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December 11, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Fishing for Mediocrity?

by Bryan Smith

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In November 2005, the Marlins shed salary by trading Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to the Red Sox for a package of Hanley Ramirez and three pitching prospects. The move set the tone for both the rest of that offseason and also the 25 months that have followed, leading up to dealing Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers.

Over the time between those two trades, the Marlins have made 13 major league trades for which they received 29 players in return. Of the 29 players, just seven have been hitters, including Ramirez, Mike Jacobs, and Cameron Maybin. The other 22 have been pitchers, as Florida has attempted desperately to acquire as many pre-arbitration arms as possible. This was in part the repercussion of their determination that the key young pitchers from their 2003 World Series run would be too expensive for them to retain. Beckett and Brad Penny were dealt before they could depart via free agency, while Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett both defected for big money in the perennial arms race the AL East.

Having so much pitching talent shipped off or seen ship itself out, the Marlins have been snatching up pitchers at every turn, both in their deals and in the draft. Their stockpiling actually started nearly six months before the Beckett trade, in the June 2005 draft, when the Marlins chose a historic five pitchers in the draft's first 44 picks. Florida went back into the draft with the same plan in 2006, taking Missouri State right-hander Brett Sinkbeil in the first round, and top Puerto Rican arm Hector Correa in the fourth.

In all, over these two and a half years the Marlins have added about 20 pitchers they still hope project to a major league pitching staff. Following the Cabrera trade, my colleagues at BP have wondered if the Marlins haul was deeper in numbers than talent. The question must be explored for not just that one trade, but over the full 30 months that Florida has spent adding pitchers. How many players still possess legitimate value, and will end up as retaining value for what the Marlins traded away? Because if you're counting, beyond dealing two superstars in Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera, they've peddled six established veteran hitters, and a franchise face in Dontrelle Willis. Surely they have something to show for that, don't they?

If Florida's move towards a centralized focus on pitching began in June 2005, we will begin with that haul. Stan Meek and his scouting department made headlines after the team used its five first round selections all on arms-four high school pitchers from the nation's most competitive states and a small-school college pitcher in Jacob Marceaux.

Marceaux has proven the dud of the group, allowing a 5.05 ERA across the Florida State and Hawiian Winter Leagues, as his horrific command clouds a fantastic ability to induce groundballs. However, the four prep arms are still going concerns, albeit a mixed group. None of them has emerged as top arms in the minors. Louisiana lefty Sean West missed 2007 with an injury, while the other three progressed to Jupiter in the Florida State League. The trio had the luck in continuing their development together, as well as pitching in the minors' fourth-easiest pitcher's park, as rated by Clay Davenport's 2004-2006 park factors. With that benefit, how do the 2007 numbers at the level stack up for Chris Volstad, Aaron Thompson, and Ryan Tucker, as well as 2006 first-rounder Brett Sinkbeil?

Name         ERA      H/9   BB/9     K/9    G/F
Volstad      4.50    10.9    2.6     6.6    2.1
Thompson     3.37     9.5    2.7     6.6    2.0
Tucker       3.71     9.2    3.0     6.8    1.1
Sinkbeil     3.42     9.3    1.6     5.6    2.2

All four pitchers are at least statistically similar: they also allow a low homer rate, they don't walk many batters, and they don't strike batters out often enough. However, they could not be more different on the diamond. Volstad is a 6'7" giant who gets good tilt on his low-90s fastball, and mixes in three other pitches, including a good changeup. Thompson is virtually Volstad's opposite, slight and left-handed; he excels at keeping the ball down, pitching in the high 80s while attempting to never put his fastball or good change above the hitters' knees. Ryan Tucker has the group's best velocity as a big bodied right-hander, but his secondary stuff remains inconsistent from start to start. Sinkbeil is the most nondescript of the group, juxtaposing fantastic command with lacking stuff and little projection.

Volstad and Thompson can only hope to get better when their groundballs are backed with better defenses-Volstad improved in a late-season promotion to Double-A-while Tucker is merely waiting on consistent results from his slider. All four still profile towards the back end of a rotation, though many believe Tucker would be better suited for a relief role. Even so, all are flawed in one way or another, and will face obstacles at higher levels. Surely someone from the group will justify their aggregate bonus payouts, but it's doubtful that all four will, and more doubtful still that any will ever sit atop a good Marlins rotation.

Not so long ago, it seemed that the pitcher most likely to do that was Sean West, the 6'8" lefty Kevin Goldstein had atop the Marlins system last year. After a lost season due to shoulder surgery, while reports were good from instructional leagues, the southpaw doesn't need any further setbacks in his learning curve.

