SI Scouting Report: Florida Marlins
This time the defending champs have a fighting chance to return to the playoffs
By Michael Farber
An April 10 the Marlins will receive their dinner-plate-sized World Series rings, with 228 white diamonds, 13 rubies and one teal diamond in the center. Florida owner Jeffrey Loria has declined to reveal the price of the 85 rings that will be distributed throughout the organization, but from the looks of them, they cost about a middle reliever. "If you were wearing that thing on the subway in New York," says manager Jack McKeon, "you'd need about three or four bodyguards." Of course, when the Marlins visited New York last October, they were not exactly straphangers on the D train to Yankee Stadium.
Two hundred and twenty-nine diamonds might be forever for the 2004 Marlins, but the last time the franchise won a World Series, in 1997, Florida fell back to earth in about five minutes. "In spring training ['98] we had guys spread out in about 15 camps," says leftfielder Jeff Conine of the infamous dismantling of the first championship team. "This time we kept most of the core."
While that may be true, several key players have departed. The Marlins did not re-sign free-agent catcher Pudge Rodriguez, the National League Championship Series MVP; they traded productive first baseman Derrek Lee (31 home runs) to the Cubs and outfielder Juan Encarnacion (19) to the Dodgers; and they severed ties with free-agent relievers Ugueth Urbina and Braden Looper. The net offensive losses, even after the additions of first baseman Hee Seop Choi, who was obtained in the Lee trade, and outfielder-first baseman Wil Cordero, who signed as a free agent, are sizable. But given the slow progress to get funding for a new stadium and an average 2003 attendance (16,290) that surpassed only Tampa Bay's and Montreal's, Florida doesn't expect its payroll to climb above last year's $54 million.
"As long as we don't have revenues other teams do, and unless we're drawing 40,000 a game, we're going to have a fixed payroll," says third baseman Mike Lowell. In a bit of fiscal gymnastics Lowell signed a four-year contract that will be worth $32 million if Florida has a deal for a new stadium by Nov. 1, 2004. If there's no agreement by then, Lowell would have an option for 2005 and the final two years would be voided.
The Marlins seem to operate best in the short term, especially in October. Indeed Florida, which has won the World Series each time it has had a regular-season record over .500, might be a better team in the postseason because of the talent and resiliency of its pitching staff. The rotation is blessed with young, hard throwers such as 22-year-old lefthander Dontrelle Willis, who gave opposing hitters fits last season with his funky delivery and was at his best in the postseason as a reliever (3 2/3 scoreless innings in the Series). McKeon also used righthander Carl Pavano six times in relief during the playoffs (no runs in 5 2/3 innings) and got a win from righthander Brad Penny after he pitched a scoreless inning in Game 7 of the NLCS. That game also featured four innings of one-run relief from righthander Josh Beckett, who ended up the Series MVP after beating the Yankees on three days' rest in Game 6. The 23-year-old Beckett is only 17-17 lifetime, a statistical anomaly he will no doubt correct if the Marlins' bullpen can hold leads. With Urbina and Looper gone, the closer role has been entrusted to intimidating but erratic Armando Benitez, who blew 8 of 29 save opportunities in 2003 and was traded from the Mets to the Yankees to the Mariners within a three-week span.
Florida has a uniquely dynamic top of the order with speedy line-drive hitters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo, but the rare diamond in its lineup is still uncut. Miguel Cabrera, 20, signed as a shortstop, came up last June to play leftfield, saw action at third base and learned how to play right during the NLCS. Although often compared with a young Vladimir Guerrero, Cabrera has better baseball instincts. In his third week in the majors, last July, Cabrera hit an opposite-field homer against tough Phillies righthander Vicente Padilla. When Padilla adjusted and buried a fastball inside in a subsequent at bat, Cabrera pulled a double to left. After hitting four postseason homers, he could have a breakout year.
For the first time in their 12 seasons the Marlins will carry the extraordinary weight of expectation. Or maybe it's just the rings.
Issue date: April 5, 2004