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April 1, 2005

2005--Setting the Stage

Something Fishy's About to Happen

by Jonah Keri

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The Florida Marlins are headed to the World Series.

Don't let that shock you. Let that free you. Let that liberate you. In a National League that features nothing close to a dominant team, this promises to be a year of wackiness.

To understand why the Marlins will win the National League pennant, take a look at their top players. Miguel Cabrera, Mike Lowell and Carlos Delgado in the lineup. Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Dontrelle Willis in the rotation. No team in the National League sports such trios both in the heart of the batting order and at the top of the starting rotation. It's that star power that's going to win the league for the Fish.

Let's go through the team, starting with the lineup. Projections include PECOTA's 2005 Equivalent Batting Average/Equivalent On-Base Percentage/Equivalent Slugging Percentage--BA/OBP/SLG, adjusted for park and league effects--as well as Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP-3), which includes both offensive and defensive contributions, measuring the number of wins a player contributes above what a replacement-level player would contribute:

CF Juan Pierre .293/.341/.384, 5.3
2B Luis Castillo .279/.352/.367, 5.3
LF Miguel Cabrera .297/.359/.538, 7.4
1B Carlos Delgado .273/.394/.535, 6.3
3B Mike Lowell .282/.353/.506, 6.8
C  Paul Lo Duca .277/.332/.401, 4.6
RF Juan Encarnacion .267/.323/.450, 3.6
SS Alex Gonzalez .252/.302/.426, 4.2
Much of the offense's success will depend on the strained right calf of Juan Pierre. While a drop in his basestealing numbers would hurt a bit, a significant injury could put a kink in Pierre's slap-hitting style, suppressing his ability to beat out infield hits and turning would-be rallies into outs at the top of the order. Though Luis Castillo tends to walk more than Pierre, he too could see his production slip if his nagging injuries rein in his speed. Both players are expected to be ready for Opening Day, with the Marlins hoping to get Pierre to 100% some time in April.

That's vital, because if Pierre and Castillo are firing on all cylinders, this team will put runs on the board. Cabrera should be the straw that stirs the drink. Not yet 22, Cabrera's power rivals all but the pantheon boppers in the game. The knock on him has been his plate discipline: Cabrera's 2004 season marked the first time in his pro career he'd logged a full season with a walk rate better than one for every 10 times up. While we discount the importance of strikeouts compared to other outs as a function of scoring in the present, excessive whiffs are often a negative indicator in projecting a young player's odds for future success. That said, there's a reason that every system from PECOTA to sophisticated scouting methods value power as the most important indicator of a hitter's future success: If you can crush the ball at every level, especially against older competition in the minors, you've got a great chance to excel at the highest level. Cabrera's power should develop to the point that pitchers simply won't give in to him. He'll learn to wait for pitches to smash, and trot to first base when no opportunity comes. He could put up 45 homers and go wild on the league at any time.

The 32-year-old Delgado signed a four-year, $52 million contract in January, making him the last major free agent to sign this off-season. Given the abundance of hitters who can mash and can't handle any defensive position but first base, I've always hated the idea of inking a 30-something free agent first baseman to a lucrative, multi-year contract. Too many Jeff Bagwells have declined as they've hit their mid-30s. Too many barrel-chested Mo Vaughn types have imploded a year or two into their contracts, their old player skills catching up to them too fast. I hated the Jason Giambi signing at the time, even if no could have predicted his massive, rapid decline. The Jim Thome deal looks great so far--he's also got four years and $65 million left on his deal.

Like those contracts, I don't see Delgado's deal working out well the last two years of the deal, his aching knees carrying the weight of a long, productive career, as well as the years spent squatting behind home plate before the Blue Jays converted him to first. In the here and now, though, Delgado looks like one of the best fits of any free agent in the last few years. From the current core of Cabrera/Lowell/Lo Duca to the Rodriguez/Lowell/Lee/Conine combos of the past, the Marlins have been flush with right-handed hitting in recent years, but void of impact lefty bats. After giving up--arguably too soon--on young lefty slugger Hee Seop Choi, the Fish desperately needed a lefty-swinging power threat to add sock and balance to the lineup. If they rest him judiciously to preserve his knees, Delgado will hit a ton and become and instant NL MVP candidate. His lefty bat gives the Marlins the added benefit of making life difficult for opposing managers contemplating late-inning bullpen match-ups; unless Brad Lidge is staring in from the mound, the Marlins will find favorable match-ups late in many close games. That's a key ingredient to winning, both in a pennant race and in the playoffs.

Throw in an elite third baseman in Lowell and decent complementary players at offensively-challenged positions in Lo Duca and Gonzalez, and the Marlins' offense should fare well.

