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, March 23, 2005

Pierre's Injury: Short and Long Term Impact on Marlins

Yesterday’s big injury related news was about some guy who plays on the other coast. Because of that, you may have missed out on what’s becoming a major story this spring for the Marlins.

Juan Pierre hasn’t played in a Grapefruit League game in more than two weeks now, and it’s beginning to look like he may not be ready to start the season with the club. This is a story of major concern for the Marlins as it affects the team on a number of levels.

Possibly most importantly, Pierre’s absence leaves a gaping hole in the lineup. To cover for his absence, some shuffling will have to be done. In the outfield, Juan Encarnacion will likely play center field. Defensively, this is probably not a drop off, although Encarnacion hasn’t played much center field lately (his arm is definitely an upgrade over Pierre’s). Surprisingly, Jack McKeon announced that Miguel Cabrera will stay in left field (a move that I applaud, since Cabrera has looked lost in the past in right) and that Jeff Conine will likely be the right fielder (this proclamation also likely means that if Pierre is healthy that Encarnacion will start the year as the team’s right fielder, allowing Conine to come off the bench and to continue to recover from shoulder surgery).

The batting order will also need some reworking. Luis Castillo could fill in adequately for Pierre in the leadoff spot, but being without one player or the other changes the entire dynamic of the Marlins lineup. In all likelihood, Castillo would move into the leadoff role and Paul LoDuca would hit second. Both are well suited to those roles, but the problems would develop lower in the lineup.

Being without Pierre is a possibility that most folks couldn’t even consider until Pierre’s calf began to bother him earlier this Spring. Last year he became only the third player since 1971 to play in every inning of his team’s games (think about that – even though Cal Ripken played in all those consecutive games, it wasn’t very common for him to play in every inning of every game – what Pierre did last year was pretty spectacular). Actually, Pierre played in every Marlins game in 2003 and has appeared in at least 150 games each season since establishing himself as a regular in the majors.

While the two haven’t been linked publicly (at least to my knowledge), my guess is that the Marlins are less than pleased that Pierre has already developed a leg injury. During the offseason the team tried to discourage Pierre from attending Cris Carter’s FAST Program (for the second offseason in a row) as they worried that it would cause him to wear down and be tired by mid to late season. Obviously, there is no evidence to link the two together, but in baseball assumptions are often made and conclusions drawn from unrelated events.

This could be unfortunate for Pierre, as he is in the walk year of his contract (and he’s due to earn a relatively paltry $1.83 million this season). Although the Marlins occasionally run with the big boys and lay out money for big contracts, the core of the Marlins success has been lining the roster with players up the middle (catcher, middle infielders, center fielders, and pitchers) whose performances exceed the value of their contracts. While Pierre easily accomplished this in 2003 and 2004, his ability to contribute to the team – at least in the short term – is in doubt currently.

In the long run, it will be interesting to see how the combination of denying the team’s wishes and participating in the FAST Program and working through this injury affect Juan’s status with the team. My guess is that he’ll be overpriced for the Marlins budget anyway (to say nothing of emerging prospect Jeremy Hermida) and that the baggage that Pierre brings (as perceived by the club) will cause him to find work elsewhere.

That’s not such a bad thing for Pierre. He’ll likely find himself on a contender with a big ticket contract, just like Carl Pavano did this past offseason. But for Fish fans, it’s probably time to enjoy Pierre’s style of play and passion for the game while you still can.


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