugs ahead of them who are going to be on base all the time. At the bottom of the lineup you'll get solid contributions from LoDuca and probably better results from Alex Gonzalez and Juan Encarnacion. Did you realize that Alex Gonzalez hit 23 homers last year?

Bench - I'd like to say Atlanta just because I'd like to write about Julio Franco, but I can't justify that. Washington probably has the least dropoff from their starters to their bench, but that's not really a compliment. I'll go with the Phillies here, but I'm not really impressed by anyone's bench.

Bullpen - I don't love any of the bullpens in the division, but I'm going to have to go with the Phillies. Maybe they'll exorcise the demons of Mitch Williams this year.

4. Who is the best prospect in the division?

Andy Marte - Braves. It's just a matter of time for him.

5. Who will win the NL East this year?

I could probably make a better case for the Marlins or Phillies (even the Mets) this year, but I'm picking the Braves. I will pick the Braves every spring until they finally fail to win the division. I don't see how they'll be able to pull it off this year, but they always seem to. I mean, there are high schoolers in Atlanta know whohaven't ever been alive when the Braves failed to win the division.


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