Due to a spate of hurricanes in South Florida, the Marlins and Expos were forced to reschedule a pair of September games for Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field. Combined with earlier matchups in Miami, Montreal and San Juan, that meant owner Jeffrey Loria’s current and former teams met in four different parks last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that hadn’t happened since 1970, when both the Pirates and Reds opened new stadiums during the summer.
On the upswing
The Marlins’ per-game home attendance improved by 36 percent to 22,091, their highest average since 1997. They drew 18 home crowds of 30,000 or more, including an Opening Day turnout of 55,315, a regular-season franchise mark. Despite that increase, the Marlins only moved up two spots to 26th out of 30 teams in home attendance.
So good, so young
Outfielder Miguel Cabrera became the eighth big leaguer age 22 or younger to have a 30-homer, 100-RBI, 100-run season. He also became the fifth-youngest player to drive in 100 runs. Only Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Ted Williams and Alex Rodriguez were younger since MLB recognized the RBI as a statistic in 1920.
Steady as he goes
Indefatigable center fielder Juan Pierre led the majors with 1,439 innings, seven more than former teammate Derrek Lee. Since 1971, only three players have played every inning of every game: Pierre, Travis Fryman (1995) and Cal Ripken Jr. (four times).
Mere minutes after arriving in South Florida after a trade with the Dodgers, catcher Paul Lo Duca ripped a pinch homer against the Expos’ Rocky Biddle on the first pitch he saw with the Marlins. Lo Duca joined the Mets’ Kaz Matsui and the Orioles’ Javy Lopez in homering on his first pitch with a new team in 2004.
Marlins manager Jack McKeon was asked back despite turning 74 in November. If he manages into the 2006 season, he will surpass Casey Stengel as the second-oldest manager in history. With an all-time record of 928–861, McKeon has a winning percentage of .519 and is one of six active managers with 900 or more wins in the majors. He needs 64 wins to surpass Rene Lachemann (221) as the Marlins’ winningest manager.
Sure, the Red Sox are feeling pretty good about themselves after ending an 86-year championship drought. But the Marlins probably aren’t too impressed, not with two titles of their own in the past eight years. Winning a third ring, however, rests on a boatload of luck, comebacks from Juan Encarnacion and Jeff Conine and breakthroughs by new closer Guillermo Mota and regular-season underachiever Josh Beckett. This former expansion team still doesn’t have much margin for error.
Al Leiter is winding down a long, solid career back where he won his third World Series ring with the ’97 Marlins. No longer as durable as he once was, Leiter will be asked to do more than win 15-plus games for his heavily deferred $8 million salary. He’ll also be conducting daily tutorials on the art of pitching for his young rotation mates. Will they listen? Beckett, the team’s cocky ace and MVP of the 2003 World Series, went on the disabled list three more times last year, making it seven trips in three years for the talented righthander. Just 26–26 for his career, he’s still looking for his first 10-win season. A.J. Burnett made it back from reconstructive elbow surgery and dazzled at times, but he still missed three huge weeks at season’s end with a minor setback. His name was mentioned in offseason trade rumors, largely because he can be a free agent after this season. Lefty Dontrelle Willis couldn’t replicate the magic of his rookie season and failed to register more than two straight quality starts all year. Ismael Valdez, acquired from the Padres last July, signed a one-year deal in January and will be the Marlins No. 5 starter.
Can Mota close games? The Marlins are about to find out after watching Armando Benitez and his 47 saves bolt to San Francisco for the security of a three-year deal. Mota, the key to the July deal with the Dodgers, has blown 11-of-16 career save chances, but in fairness he has rarely been asked to pitch the ninth. As insurance, former closers Antonio Alfonseca and Todd Jones were signed as free agents. There’s also former setup man Tim Spooneybarger, back from Tommy John surgery that has kept him out since June 2003, and situational lefty Matt Perisho, who was surprisingly good last season after entering with a career 7.07 ERA.
