- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
In a classic case of gilt-by-association, the Marlins think first baseman Carlos Delgado can turn an otherwise middling playoff contender into pure gold. With Delgado hitting cleanup for the most balanced batting order in the division, Florida 1) has a dominant lefthanded power bat for the first time in its 13-year history, 2) will provide protection for 21-year-old leftfielder Miguel Cabrera in the number 3 hole, 3) can give third baseman Mike Lowell (190 RBIs over the past two years) even more run-producing opportunities in the 5 slot and 4) figures to force opposing managers to burn two relievers late in games while they deal with a fierce lefty sandwiched between formidable righties.
" Delgado's our Manny Ramirez, our Jim Thome, our big dog," Lowell says. "Cabrera's a superstar in the making who'll reap the benefits of having Delgado there. And I know they'll be walking Delgado to face me, playing for the double play because I don't run well. I welcome that. I think we reap the benefits on both sides."
Florida has had only one lefthanded batter, Cliff Floyd, belt at least 30 home runs in a season; Delgado topped that mark seven times in his 12 years with the Blue Jays. "There's a learning curve going to a new league," says Delgado, 32, who signed a four-year, $52 million free-agent contract. "So we'll see. I'm pretty hard on myself."
In spring training there was awe from his new teammates and aw-shucks from Delgado, who seemed as impatient with his 0-for-12 start as centerfielder Juan Pierre was with a calf strain that kept him out for three weeks. Known for his durability, Pierre is the ideal leadoff hitter for a lineup that is strong 1 through 8--assuming he doesn't get giddy. Pierre ranked second in the NL with 45 steals in 2004, but he was thrown out 24 times, prompting manager Jack McKeon to urge discretion if not outright caution on the basepaths. Still, with Pierre and switch-hitter Luis Castillo at the top of the batting order, the hits should keep on coming. The Marlins are so stacked that their number 6 hitter, catcher Paul Lo Duca, batted third for the Dodgers most of last season and their number 8 hitter, shortstop Alex Gonzalez, swatted 23 homers and drove in 79 runs.
Of course, blistering fingers will have perhaps an even greater impact on Florida's season than blistering speed or bats. Josh Beckett, MVP of the 2003 World Series, was bedeviled by a blister on his right middle finger that twice relegated him to the disabled list last season. The 24-year-old, who was shut down three times with blisters in 2002, avoided them during the championship season. But questions linger in the Marlins' clubhouse whether baseball's most spectacular .500 pitcher (26--26 lifetime, albeit with a 3.49 earned run average) was sufficiently diligent in caring for his digits last year. Beckett and A.J. Burnett, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2003, have been on the DL a combined 11 times over the past three seasons. If they combine for 60 starts this year--their highest was 50, in 2002--they could be to Florida what Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt are to the Astros. "You have extremely talented and young starting pitchers with superior stuff," says 39-year-old lefty Al Leiter, the former Met, who was a shrewd signing because of his added value as a pitching coach without portfolio. "But there's more to it than how hard you throw. These guys are sharp, sharper than I was when I had stuff like them 12, 15 years ago. Maybe there are some things I can help bring into focus."
To close games, the Marlins initially will depend on righty Guillermo Mota, another pitcher with an incendiary fastball but little track record as a closer. But a team with a $66 million payroll can't afford everything. With an improved bullpen that includes former closers Antonio Alfonseca and Todd Jones, Florida should have enough buffers to smooth Mota's transition.
Delgado rejected the Mets' free-agent offer because he thought the Marlins gave him a better chance to win. If the Braves falter, the Delgado trickle-down effect could be positively uplifting in Miami. --M.F.