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Around The Horn: Starting Rotation

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MIAMI -- Upgrading the lineup should boost the Marlins' run-production and make them one of the favorites in the National League East.


But while the team recently celebrated the signing of high-profile slugger Carlos Delgado, the Marlins' success ultimately will be dictated by their starting pitching.


The strength of the club the past few seasons, the Marlins once again have high expectations for their gifted starters. The organization is banking on this being the year the threesome of Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Dontrelle Willis will maximize their potential.


Talent evaluators around the league point out Beckett, Burnett and Willis are as solid a trio as you will find. All three are immensely gifted, but have struggled with inconsistencies.


Beckett and Burnett, especially, have the pure power to achieve greatness. The major obstacles in their young careers are injuries.


Three times last season, and seven times in his career, Beckett has been on the disabled list. Five of those stints have been due to blisters or were blister-related.


When healthy, Beckett has at times shown dominance. His overpowering performances in the 2003 World Series, where he was named MVP, are evidence. But in an injury-plagued 2004, the 24-year-old Texan was 9-9 with a 3.79 ERA, and for his career, he is 26-26 with a 3.49 ERA.


Burnett missed almost all of 2003 because of Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery. The flame-throwing right-hander opened last year on the disabled list before making a commendable and remarkable recovery. By early September, Burnett was emerging into a imposing force before his elbow tired and he missed a couple of starts down the stretch.


In 20 games, and 19 starts last season, Burnett was 7-6 with a 3.68 ERA. The team's encouragement is based on his strong finish, before his elbow acted up in mid-September. Over his last 10 games (nine starts), he was 6-1 with a 2.89 ERA, and he set a club record with 14 strikeouts on Aug. 29 in a win over the Rockies.


Willis, the energized 23-year-old, is one of the league's promising young left-handers. The D-Train, the National League's Rookie of the Year in 2003, has been hot-and-cold in his first two seasons. He has struggled with his command and has the constant challenge of corralling his high-leg-kick windup.


Willis followed up a 14-6 rookie season with a 10-11 mark and a 4.02 ERA. He did log 32 starts and 197 innings, and was a tough-luck starter on several occasions down the stretch.


Still emerging and maturing, Willis has the makeup and the deceptive fastball to become an outstanding left-hander.


If all three are healthy, and do what they are capable of, the Marlins should meet expectations and have an excellent chance to dethrone the Braves as NL East champions.


Enter newcomer Al Leiter, the savvy veteran, and the Marlins are hopeful their projected fourth starter will not only produce on the mound, but offer insights that will help the developments of Beckett, Burnett and Willis.


At 39, Leiter cushions the free agent loss of Carl Pavano, who set a team record with wins (18) a year ago before signing with the Yankees.


In what could be the final season of an impressive career, Leiter joins the Marlins after spending the past seven years with the Mets. A pivotal performer on Florida's 1997 World Series title team, the left-hander offers some intangibles. He knows how to pitch, and can relate and articulate his points of view to his teammates.


Just his presence, work habits and approach to pitching should rub off.


Leiter went 10-8 with a 3.21 ERA for the Mets last season. He threw 173 2/3 innings, but often ran up a high pitch count.


The Marlins are hopeful that Leiter will prosper in a pitcher's park like Dolphins Stadium, and excel with one of the league's top defenses behind him.


Fifth starter, Ismael Valdez, may lack overpowering stuff, but he makes up for it with his reputation of being a battler who accumulated 170 innings last season between his stays with the Padres and Marlins.


Acquired on July 31 from San Diego, Valdez was 5-3 with a 4.50 ERA as a Marlin. He was significantly better pitching at home, with both the Padres and Marlins. Nine of his 14 wins were at home, as he was 9-3 with a 2.55 ERA, compared to 5-6 with an 8.56 ERA away.


Should any of the expected five struggle or falter, the Marlins are offering opportunities in Spring Training to a few highly-regarded minor leaguers. Logan Kensing, who made the leap from Class A to the thick of the Wild Card-race in September, Trevor Hutchinson, Yorman Bazardo and Scott Olsen are all regarded as promising minor leaguers who could be a year or so away from winning starting jobs.



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