Sadly, he seems to be an example for what's going amiss throughout the organization, as young Marlins are far too commonplace in Under the Knife, notably two of the "established" starting pitchers the Marlins acquired in their deals-Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco.

It didn't take long after Anibal's 2006 no-hitter for the red lights to literally start flashing. Will Carroll's cause for concern was unfortunately justified, and Sanchez combined a lost year with a grievance filed against his own organization. Nolasco's breakdown was a bit more of a surprise, but his elbow issues started to flare up in June. He wouldn't return to the mound in 2007 until a MLB-permitted appearance in the Arizona Fall League, where Nolasco looked, predictably, like the most experienced player there.

In a perfect world, Nolasco and Sanchez will jump right back into the rotation next season, rejoining Sergio Mitre, Scott Olsen (who has his own set of injury problems), and either Andrew Miller or Rich VandenHurk. You can bet they'll need all six in 2008, because while the Marlins have executed a plan to acquire pitching, they aren't succeeding in keeping much of it healthy. They're even failing to execute acquiring healthy arms in the first place. Reliever Travis Bowyer came over from the Twins in the Luis Castillo deal, but has yet to pitch in the Marlins organization, missing both 2006 and 2007 following shoulder surgery. Bowyer had some darkhorse closer dreams when entering the franchise, but now, even pitching in the majors would be a coup.

If my math is correct, Bowyer is just one of eight relief "prospects" the Marlins have acquired via trade over the last two and a half seasons. It's a ridiculously high number, as many organizations believe the best relievers come from the ranks of minor league starters. Perhaps the Marlins are bettering themselves from this market inefficiency, however, as the team saw very good contributions from Matt Lindstrom, Renyel Pinto, Henry Owens, and Harvey Garcia last season. While Scott Tyler and the homegrown Jose Garcia didn't work out, the team's successes in relief actually represent their deepest part of the organization. That's not necessarily a good sign for the future health of the franchise.

The good news is that these players (with the exception of Bowyer) were not major acquisitions in major trades. Lindstrom and Owens were part of a good two-for-two trade with the Mets, while Pinto and Garcia came at the back-end of the Juan Pierre and Josh Beckett trades, respectively. Finding role players on the periphery of the deal is one area of hope for the Miguel Cabrera trade-as Will Carroll discussed with Tim Dierkes on BP Conversations today, the Marlins are betting with their scouts. The Marlins are hoping Eulogio De La Cruz can become a late-inning reliever as the third piece in a major trade. You'll find bigger De La Cruz believers than I; his command is too often problematic, and he doesn't get the strikeout rates that his power arm should deliver. The Marlins certainly have insurance in their bullpen should De La Cruz falter, but I'll argue his profile is more of a middle man that a closer.

Kevin Goldstein previously hit on the other pitchers in last week's trade, so I'll just add a quick note that both Dallas Trahern and Burke Badenhop are like the four previous starting pitchers I profiled, guys who project as back-end starters at best. Like the Jupiter foursome, both command the zone and keep the ball in the park. I simply wonder that, as the Marlins add more of these type of pitchers in their system, why then has there been no push to move Hanley Ramirez off shortstop? The MVP candidate provides ground-ball pitchers little or no help up the middle.

In acquiring more than twenty young pitchers, the Marlins hope to re-invent the kind of young power staff that led them to a 2003 World Series. However, that 2003 staff was loaded with pitchers with ace potential up and down the line. If the Marlins are betting to return to a sub-700 runs allowed kind of ballclub, their hopes shouldn't rest on Chris Volstad or Brett Sinkbeil, or the relief possibilities for guys like Harvey Garcia and Eulogio De La Cruz. In that sense, the Marlins have failed, and the package they've gotten in the Cabrera trade-quantity but too little quality-is symbolic for all their moves geared towards adding pitching.

You cannot fault the Marlins for their philosophy. However, the execution of the plan has resulted in too many mediocre arms, with the pressure to do something to set themselves apart really resting on Sean West, Anibal Sanchez, Rick VandenHurk, Scott Olsen, and now, perhaps most of all, Andrew Miller. These five pitchers have the talent that a playoff staff must possess, but the problem for the Marlins is that all face uphill battles, either because of health or command issues. If they want to see their plan work out to any significant extent, the Marlins must acquire better defenders, and initiate safer workloads.

The Marlins have literally bet the farm on their ability to develop pitching. Next season, certainly more so than in 2007, the Fish must prove they haven't instead drowned themselves in mediocrity.

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

Related Content:  Florida Marlins,  The Who,  Marlins,  Marlins Park

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