The starting rotation also figures to take a step forward. Carl Pavano emerged as an unlikely ace last season, parlaying great control and surprising durability into a mega-contract with the Yankees. The Marlins did well to let him leave; the team's incumbent front three will run roughshod over the league. (Projections include innings pitched, Equivalent ERA and WARP):

SP Josh Beckett, 180, 3.83, 5.2
SP A.J. Burnett, 150, 4.10, 4.0
SP Dontrelle Willis, 195, 4.10, 5.3
SP Al Leiter, 165, 4.64, 3.3
SP Ismael Valdez, 130, 5.52, 2.0
One of the strengths and weaknesses of PECOTA is its rigid adherence to precedent. If a hitter or pitcher missed a chunk of playing time last year, or over the last couple years, the system assumes the same will happen in the upcoming season, without worry about the details surrounding each case. In Josh Beckett and especially A.J. Burnett, the system is overerring on the side of caution. While modern medicine has made recovery from Tommy John surgery quicker than ever, in almost every case it still takes the biggest success stories until the second year after surgery to return to full strength. After hitting the shelf in 2003, Burnett returned last June, struggling in his first few starts back. The gap between his first half and second half stats showed how quickly he ramped back up:

First Half:  7.0 K/9 IP, 2.8 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9
Second Half: 9.4 K/9 IP, 2.2 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9
With the Torborg/Arnsberg days long behind them, Burnett entering his late 20s and two years removed from TJ, he's a better bet for 200+ innings than for 150. PECOTA's been kinder to Beckett, but it's not hard to project even greater results for the Texan prodigy. His innings total has climbed every year, and his blister problems are now believed to be behind him--they may have helped him preserve his shoulder to this point, by keeping his workload down during his formative years. Throw in a potential breakout year after a consolidation season for Willis, and the top three could beat their projections by three to five wins. In what figures to be a tight division, in a league stuffed with parity, that should be enough to propel the Fish into the playoffs.

It's the rest of the roster where the naysayers say nay. As Joe Sheehan noted in his NL East preview yesterday: "What they have in front-line talent--Delgado sits in the middle of a very strong top six--they lack in depth. The Fish will have the worst bench and bullpen in the division, and among the worst in baseball." The rest of the BP group shares that belief, overwhelmingly projecting the Marlins fourth in the division, behind the Phillies, Braves and Mets.

PECOTA concurs:

            W    L    PCT    RS    RA
Phillies   90   72   .554   833   744
Braves     82   80   .506   758   749
Marlins    81   81   .502   724   720
Mets       81   81   .497   736   741
Nationals  74   88   .459   685   749
Here's another case, however, where preseason projections don't do a team justice. Many of the National League's expected winners this season include teams that feature solid depth, in the rotation, lineup, bench or bullpen--sometimes all four. As Nate Silver noted last week in his PECOTA American League preview, the Oakland A's are the favorites to win the AL West--not because they're loaded with star talent, but because their 25-man roster includes plenty of viable options should some front-line players crap out or get hurt. Over the long haul of a season, there's no arguing against the value of depth.

This year's Marlins bench includes Jeff Conine, Damion Easley and a litany of dubious talent. Guillermo Mota is a top reliever who could emerge as an elite closer, having been handed the keys this season--the arms leading up to Mota won't inspire anyone. If any of the team's stars go down for any length of time, the Marlins could fall into deep trouble.

It's what happens if they don't run into major injuries that makes this team so dangerous. It's much easier to upgrade a position that features a dreg that it is to replace an average player with a star, especially when you have limited resources, as the Marlins do. This team is high on top-level talent, low on average players, and one of the most dreg-filled contenders in the NL. If things go well early, that gives them an edge on their rivals.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. Two seasons ago the Marlins began the year with plenty of holes in their roster, just as they will this year. Questions lingered about Ivan Rodriguez's health and the well-being of the young pitching staff. But the team hung in the race as the trading deadline approached, even after suffering through injuries to Beckett, Burnett and others. Superprospects Willis and Cabrera went a long way toward plugging the holes in the roster, certainly--something Josh Willingham should do once the Marlins give him a chance to stick and contribute in the majors. But that team also found itself in an enviable position as Larry Beinfest went summer shopping that year: They didn't need a Jason Schmidt or Carlos Beltran home-run deal to round out the roster. Instead, they roped a bunch of singles and doubles, grabbing players like Chad Fox and Ugueth Urbina to round out an already talented roster.

For the Marlins now, as then, the season will depend on their top players' ability to produce and stay healthy between Opening Day and the All-Star break. If they do, you can say goodbye to the roster's Juan Encarnacions and Todd Joneses. A few well-placed tweaks, combined with the league's best core, will then usher the Marlins back into the World Series. Again.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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