By Michael Farber, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked Luke Hagerty, a 6-foot-7 left-hander who couldn't have located the strike zone with a road map and a sherpa, was making a hash of his sidework Tuesday before the Marlins' split-squad game against Minnesota. As Hagerty did his best Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn impersonation -- "juuuust a bit outside," as Bob Uecker would say -- lefty Al Leiter stood behind the bullpen mound in Roger Dean Stadium, watched intently and delivered occasional words of advice and encouragement. At one point Leiter, an 18-year veteran who ranks among the truly accomplished pitchers of his generation, took the overmatched Rule V pick's place on the mound and, without a baseball, demonstrated a more suitable arm angle and release point. "I've been spraying the ball because I've been having trouble with my front side," said Hagerty, a No. 1 draft pick by the Cubs in 2002. "I think we figured some things out. Al's been great because he's a lefty who's done anything and everything. He helps me out a lot." This brief tutorial was the essence of spring training, the passing on of knowledge and the conspicuous support for a rookie in his first big-league camp who has been ultra-wild since the first intrasquad game. (He hit a couple of batters and walked four straight.) Said Leiter, "They didn't bring me here just for what I might do every fifth day." Leiter might be a five-plus inning pitcher in the twilight of his career, but his respect for the game enriches it.
Team's biggest strengths
Top to bottom, the balance and potential pop of Florida's everyday lineup is as impressive as any in the stacked National League East. While the top-of-the-order speed and on-base ability of Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo is old news and the impact of free-agent first baseman Carlos Delgado is obvious -- his potent left-handed bat between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Lowell breaks up a string of right-handed hitters -- you might be forgiven for drooling over the neglected bottom of the order. The No. 6 hitter, Paul Lo Duca, and the No. 7 -- either Juan Encarnacion or Jeff Conine in right field -- have all batted in the heart of the order during their careers. Lo Duca was a No. 3 hitter in Los Angeles until he was traded to Florida last season while Conine and Encarnacion often have hit fifth. The No. 8 hitter, Alex Gonzalez, had 23 home runs last year, an extraordinary figure when you consider he had to bat in front of the pitcher. Following a season in which the Marlins ranked a disappointing 11th in the NL in runs scored -- their run differential was plus-18 compared to their plus-59 mark in their World Series year of 2003 -- they should be far more productive.
Team's biggest weakness
Until he proves otherwise -- and he has the stuff to do just that -- closer Guillermo Mota is the only red flag on the Marlins. He is new to the job, unless you count the 16 save opportunities he has had previously in six seasons. Mota probably wouldn't, considering he blew 11 of them. He seemed to tire last September, going 0-3 with an oversized 7.79 ERA in his final 14 appearances. Mota has an overwhelming fastball on occasion but too often gets beat with his second-best pitch, a changeup he learned from former Dodgers teammate Eric Gagne. If Mota falters, the Marlins can either try to acquire another high-end closer in a trade -- which is not easy on a $66 million budget -- or rely on an improved group of middle relievers that includes Todd Jones and Antonio Alfonseca, both ex-closers. Said Jones, "To close you have to know how to handle success and failure, losing, blowing leads. That comes with proving to yourself that you can do it day in and day out."
Manager Jack McKeon needed the spare innings to work his pitchers so he had Josh Beckett, his marquee right-hander, throw in a simulated morning game on the back field against minor leaguers prior to an exhibition game against the Mets. Beckett threw 80 pitches and looked spectacular. ... Pierre still has not fully recovered from a strained right calf, which has kept him out of some spring games but otherwise has not slowed his frenetic pace. He arrives at the Marlins complex at 6:30 a.m. daily, beating the trainers. He starts with the elliptical machine, then moves to the batting cages, working on hitting and bunting. Finally he returns to the clubhouse to do film work while his teammates drift in. McKeon had to change the spring-training routine because of Pierre, ordering that one group of hitters -- usually Pierre's -- not to shag balls during BP in an effort to keep his leadoff hitter off the field. Pierre was the only major leaguer to play every inning of every game last season. Half of those games were played in the sometimes debilitating heat of South Florida. "When he tells me he's ready to play," McKeon said, "I'll tell him to take another day." ... Hitting instructor Bill Robinson has been pleased with the Marlins' focus and attention at the plate early in the spring, often a sign that a team feels good about its chances.