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Time's a-wasting

Posted: April 15, 2005

 

By Kevin Baxter

For Sporting News

 

 

Marlins manager Jack McKeon has a number of talents. He has a memory an elephant would be proud of; he is perhaps the best American storyteller since Mark Twain; and given enough cigars and enough time, he probably could out-smoke a forest fire.

 

What he isn't good at is waiting. Patience might be a virtue in some circles, but it's clearly something the 74-year-old McKeon no longer has time for, especially when it comes to the performance of his talented young starting pitchers--hard-throwing righthanders Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett and high-kicking lefthander Dontrelle Willis.

 

"Everybody wants to say they've got so much potential, but sooner or later you've got to step up and produce," McKeon says. "You keep saying it, but somewhere along the line they've got to do it. Now's the time to show everybody in baseball how good they can be."

 

The Marlins, after all, are thinking big after boosting their payroll to a franchise-record $66 million. They remade the bullpen in the offseason and signed slugger Carlos Delgado to the

 

highest contract in team history. With Delgado in the middle of one of the best lineups in the majors, Florida could be the best team in the National League. But success hinges on the talented trio of starters, all of whom have alternated brilliant performances with disappointing ones.

 

Beckett, who had predicted he'd be an All-Star two years out of high school, enjoyed a storybook October in 2003, but he still is waiting for that All-Star call six years after being drafted. Burnett led the majors in shutouts (five) in 2002, but he spent most of the next two seasons on the disabled list. Willis went 9-1 in his first two months in the majors after replacing the injured Burnett in May 2003, but he is 16-16 wth a 4.05 ERA since.

 

"The focus on the potential is well-documented," Marlins general manager Admin Beinfest says. "Their ability speaks for itself. Now they just need to go out and do it consistently."

 

For the two righthanders, that means staying healthy. Beckett, 24, has a 3.38 ERA in 79 career games (76 starts) but has been on the disabled list seven times, including three times last season. His biggest problem: blisters on the middle finger of his pitching hand, which have sent him to the D.L. four times in the past three years. As a result, he has made more than 13 consecutive starts without an injury just once in his career and never has thrown more than 164 innings in a professional season.

 

Burnett, 28, whose across-the-body delivery has concerned scouts for years, tinkered with a new windup this spring before going back to his old motion.

 

He has been on the disabled list six times since 2000, including a 13-plus month stint after he underwent elbow surgery in 2003. After Burnett returned last June, he made 19 starts before missing a turn--his third-longest streak since he came up in 1999.

 

Willis, who has the most complicated delivery of the three, has not missed a start; his problems have been control and stamina. Willis, 23, is averaging a walk every three innings, and 17 of his 32 starts last season lasted no more than six innings.

 

Taken together, the three seem to be suffering from the same thing: a lack of work.

 

"You learn in the big leagues by being out there consistently," says Mark Wiley, the team's new pitching coach. "You learn the most, probably, when you have your first 200-plus-inning year."

 

 

 

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Ask McKeon why his pitchers haven't broken through, and he'll tell you it's because they've been pampered. But that's about to end.

 

McKeon, a crusty baseball lifer, believes a pitcher gets stronger by pitching, not by taking it easy. He has little patience with players--especially pitchers--who complain about niggling injuries or being overworked.

 

McKeon likes to talk about how Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan routinely would make more than 200 pitches in a start, last year going so far as to read to reporters a story about Ryan's prodigious appetite for pitching. McKeon then marked several passages with a yellow highlighter and posted the story on a bulletin board in the Marlins' clubhouse. But it took Ryan several years to overcome his own blister problems before becoming an iron man.

 

McKeon's disdain for paying attention to pitch counts puts him strongly at odds with today's prevailing wisdom, which holds that young arms are a precious commodity to be protected, not abused. Beckett, in fact, was on such a strict pitch count as a minor leaguer that he once was pulled during a no-hitter because he had reached his prescribed limit.

 

"The first thing they sit you down and tell you is, 'Most guys get fired because they screw around with that pitch count,' " Braves coach Fredi Gonzalez says of the advice he received from management before his first season as a minor league manager.

 

McKeon has screwed around with it the past two springs, putting his starters on a four-day rotation in the first few weeks of exhibition games. He had them throwing close to 80 pitches and going at least six innings by their fourth time out. Typically, pitchers don't work that long in spring training until just before opening day.

 

When pitchers complained of dead arms in 2004, McKeon brought in a Hall of Famer, Sandy Koufax, to talk about how his Dodgers pitching staffs worked so hard that they went through several dead-arm periods during spring training.

 

Wiley, of course, agrees with McKeon's philosophy, which goes a long way toward explaining why McKeon chose him to replace Wayne Rosenthal last offseason. McKeon had little say in choosing his coaches when he took over as manager in 2003 and inherited most of Jeff Torborg's staff. Rosenthal was promoted from his job as minor league pitching coordinator the day McKeon was hired. Rosenthal was successful during his first big-league coaching stint, masterfully manipulating the pitchers during the Marlins' World Series run in '03.

 

But Rosenthal, a former reliever, seemed an uncomfortable middleman between McKeon, who wanted his pitchers to throw more, and the staff, who didn't think Rosenthal was effective in defending the pitchers. With a mutiny brewing on the final weekend of last season--some pitchers no longer were talking to Rosenthal--the Marlins offered him his minor league job back. Wiley, who has 14 years' experience as a major league pitching coach, was hired in November. His emphasis on pitching until you're tired, then pitching some more, seems to have won over at least one convert: the irrepressible Willis.

 

"It was something we needed to do," says Willis, who had a great spring. "To throw that many pitches that early you have to be ready. I feel strong, and that's the key."

 

Beckett and Burnett, who have been either coddled or injured for most of their professional careers, seem to be coming around, too. This spring, McKeon was lavish in his praise of Beckett's focus, work habits and newfound maturity. Meanwhile, Burnett made it through the most strenuous spring of his career.

 

All that will be for naught if they get hurt again, which is why, when Beckett and Burnett talk of goals for the season, they mention health and consistency before wins and ERA.

 

"Wins and losses--wins in particular--are probably the most overrated stat in baseball," Beckett says. "What I need is the bulk numbers, and I'll take all the other stuff that follows. Just the innings are the main thing."

 

Adds Burnett: "I want a full healthy year ... because I haven't had a full year yet. It's time to put it all together and win 20 games." With Burnett eligible to become a free agent after this season, the timing couldn't be better to avoid the disabled list long enough to deliver on his promise.

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