The slick combination of second baseman Luis Castillo and shortstop Alex Gonzalez returns for a seventh straight season, tops in the majors, but it could be their last together. That’s because Gonzalez can be a free agent after this year. Castillo, who is signed through 2006 with a club option after that, won his second straight Gold Glove and teamed well again with Juan Pierre at the top of the lineup. His energy and slashing offensive approach are huge factors in the team’s success. Gonzalez delivered career highs in home runs and RBIs, but his .270 on-base percentage was last in the majors. His range factor also dropped well behind the likes of Jack Wilson and Chris Gomez, making Gonzalez’s relatively low error total (16) less impressive.
Third baseman Mike Lowell could have opted for free agency because the Marlins’ new ballpark plan wasn’t in place by a Nov. 1 deadline. Instead, the popular South Florida product leveraged the team into guaranteeing the last three years and $25.5 million of his contract, thrilling fans and appeasing politicians at the same time. Lowell is working on a streak of three straight All-Star trips that does not appear likely to end anytime soon. He must, however, reverse a disturbing trend of second-half downturns. First base will be manned by none other than former Blue Jays star Carlos Delgado, who shocked the baseball world by choosing to sign with the Marlins over the big-market Mets and Orioles.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that Miguel Cabrera is entering just his second full season in the majors. He should be a perennial All-Star and was much more comfortable in left field after the re-acquisition of Encarnacion last July freed him from his adventures in right field. Juan Pierre banged out a club-record 221 hits and didn’t miss a single inning all season. He goes back into the arbitration system after the season, however, and could eventually give way to touted clone Eric Reed, who played at Double-A last year. Encarnacion had offseason surgery on his left shoulder and can be a free agent after the season. He must improve a .299 on-base percentage that was worse than all but three big leaguers last year or be forced to sit in favor of veteran Jeff Conine.
He’s no Pudge Rodriguez, but Paul Lo Duca was definitely Pudge-like after coming over from the Dodgers in a July deadline deal. Like his celebrated predecessor, Lo Duca showed scrappiness, leadership qualities and a flair for the dramatic. He also has improved his throwing in recent years and has enough patience and bat control to hit near the top of an order. For the first time since 1997, backup Mike Redmond won’t be around, having signed a two-year deal with the Twins.
Journeyman minor leaguer Matt Treanor, more famous as the husband of Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Misty May, is expected to step in as Lo Duca’s backup. Damion Easley was unable to find a suitable starting role elsewhere, so he will return as the top utility man. Career pinch-hit king Lenny Harris returns but won’t see much time in the field. Rookie outfielder Chris Aguila showed some pop in a limited look last year. Rookies Joe Dillon and Derek Wathan could get a crack at utility roles.
Owner Jeffrey Loria continues to push for a new baseball-only stadium in Miami, but the state legislature must fork over the final $30 million of a $420 million project this spring. Without a stadium, the Marlins could intensify informal discussions with Las Vegas officials. General manager Larry Beinfest does good work within the payroll limits of his market, stretching Loria’s dollar as far as it will go. Now 74, Jack McKeon returns for a third season in the dugout. His button-pushing ways aren’t for everybody but they seem to work with the Marlins. New pitching coach Mark Wiley, formerly of the Indians, Royals and Orioles, was hired to replace Wayne Rosenthal. Longtime McKeon associate Harry Dunlop is the new bench coach/cigar buddy.
With a payroll expected to rise into the $60 million range, the Marlins should be right in the mix of a muddled National League East. They are working on their first streak of consecutive winning seasons and could have sneaked into the playoffs last year if not for Burnett’s injury and a record spate of September hurricanes. Their young starting pitching remains the envy of the league, and the starting lineup is more stable than you’d expect for a lower-revenue club, especially with the balance the left-handed masher Delgado provides. If things break right, they could find themselves back in the postseason for the second time in three years. Even if they don’t, the Marlins won’t be far off the pace.