- Manager of the Year?: Jack McKeon took over the Marlins on May 11, with the club at 16-22, and promptly saw his new crew lose seven of his first 10 games. At 19-29, the team was in last place with a bullet, the team’s vaunted pitching staff was in shambles, and some portraits of the 72-year-old McKeon in the media subtly portrayed him as being somewhat lost and bewildered with his situation. With a week to go and the Marlins fighting it out for a playoff spot, the portraits of their manager have changed. The Marlins are 69-48 under McKeon, and he has to be considered the front runner for the Manager of the Year award. Admittedly, we are a long way from being able to judge the full effect that any manager has on a team. However, the award tends to be given to the skipper of a club that is surprisingly successful, and no National League team has a better claim to that description than the Marlins.
It cannot be overstated how much disarray McKeon inherited. A.J. Burnett was down for the year with a torn UCL, Josh Beckett was out with an ominous “elbow sprain,” and Mark Redman had a broken thumb on his pitching hand. The team’s abuse of its own pitchers was the fodder for the national media. Most people figured that the team was about to be dismantled, by mid-season if not sooner.
On McKeon’s watch, Beckett and Redman returned, and both, along with ex-prospects Brad Penny and Carl Pavano, have pitched the best-sustained baseball of their lives. Dontrelle Willis joined the team a few days before McKeon and has helped give the Marlins the best one-through-five rotation in the National League. Although this all could be a series of happy coincidences, it seems unlikely. McKeon was widely viewed as an interim solution, someone to ride out the disastrous season, but the Marlins now very much want him back for 2004.
- The Other Rookie: Florida’s offense has been fairly steady all year, even when now-departed manager Jeff Torborg steered the ship. It has also been remarkably stable, with five of the regulars likely to play 150 games, and catcher Ivan Rodriguez on target for 145. Mike Lowell, who had played 129 games with a month to go when he broke his hand, has been replaced in the lineup by Jeff Conine, who has likewise played every day.
The only other position switch during the season took place in June, when the Marlins determined that 20-year-old third baseman Miguel Cabrera had abused the Southern League enough (.365/.429/.609) and boldly handed him the left field job over a struggling Todd Hollandsworth. Cabrera was on every top prospect list before the season, but his entrance in Miami was a year earlier than expected.
Cabrera continues to be a positive development for the franchise. He is already an above-average major league hitter for a third baseman–.271/.323/.486, .275 EqA–though still a bit below average for a left fielder. He’s been streaky, but McKeon has stuck by him, starting him in every game but two since his recall. He returned to his natural third base position when Lowell got hurt and, coincidence or not, has hit .343/.380/.612 in September in the midst of his first pennant rate. Comfortably ahead of PECOTA’s 75th percentile, Cabrera could soon be one of the biggest stars in the game.
New York Yankees
- Playoff Roster: The Yankees’ win over the Devil Rays on Sunday clinched their eighth consecutive postseason appearance, second among current teams to the Braves’ 12 straight. The Yankees will play the Twins in the Division Series, barring a last-week collapse by those Twins or the Wild Card-leading Red Sox.
Who will go forth for the Bombers? Keeping in mind Joe Torre’s history of assembling weak benches, the usage patterns in the current bullpen, and the likelihood that the Yankees will have the extended first-round series with an off-day the first Wednesday, here’s what the bulk of the Yankees’ roster could look like next week:
C: Jorge Posada, John Flaherty
1B: Jason Giambi, Nick Johnson
2B: Alfonso Soriano
SS: Derek Jeter
3B: Aaron Boone, Enrique Wilson
OF: Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, Karim Garcia, Juan Rivera, David Dellucci, Ruben Sierra
That’s 14 position players and nine pitchers. Torre usually has a 14/11 split in the postseason, so the other two spots will probably go to pitchers. It’s not like there are a lot of good position-player candidates, anyway. Luis Sojo is around, and it would be consistent with Torre’s history to keep Sojo rather than Dellucci, or possibly even Rivera. Given how rarely Torre takes his infielders out of games, it makes more sense to have the extra outfielder to allow for multiple pinch-hitters for right fielders in late-game situations, and defense after that.
With their Division Series likely stretching over seven days (Fox only has prime-time games on the Tuesday and Thursday of next week, and it’s hard to imagine them passing up a chance to show the Yankees in prime time), the Yanks will have the option to use a three-man rotation, with their #1 and #2 starters staying on five days’ rest for potential games four and five. Torre has never used a three-man rotation with the Yankees, though, and given that doing so would involve passing up David Wells and the circus that would entail, look for Torre to stick with a four-man.
