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July 26, 2005

Prospectus Today

Fishy Decision

by Joe Sheehan

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(Ed. Note: Monday's column is brought to you late Tuesday by SBC Yahoo! SBC Yahoo!: We Have Your Money, Now Sit Down and Shut Up.--JSS)

As of this morning, the entire National League East is ahead of the entire National League West. While that feat is more likely in an era that includes more and smaller divisions, it's still very rare. The 1994 AL had a similar layout just before the players went on strike, with the final standings from that aborted season, showing every other team in the league having a better record than the West-leading Rangers and their three division rivals. It takes a very strange set of circumstances for something like this, with either a division so bad its leader can be .500 or worse and another where the teams are so evenly matched as to keep everyone in a small range. One very good team playing .650 ball can drive everyone else's record down.

So in calling a team from either division an "Nth-place team" you have to consider the context. The Padres have lost six in a row and are barely over .500 at 50-49, but they are in first place with a 2 -game lead over the Diamondbacks. The Marlins are in last place, but at 49-47, they're just 4 games behind the Braves and Nationals in the division. The Fish have outscored their opponents, something no team in the NL West has done, and

That they're in last place seems to be what is driving the idea that they're having a disappointing season, and more to the point, that they should be in the market to dump impending free agents, such as A.J. Burnett, and plan for the future.

Setting aside the issue of trades for the moment, why would anyone consider the Marlins disappointing? They looked like a .530 or so team at the start of the year, maybe slightly above (I had them going 85-77), with a pretty good front side of everything backed up by a poor bullpen, poor bench and shaky back end of the rotation. That they had a lot of upside thanks to the young starting pitching was mitigated by perhaps the worst depth in the game.

Ninety-six games into the season, 49-47 is a record exactly in line with reasonable expectations. The Marlins have had a fairly typical mix of performance above and below expectations, most of them balancing out. Mike Lowell's collapse has been mitigated a bit by Juan Encarnacion's work; Luis Castillo up, Juan Pierre down; Al Leiter was even worse than you might have imagined, but Brian Moehler has been a godsend. The core talent has played up to expectations, with Burnett, Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett combining for 57 starts and a VORP of 82.2 in just shy of four months. The distribution has been a surprise--the lefty has outpitched the two righties, which isn't what you would have expected in March--but the overall value has been what you'd expect.

Despite all of this, the Marlins are seen as a seller. They're a victim of the expectations placed on that young rotation, one that has done its job in propelling them to the top. The front three caused many people to overlook the thin roster and simply project 90 or more wins based on the starting pitching and the middle of the lineup.

That's not to say that the Marlins couldn't be better. A farm system that produced Beckett, Willis and Miguel Cabrera in short order went dry right after that, leaving the Marlins with holes on the bench that they haven't been able to fill. Lowell has played just about every day despite his .234/.285/.363 performance, in part because the Marlins don't have anyone they can even pretend is better. The Marlins lack a real fourth outfielder as well, as Chris Aguila is a poor player and Jeff Conine is primarily a corner man. This has kept Juan Pierre in, and usually atop, the lineup in a year in which he's hitting .277/.327/.359, largely cancelling out Castillo's big year (.315/.411/.387).

Their backup catcher, Matt Treanor is terrible, hitting .224/.286/.321; as Paul Lo Duca heads for his late-season fate, that will become a bigger issue.. Lenny Harris is actually having a random good season by his lights, getting enough singles to drive a .333 BA. Neither Joe Dillon nor Josh Willingham, two older prospects who hit very well in the minors in '04, have been able to grasp jobs in Miami. The Marlins' bench has been a net negative for the team.

Worse, however, is the lack of depth on the pitching staff. Just five Marlins' pitcher have double-digit VORP totals, the four starters and closer/sociologist Todd Jones. Guillermo Mota has been a huge disappointment, ineffective early on and then injured, now pitching set-up relief and not doing so all that well. Jim Mecir has been mildly effective, and no one else had made notable contributions. The bullpen's ineffectiveness has contributed to the Marlins' 10-17 record in one-run games, a mark that is by far the worst in the division.

The silliest thing in all of this isn't the notion that the Marlins should be sellers. It's the recent rumors about Jack McKeon's job security. McKeon hasn't pushed buttons the way he did in the 2003 postseason, but blaming him for a .525 team playing .510 ball is ridiculous. McKeon has done nothing notably different from what he did the last couple of seasons or, for that matter, what he did in Cincinnati before he was let go after the 2000 season. Replacing him would be a mistake even if there was someone good waiting in the wings; to replace him with Jeff Torborg, who hasn't managed a .500 team since 1991 and who has a well-earned reputation as an arm-slagger, would be self-destruction.

The Marlins have an opportunity to win a division title, a first in franchise history. Rather than act like sellers, they should take Burnett off the market and shore up the bench and bullpen. This hasn't been Larry Beinfest's strength as GM--his tastes in the market have been for veteran leaders, with performance not the primary concern--but what his team needs isn't intangible. It needs OBP off the bench and relievers who can miss bats, and both of those can be found by a GM willing to go get it.

Last place. .510 Pct. Four-and-a-half games out. There's no team in baseball history that's had that profile in late July, but then again, there's no team in baseball history with two more world championships than division titles.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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