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September 12, 2011

On the Beat

Great Expectations

by John Perrotto

Jack McKeon is as spry as any 80-year-old man.

Those who poked fun at the Marlins for bringing McKeon back as the manager in June when Edwin Rodriguez resigned would admit they were wrong if they spent five minutes around him. He is in good physical shape and his mind is as sharp as when he first became a major-league manager in 1973 with the Royals.

"He doesn't miss a thing," Marlins first base coach Perry Hill said. "He's a sharp as a tack and he has a terrific sense of humor. He's not your typical 80-year-old."

However, McKeon can also be as old-school as anyone in baseball, which is understandable considering he has been in the game for six decades. For example, don't mention that some of his starting pitchers should have better records because a lack of run support has cost them victories despite their quality starts.

"Don't give me any of that quality start stuff. Give me quality wins. That's what I want," McKeon said. "I was talking to Bob Feller at the Hall of Fame a few years ago, and he told me if he would have given up three runs in six innings, he would have been embarrassed, because he would have thought it was a bad game."

Yet while McKeon may not get into WARP and VORP, he certainly grasps the value of Marlins right-hander Josh Johnson and shortstop Hanley Ramirez, two of the premier players in the game. And McKeon certainly understands that the Marlins are last in the National League East with a 66-79 record because they have gotten next to nothing from either one of their stars.

Ramirez had a career-worst .252 TAv in 385 plate appearances before being shut down late last month. He will undergo shoulder surgery this week. Johnson's season wound up ending in May, as shoulder tendinitis kept him on the disabled list after notching a 2.61 FIP in nine starts and 60 1/3 innings.

The Marlins have managed just 3.99 runs per game, putting them 10th in the NL and 22nd in the major leagues. As left fielder Logan Morrison so aptly said after a 13-4 victory over the Pirates last Friday night, "this happens once a week for the Yankees or Red Sox, but it doesn't happen very often for us."

Right fielder Mike Stanton has a .305 TAv and 32 home runs in his first full major-league season despite being slowed by hamstring problems most of the year, and Morrison (.284) and first baseman Gaby Sanchez (.282) have been solid. However, Ramirez finishing 48 points below his .300 career TAv has certainly had a negative impact.

"Hanley is such a threat, even this year when he didn't produce the way he normally does," McKeon said. "Teams still pitch to him carefully, which makes everyone around him in the lineup better. Even though he didn't have the type of year you normally expect from him, just take a look at our record with and without him and that'll tell you something."

Indeed, the Marlins are 50-39 with Ramirez in the lineup and 16-40 without him.

The loss of Johnson has had the same kind of negative impact on the pitching staff. The Marlins are 12th in the NL and 20th in the majors in runs allowed with an average of 4.42 per game. Anibal Sanchez (3.34) and Ricky Nolasco (3.38) are having fine years, and Javier Vazquez (3.85) has righted himself after an awful beginning of the season by making nine straight quality starts. Still, McKeon understands the value of an ace like Johnson, who had a 2.61 FIP last season and owns a career 3.13 mark.

"You just don't find too many true No.1 starters, and Josh is that kind of pitcher," McKeon said. "Not only do you lose your best pitcher, but then you are asking guys to step up into roles where they're not so well-suited. You're asking your No. 2 to be your No. 1, your No. 3 to be your No. 2, and it really messes everything up. There is no doubt in my mind our record would be a lot better if we had Josh all season."

Ramirez is expected to be 100 percent by the start of spring training, and the Marlins say the same about Johnson, though missing more than four months without any structural problem being found in the shoulder raises some questions about how he will survive the 2012 season.

Though the Marlins have the final 17 days of the season to play out, they are understandably looking ahead to next year. They will move into a new baseball-only stadium on the site of the old Orange Bowl in Miami's Little Havana section, finally saying goodbye to Sun Life Stadium, their home since joining the NL as an expansion franchise in 1993 but a facility much more suited for the NFL's Miami Dolphins.

There has also been a buzz in baseball circles that previously tight-fisted owner Jeffrey Loria, who has benefitted more from Major League Baseball's revenue-sharing system than anyone, will attempt to make a big splash in the offseason, perhaps trying to sign Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols or Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder in an effort to sync the first year in the new ballpark with what would be the Marlins' first post-season berth since 2003.

McKeon would like to stay on as manager but says he is fine with whatever Loria decides he wants to do. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who was on McKeon's coaching staff during the World Series-winning season of 2003, lives in Miami in the offseason and has campaigned for the job so openly that it has become irritating.

Whoever the manager is in 2012, McKeon believes he will be walking into a great situation.

"It's going to be completely different next year," McKeon said. "There is going to be a lot of excitement with the new ballpark. There is going to be more fan support, more excitement around the team because there are going to be so many more people at the games. Then you'll have Hanley and Josh back, too. You add that to what we already have now and whatever we might do over the winter and I think you're going to have what could be one heckuva ballclub."

---

Scouts' views:

Tigers catcher Alex Avila: "It's hard to believe that back in spring training he was one of the Tigers' question marks. He's been tremendous. His bat is a big plus at that position, and he handles that pitching staff like a 10-year veteran. He might be the MVP of that club."

Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney: "He's never going to be a big stat guy, but he is the type of player you can win with. He's got the intangibles of a winning player. He understands the game and has really good instincts."

Mets left fielder Jason Bay: "He was doomed from the minute he got that big contract (four years and $66 million) because there was no way he was going to live up to it, especially in that big ballpark. I think he can still help someone as a complementary player, but he needs to get out of there."

Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin: "He has a chance to be a pretty good major-league starting pitcher if he cleans some things up. First off, he needs to throw more strikes, because he kills himself with too many walks. Secondly, he needs to focus better. There are times when you see him just completely lose his concentration."

Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie: "I know what his record is this year and for his career, but I'm still a big believer if you put him in a good organization and on a winning team that he'd win you some games. He's a bright guy and I think he'd be a Jimmy Buffett-type guy if he switched teams because a change in latitude would cause a change in attitude."

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

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