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April 25, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Something Fishy

by Joe Sheehan

Yesterday, I talked about the long winning streaks assembled by the Braves and Mets. The Mets stretched theirs to eight games Monday by beating the Dodgers 1-0, while the Braves had the day off. But even with that success, neither team is the best story in the division.

The best story in the division is the Florida Marlins, who are 13-8 as you read this. The laughingstock, owner-stripped, first-to-worst Florida Marlins are at their highest point since winning the 1997 World Series. After that championship, of course, then-owner Wayne Huizenga tore the team apart, insisting he had lost and would continue to lose money--a dubious claim at best--and eventually sold the team.

While 1998 and 1999 were difficult seasons for the franchise, the forced divestiture of high- and medium-salaried players did bring in a ton of younger talent, particularly pitching talent. The Marlins have, by far, the youngest everyday lineup in the majors, with no starter over 28, and a nearly no-name pitching staff that has the second-best ERA in the league. Behind nominal ace and probable trade bait Alex Fernandez, the Fish have their future ace, Brad Penny, with a 3.42 ERA and a better than 3-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. Ryan Dempster is picking up where he left off in the second half of 1999, striking out more than a man an inning with an ERA of 3.38. These two pitchers should be the base on which the Marlins build their next championship team.

Their offense is led by OBP machine second baseman Luis Castillo, currently on the disabled list with a lower back strain. Behind Castillo, the Marlins have a number of mid-range hitters, like third baseman Mike Lowell and left fielder Cliff Floyd. Currently, the Marlins are eighth in the NL in runs scored, due to their #15 rank in slugging percentage. The team does not have hitting at either the major- or minor-league level to match their pitchers, and in fact, seems to specialize in low-OBP, high-tool players. In the long-term, they will need to either import or develop people to build a lineup around.

In the short term, the Marlins shouldn't expect to be the 1999 Reds or A's. A crucial part of their early season success has been the effectiveness of their bullpen. They've posted an ERA of 1.99, and have been essential to the Marlins' 9-5 record in games decided by one or two runs. Unfortunately, that performance is a house built on sand:

Pitcher             ERA     IP   K   BB
Ricky Bones        0.00   12.2   4    8
Braden Looper      1.54   11.2   5    1
Armando Almanza    1.59    5.2   4    7
Dan Miceli         1.59   11.1  15    3
Vic Darensbourg    3.18    5.2   6    5
Antonio Alfonseca  4.50   12.0   9    4

That's 43 strikeouts and 28 walks, which is a so-so ratio. Take Dan Miceli away, and the rest of the pen is right around even. That's not going to lead to a 1.99 ERA over the course of the season. At some point, Ricky Bones is going to fall to earth, and Braden Looper is either going to develop an out pitch against left-handers or start coughing up runs.

And this isn't a bad thing. The Marlins don't have the personnel to win in 2000, or even make a significant charge. This is a nice run early in the season keyed by luck, good starting pitching and luck. The worst thing would be for the team to take themselves seriously and make distribute playing time, or worse, make organizational decisions with an eye toward October, 2000. Alex Fernandez should still be traded, Ramon Castro should be handed 300 at-bats as the team's catcher and Dave Dombrowski should still be on the lookout for teams who want to give up even more talent for his older players.

What would be nice is for the fans in Miami to take a shine to the team. It is young and there are some excellent players here. The Marlins are still having a lot of trouble drawing crowds, the legacy of two years of basically being told to stay away. Overcoming that is going to be harder than sorting through the organization's outfielders or picking a first baseman. That, and not a flag flying above Joe Robbie Stadium, is Wayne Huizenga's real legacy.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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