Florida Marlins

  • No Ghosts: This was supposed to be the season wrap-up edition of the Marlins’ Triple Play, much like the last several installments. Over the past fortnight the club has been the unwelcome guest at the party, the golfer needed to make up the foursome. Up against perhaps the three most storied franchises in the game, each carrying an extraordinary amount of historical baggage (allowing the media to avoid actually paying attention the game in front of them) the Marlins have been a breath of fresh air. They are merely a bunch of great ballplayers that are allowed to win or lose based on their own performance between the lines. No ghosts.

    And they are a very good team. They had the best record in baseball the last four months of the season, and seem to be getting better. They will be underdogs in the World Series, but no one should be surprised by whatever the Marlins do next week.

  • The Future is Now: The story of how the Marlins were 19-29 on May 22 has been told a few times this month, but the tales of two players in particular help illustrate the team’s surreal change in fortunes.

    During the season’s first half, 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera was playing third base for the Carolina Mudcats. He was considered a fine prospect, destined to take over at the hot corner by 2005, and he was hitting a ton. Still, it was the Carolina Mudcats.

    Josh Beckett you should know about. He was our #2 rated prospect in 2002 (behind Hank Blalock) and, after a season beset with blister problems, we had this to say about him in the 2003 book: “Look for a full-strength season in 2003, and some enjoyable Beckett-Prior duels down the road.” Instead, Beckett hit the shelf with a strained elbow in early May, an injury that looked like it was going to cost him at least half the season.

    By late June, the Marlins were surprising everyone by clawing their way back to the fringes of mediocrity. With Todd Hollandsworth the only weak link in a respectable lineup, the Marlins recalled Cabrera on June 20, handed him a left fielders glove, and left him alone. This was an amazingly gutsy move. The Marlins did not, it bears mentioning, recall Cabrera just to give him some playing time with the big club. They did it because Larry Beinfest and Jack McKeon wanted to make the damn playoffs.

    Although the team had laid all of its pre-season hopes on its young pitchers, most of them were either struggling or injured for the season’s first three months. Dontrelle Willis deserves huge credit for holding the pitching staff together for several weeks. In late June, the team took its first-ever trip to Fenway Park and allowed 45 runs in three games. The Marlins seemed to be dead in the water, again.

    On July 1, Beckett returned after eight weeks, facing the Atlanta Braves and their league-best offense. If there was a single game that turned the Marlins season around, this was the one. They won 20-1, but that’s not the point. The point is that the return of Beckett stabilized, almost instantaneously, a suddenly fine starting rotation. While Willis suffered through the inconsistency that a 21-year-old pitcher has a right to, Beckett, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny and Mark Redman pitched the best baseball of their lives.

    Beckett and Cabrera, who were not even part of the team in June, are now, respectively, the best pitcher and the cleanup hitter for the National League champions. Even better, they have the good fortune of playing for a manager that continues to actually manage the team, someone not afraid of moving his young third baseman to right field in the middle of the NLCS or to let his ace pitcher toss four innings of relief in Game Seven. In a season full of wonderful surprises, Miguel Cabrera and Josh Beckett are two of the biggest and best.

New York Yankees

  • R-e-s-p-e-c-t: He takes a lot of abuse, most recently from the founder of the prestigious USA Today who called him the most overrated manager in baseball, but Joe Torre is going to the Hall of Fame. Torre:
    • Is 13th in all-time wins. He needs another 225 to tie Casey Stengel for 10th place.
    • Has won six league pennants, more than all but Connie Mack (9), Joe McCarthy (9), Casey Stengel (10), and John McGraw (10).
    • Will, if the Yankees beat the Marlins, join McCarthy, Stengel, and Mack as the only managers to win more than four championships.

    After the collapse of the Yankees dynasty of 1947-1964, it was said that the conditions that allowed for the sustained dominance of the league had “long since vanished.” Wrong, and Torre had something to do with that, helping to change the Yankees from an organization more consumed with landing on the back pages of the tabloids than winning to one which exploits those advantages inherent in its location, advantages which had not gone away after 1964, but had simply been de-prioritized, then misplaced. Torre has his faults, but to say that he’s overrated is to deprive him of his proper due.