One of the last two pitchers on the roster should be Jose Contreras, although it’s hard to see where he fits in. He hasn’t been good as a reliever this year, and he’ll start in the same game John Flaherty does. Felix Heredia has pitched fairly well since coming over, and having the extra lefty who can go two innings wouldn’t hurt against the Twins.
As long as Torre resists the urge to add Sojo to the roster instead of an outfielder, this will be one of his better postseason benches. Flaherty is a dead roster spot, a backup catcher who can’t pinch-hit for anyone, but he’s the only benchie with no value. Contreras doesn’t have a role, but he’s not taking up a better pitcher’s spot, either.
- ’04 or Bust: With another failed campaign almost in the books, it’s time to turn to ’04. Here’s how the Bucs’ lineup might shake out for next season:
- C – Jason Kendall – Kendall’s having a nice renaissance season in 2003 (.324/.400/.415/.287 EqA) and has been one of the Bucs’ few productive regulars all season. That said, as solid as his season has been, a great deal of his value is tied up in his .324 batting average–the most volatile of the offensive rate stats. His walk rate isn’t great, and his Isolated SLG (slugging average minus batting average) is a mere .091. So if he’s going to keep this up in 2004, he’ll need to once again hit comfortably over .300. Maybe he’ll do that, maybe he won’t. There’s also a strong chance he could join Brian Giles in San Diego via off-season trade. That likely depends on whether the Pads are able to sign Pudge Rodriguez, whom they prefer to Kendall. If Kendall is jettisoned, a retread like Brad King or Humberto Cota will probably keep the spot warm until J.R. House is ready, which may be by mid-season.
- 1B – Craig Wilson – Wilson’s known for his raw power stroke and inability to garner regular playing time. Since the trades of Giles and Randall Simon, however, he’s been in the lineup almost every day. And he’s been hitting. Last week, he garnered NL Player of the Week honors and on the season is hitting .269/.360/.532/.299 EqA. There’s a chance he could wind up at an outfield corner in ’04, but he’ll be starting somewhere. If he is manning an outfield spot, the first base job could go to Carlos Rivera.
- 2B – Bobby Hill – Hill’s season is over because of back problems, but the main haul of the Aramis Ramirez trade with the Cubs stands to be the starting second baseman in 2004, provided he recovers as anticipated this off-season. Rob Mackowiak has quietly done a solid job in limited action this season, but Hill will get the first look next season.
- 3B – This one’s wide open. Jose Hernandez likely won’t be back, and top third base prospect Jose Bautista just finished up in the Carolina League, so he’s hardly ready for regular duty at the highest level. Retread Mike Gulan has played solidly for Triple-A Nashville, but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll garner a starting job at age 33. The Pirates may opt to make Mackowiak the starter at third or find a second-tier free agent to hold down the fort. A more likely scenario might be installing Freddy Sanchez at second and moving Hill to third.
- SS – Jack Wilson – Or maybe not? Wilson is eligible for arbitration this winter, and there’s talk that the Bucs might non-tender him. Jose Castillo, arguably the top prospect in the organization, is the shortstop of the future, but the Bucs may be loath to skip the 22-year-old past Triple-A entirely. One possible scenario is that they’ll non-tender Wilson and find a stopgap solution until Castillo is ready by mid-season.
- LF – Jason Bay – While most observers saw LHP Oliver Perez as the score of the Giles trade with San Diego, it may be Bay who has the most career value of any young player the Pirates have acquired this season. He’s raked since coming over from the Padres, and there’s little doubt he’ll open 2004 as the starting left fielder in Pittsburgh.
- CF – Tike Redman – Since the Lofton deal, Redman has been the primary starter in center. His solid play (.309/.347/.471/.281 EqA, six steals) has earned him first look going into 2004. Barring a disastrous spring, he’s the presumptive opening-day center fielder. Some competition could come from Tony Alvarez.
- RF – J.J. Davis – Despite the excellent season that Reggie Sanders has had, the pending free agent won’t be back in Pittsburgh next season. Davis put together a strong Sanders-like season at Triple-A Nashville (.282/.342/.554) and may get a long look next spring. He’s not a future star, but his power display this season has likely earned him a shot for 2004.