Thursday, March 15, 2007
After the team’s 2005 firesale, the Florida Marlins entered yet another period of rebuilding following a successful run. I’ve complained that the Marlins are a bad thing for baseball and their 1997 and 2003 World Series victories have been disasters for the sport, and their most recent history illustrates the Marlins problem: each and every time they attempt to build a team into a winner they tear it down utterly and completely when it becomes financially difficult to sustain. The constant state of building and unbuilding in South Florida kills the public’s ability to get behind the team and root for them. The Marlins have won two World Series in the last decade, but can anyone honestly call themselves a Marlins fan? Even in South Florida?
The current Marlins team is littered with rookies and players with little-to-no experience. Despite the lack of experience, the Marlins were able to post a respectable 78-84 record in 2006. Can they do it again in 2007?
I. Offense. What other team in baseball has multiple Rookie of the Year candidates? The ’06 Marlins certainly did. The award went to Hanley Ramirez, the team’s talented shortstop. I actually think the award ought to have gone to Dan Uggla, the Marlins (also talented) second baseman. Ramirez is a good player already. He’s a speedster (51 steals) with some power (17 home runs). However, I like Uggla’s raw power at the plate: with 27 home runs and 90 RBIs, Uggla really made the Marlins offense run. He was a rookie in 2006, but despite that he’s the best second baseman in the N.L. already, after Chase Utley of course. Ramirez and Uggla, combined with Miguel Cabrera, the team’s old man at age 24, the Marlins turned out to be a respectable offensive force, scoring 758 runs, just a little under the league average in a park that maximizes defense and pitching. Much to my surprise, the Marlins ranked fifth in the N.L. in Isolated Power. Rounding out the Marlins order were fellow rookies First Baseman Mike Jacobs (20 Home Runs, 77 RBI), and Outfielder Josh Willingham (26 Home Runs, 74 RBI).
Will the 2007 Marlins perform as well as the 2006 team did? I am not entirely sure because I suspect that there will be a sophomore slump on the part of many of the rookies that made their way up to the majors in ’06. Four of their fifth best offensive players (Uggla, Willingham, Ramirez and Jacobs) were rookies last season, so we’ll have to see if they respond correctly for pitchers adjusting to them now that teams have an opportunity to evaluate their tendencies. I suspect that someone – my money is on Mike Jacobs – will struggle badly in 2007, but that the Marlins will generally improve on their strong showing at the plate this season.
II. Pitching. I bet the Marlins are pretty happy they elected to not deal Dontrelle Willis. During their rebuilding process, while allowing players like Carlos Delgado and Josh Beckett to leave, the Marlins held onto Willis, a dominating pitcher from their ’03 World Series team. Though Willis had a down year in 2006 at just 12-12 with a 3.87 ERA, he was an innings-eater for the Marlins (223, fifth in the N.L.), and he has pitched very, very well for them in the past. Specifically, I am referring to 2005, when he went 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA and hurled five – five! – shutouts. Willis will form the lynchpin of the Marlins 2007 team and he is the most important player on their roster because they need him to dominate the opposition and compensate for a weaker pitching staff. Willis’ fellow starters are young and inexperienced.
The bullpen is an area where the Marlins have to get better and in a hurry. The ’06 team ranked fourteenth in terms of ERA from their bullpen. Joe Borkowski did a nice job closing for them in 2006 (3-3, 36 of 43 saves, a 3.75 ERA), despite being a greybeard (36) on a team full of rookies. This is a real problem area and something that could cause problems for the Fishstripes in 2007.
III. Fielding. The 2006 Florida Marlins ranked 21st in the majors in Plus / Minus, just one spot ahead of the -33 Phillies, at -29. This is not a good defensive team like the ’03 Marlins. Their corner infield in particular was horrible, at -27. They ranked nineteenth in converting double plays, something Uggla and Ramirez will need to work on. Their infield played badly in the field and needs improvement. The outfield is much better, posting a +2 and respectfully holding runners to their bases, ranking just tenth in bases advanced. I am sure this young team will figure out how to play defense better, but in the here and now, they look pretty raw.
IV. Outlook. The 2006 Marlins ought to have won 65 games or so, and instead won a dozen more at 78. This team was way better than it had any right to be and I’d expect more of the same in 2007. With a healthy Dontrelle Willis leading their young hitters into battle, I’d say that the Marlins will go .500 at least and could approach 83 to 85 wins in 2007. Playoffs are out of reach for them, but third place and a few games over .500 is a definite possibility.