  • Clean Out Your Desks and Walk the Pinstriped Mile: With the ALCS victory, the most relieved group of Yankees may be the multifarious front office personnel, who likely were already boxing up the contents of their offices as Jorge Posada batted in the bottom of the eighth. Past post-season exits have prompted downsizing dicta from Tampa in which the organization’s Bronx outpost is instructed to eliminate junior employees without particular regard to their performance or position. The typical path by which a Yankees junior employee becomes a senior employee: join up as an intern. Wait for your department head to be purged. Replace him whether you’re qualified or not. Navigate the tricky business of keeping a low profile while periodically surfacing to kiss The Boss’ backside. Repeat through multiple purges and you may someday wake up and find that your name is Brian Cashman.

    Gardyloo: Whether the Yankees beat the Marlins or not, if 2003 magic blinds the organization to the awesome rebuilding job that must be undertaken this winter, the 2004 Yankees are doomed.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Don’t Be Fooled: The Pirates’ official website points, as reason for optimism, to the team’s 49-48 record since June 14. This is all the more impressive, they say, because in July the team was broken up: the Pirates traded Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, Jeff Suppan, Scott Sauerbeck, Randall Simon, Mike Williams, and, most important, Brian Giles. Now they look forward to the prospect of the remaining Pirates playing like that over the course of an entire season.

    We don’t want to take anything away from the remnants of the 2003 Pirates; they deserve credit for every one of those 49 wins. But fans should hope that this sort of optimism does not extend to the front office. Looking at an arbitrarily determined period of time (in this case, one beginning right after a long losing streak) is misleading; it allows you to exclude things that foul up your conclusion simply by choosing your endpoints well.

    Let’s look at every team’s record since June 14.

    NL East         NL Central      NL West
    FLA  59-34      HOU  50-44      SFO  58-36
    ATL  56-40      CHC  51-45      ARZ  52-43
    PHI  51-44      STL  50-46      LAD  46-49
    MON  44-50      PIT  49-48      SDG  44-49
    NYM  36-59      MIL  41-55      COL  40-53
                    CIN  35-60
    AL East         AL Central      AL West
    NYY  62-33      CHA  55-40      OAK  59-37
    BOS  57-39      MIN  52-44      SEA  49-47
    TOR  48-45      KCR  51-47      TEX  44-52
    BAL  40-56      CLE  42-54      ANA  43-54     
    TAM  40-56      DET  26-71              

    This is more or less what you’d expect to see; most teams did about as well here as throughout the year. There are exceptions, but who would argue that Montreal is barely better than Cleveland? Or that the Diamondbacks are better than Seattle? Or, indeed, that the Pirates are just a couple of steps behind the Cubs? These endpoints happen to favor a few teams, and the Pirates are one of them.

    (Besides, if you’re going to choose endpoints, the team’s 36-30 record over the last two months is more relevant and more impressive.)

    Yes, for a team like the Pirates, to have played .500 baseball over any significant span of time is a victory. But in the big picture, where does 49-48 get you? Even had the season started on June 15, the Pirates would still have finished fourth. If the Pirates are seriously encouraged by their “hot” finish, they are demonstrating the same flaw that they have for some time now: an off-and-on awareness of their own situation.

    The team the Pirates will field in 2004 will not contend, no matter what or Lloyd McClendon might say between now and Opening Day. If the Pirates think they’re close and sign some veterans to big contracts, they’ll bury themselves for years. What they need to do is trim as much payroll as they can, plow all of that money into player development, and use the coming year to try out as many players as possible. Guys like Jason Bay, J.R. House and Kip Wells are locks, but the Pirates have a chance to look harder at the Tike Redmans and Nelson Figueroas of the world to see if they can be part of the renaissance.

    Picking up Jason Boyd (claimed off of waivers from Cleveland) was a good move: Boyd showed a little promise with the Indians, and if he’s good, they can keep him, or turn around and trade him to a contender in July. Despite their inability to get much in return, the Pirates had the right idea when they signed Reggie Sanders and Jeff Suppan. Since money spent on 2004 payroll is basically a waste, anybody the Pirates bring in at the major league level should either be someone who can help them in two years, or who can be traded for something that will. Only that sort of thinking, consistently applied, will get them above .500 for good.

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