I got this e-mail almost two weeks ago:

If you haven’t already planned to write it, you have to write a column about the absurdity of the Marlins trading three top prospects for Ugueth Urbina in a ridiculous bid for a playoff spot…and who have since gone 11-4, including wins in eight of their last nine games, including five straight against the teams (Diamondbacks and Phillies) directly ahead of them in the wild-card chase. (The last three by one run each.)

And suddenly they’re two games out. As bold and fascinating a storyline as this is, I can’t root for a Jeffrey Loria-owned enterprise to do anything other than crash and burn. Still, ya gotta write about this.

I didn’t write the article then, because I figured the Marlins weren’t going to last. I’ve already ruined any number of Padres seasons by writing columns on them right as they were peaking, so I waited on the Fish.

I can’t wait anymore. Even after yesterday’s 5-4 loss to the Brewers, the Marlins are at 64-53, tied with the Phillies for the NL Wild-Card lead. It’s a great story for a team that has already provided some of the more interesting individual angles in the 2003 season. Dontrelle Willis made the All-Star team and will probably be the NL Rookie of the Year, even though he won’t deserve it. Mike Lowell, cancer survivor, is having his best season. The Fish are now managed by Jack McKeon, who is 72 years old and has never been to the postseason as a manager.

The Marlins have played well–48-31–under McKeon, who has toned down the extremes of Jeff Torborg’s approach to this team. The Marlins run less, but more effectively, than they did under their former manager. With Torborg let go in a controversy over his handling of young pitchers, McKeon has handled Willis and the returning Josh Beckett with kid gloves, while riding veteran Mark Redman as hard as any pitcher in the game. It’s an approach that has left the Marlins with the third-best rotation in the league.

Their bullpen doesn’t score well by ARP, but as with a number of other bullpens in the game, that figure is deceptive. Two pitchers who aren’t likely to get near the mound again–Vladimir Nunez and Blaine Neal–cost the Marlins nearly 30 runs of ARP in 30 2/3 innings of work. The Marlins have an average bullpen right now.

The key to the Marlins’ success, however, is that they have no bad players in their lineup. Time and time again we see teams fall out of races because they’re unable to fill a hole with a replacement-level player. The Marlins, however, have no players in their everyday lineup below replacement level.

                    EqA     RAR    RARP
Mike Lowell        .316    46.7    44.9
Ivan Rodriguez     .313    36.9    38.5
Derrek Lee         .297    33.8    23.7
Luis Castillo      .279    25.2    23.9
Alex Gonzalez      .271    18.4    19.7
Juan Pierre        .273    24.7    19.4
Juan Encarnacion   .269    17.4     8.9
Miguel Cabrera     .260     5.5     2.5

There are no great hitters in this lineup, but a team that doesn’t have a .230 EqA mucking up the works can do a lot of damage. The Marlins have a team EqA of .270, fourth in the NL, and they don’t have any of the individual performances that the teams ahead of them (Braves, Cardinals, Giants) are getting. The stolen bases–127 of them–help, but speed isn’t the most important element in the offense: hitting for average (.267, fourth in the league) and power (120 home runs, fifth in the league) is how the Fish score.

The decision to yank Miguel Cabrera up from Double-A and have him do on-the-job training as a left fielder in the major leagues was a risky one that has so far worked reasonably well. He’s played a decent left field and managed to hit for some power, and he had some big hits before the trade deadline that convinced the Marlins to not trade for a left fielder.

As excited as the Fish are about Cabrera’s future, they should be looking to replace him as a regular for this season. He’s looked overmatched at times, and left field is the one place where they might be able to add a left-handed bat to hit among the six right-handed hitters they line up in the #3 through #8 slots. Todd Hollandsworth was supposed to be that guy, but he’s hit .251/.309/.428 for a .255 EqA. The Marlins chose to sign Hollandsworth, you’ll recall, rather than keep Kevin Millar around, a decision that looms large over their season right now.

The front-line talent of the Marlins is vastly superior to the backups. The Fish may have the worst-performing bench in baseball, and its best hitter is the #3 catcher, Ramon Castro. As with the bullpen, the talent looks a bit better than the numbers, as Andy Fox, Mike Mordecai and Mike Redmond all have histories of being useful, even valuable, reserves. The poor bench contributes to the main reason for being skeptical about the Marlins: they’ve ridden the starting lineup very hard. Juan Pierre has played in every game, and all seven starters other than the left fielder have played in at least 102 games. It’s not a certainty that they will wilt in the August heat, but given where they play, it’s a concern.

If they’re going to tire, though, they will catch a break while doing so. The Marlins’ schedule will finally let up a bit over the next couple of weeks. Before facing the Brewers over the weekend, the Fish hadn’t seen a below-.500 squad since the Devil Rays in mid-June. That makes their run even more impressive. They’ll get the Dodgers and Padres at home this week, and follow that with what I think is the key to their hopes: six games in Colorado and San Francisco, where the home teams play .700 baseball. If they can survive that week–just go 3-3 in those two series–they’ll be in good shape heading into September. With six games left against the Phillies, they will control their own destiny.

As an analyst, I don’t think they can make it. As a fan, and with due respect to the many people out there who hate Jeffrey Loria, I would love to see it. Surprise teams make September fun, and with the Royals teetering on the brink, the Marlins can give this Indian summer the excitement that the Twins and Angels provided last year.

I’ve been asked to create a list of my 10 or so best articles. I have no real idea how to go about this, so I’m turning to the audience. If you have a favorite column of mine that you think should be on that list, drop me a line and let me know. Thanks for your time.

Thank you for reading

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