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Tuesday, February 24, 2004

 

 

By Buster Olney

ESPN The Magazine

 

JUPITER, Fla. -- At least the Florida Marlins will get a chance to defend their title this time around, Jeff Conine mused the other day, as he unpacked a box in front of his locker. After the 1997 championship, the team was stripped down like a stolen car, the parts sold off before anybody was even sized for their rings.

 

(photo caption: Dontrelle Willis will likely begin the season in the rotation.)

 

 

Within weeks after the Marlins beat the Yankees for the '03 championship, they did lose some important pieces, including three members of their everyday lineup who accounted for 271 of their 709 RBI last season. But when Florida began workouts Monday, there were a whole lot of players still here -- including virtually all of the young pitchers.

 

 

The Marlins already sense they are being overlooked, as they were last year. "Yeah, it was a fluke," Conine said dryly, a slight smile betraying his sarcasm. "I think a lot of people feel that -- in their minds, it was a fluke. But let them think that; we'll sneak up on them again.

 

 

"Everything you've been reading, there's no bull's-eye on us. They're talking about other teams in our division. That's a great spot to be in. I don't think anybody took this team seriously last year, and I don't think anyone's taking them seriously again this year. They're looking at the Phillies and the Braves still, and that's fine with us."

 

 

The Marlins pitched their way to the championship in October, hoisted on the arms of everyone from Brad Penny to Carl Pavano to, in the end, Josh Beckett. But that success came despite the fact that the Florida pitching staff was often pieced together like some improvisational skit, because of injuries.

 

 

A.J. Burnett started 0-2 with a 4.70 ERA and underwent elbow reconstruction in May. Beckett missed all of June, making 17 starts the last four months of the regular season. Reliever Tim Spooneybarger threw in 33 games before June 11 and would also require elbow surgery. The closer's role bounced from Braden Looper to Ugueth Urbina.

 

 

Throughout October, manager Jack McKeon and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal coped with the demands and crises of each day, sometimes using Pavano out of the bullpen, sometimes starting him, then shifting lefty Dontrelle Willis to the bullpen against the Yankees.

 

 

By this May, however, the Marlins' staff could be fully aligned for the first time since McKeon took over as manager, and it is a group still loaded with potential:

 

 

 

Beckett is 23, a former first-round pick (second overall), and he shut out the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in his last start, after going 9-8 with a 3.04 ERA during the regular season.

 

 

 

Penny is 25, went 14-10 with a 4.13 ERA and could have easily been picked as the World Series MVP, after beating the Yankees twice.

 

 

 

Pavano, 28, went 12-13 with a 4.30 ERA, and he, perhaps more than any pitcher on this staff, could build off his performance in October, when he went 2-0 with a 1.40 ERA, allowing only three walks and 17 hits in 19.1 innings, with 15 strikeouts. Pavano, like some other Marlins, received confirmation of how good he could be, how good he is. Remember: Pavano was once traded for Pedro Martinez.

 

 

 

Burnett, 27, could return in early May, and his teammates here are buzzing with anticipation because Burnett appears to be throwing the ball very well.

 

 

 

Willis, 22 and the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year, could open the season in the rotation and then be shifted to the bullpen once Burnett returns, with veteran Darren Oliver holding down the No. 5 spot.

 

 

Houston has Clemens, Pettitte, Oswalt, et al, Chicago has Prior, Wood, Maddux, the Phillies are armed with Millwood, Padilla, Wolf and Myers. The Marlins' staff is formidable, as well -- and they are still developing.

 

 

? From here on out, it's all mental -- how they're going to be able to handle it mentally will determine how far they go, because the sky's the limit with these guys. ?

? Jeff Conine on the Marlins' starting pitchers

 

 

"They're just beginning to tap their potential," said Conine. "From here on out, it's all mental -- how they're going to be able to handle it mentally will determine how far they go, because the sky's the limit with these guys."

 

 

McKeon said, "You hope that (the postseason success) will mean they're maturing, polishing themselves up to be frontline pitchers on a consistent basis. They made great strides last year, and if they continue to make strides, they should have a lot of fun."

 

 

Either Ramon Castro or Mike Redmond will take over at catcher for Ivan Rodriguez. The Marlins will get a full season out of 20-year-old phenom Miguel Cabrera, who drove in 62 runs in 87 games last year, and Conine, who was acquired in a late-summer deal with Baltimore. Hee Seop Choi, who came from the Cubs in the Derrek Lee trade, will get at-bats at first base, as will veteran Wil Cordero, who accumulated 71 RBI for Montreal in '03.

 

 

The Marlins still have Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo at the top of their order, with third baseman Mike Lowell hitting somewhere in the middle. Armando Benitez takes over as the closer, with the Marlins hoping that his late-inning psyche -- ground into fragments in New York when he was with the Mets - will heal here.

 

 

Many of the Yankees of the recent dynasty believed that their October success became a weapon for them. Their opponents might be unfamiliar playing under pressure, unsure of how they or their teammates would react. But now the Marlins -- Beckett, Pavano, Pierre, Willis, Penny -- have a reservoir of experience to draw from, as the Florida franchise finally gets its chance to defend a title.

 

 

"It's definitely going to help us," said Pavano. "You really find you have a lot more to dig deep for when you get into that position. It puts everyone at a different level, puts everything in a different perspective ... It's all about us, and how we prepare."

 

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

 

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Yeah ... i do feel the same way about him pointing out that Willis would go to the pen instead of Oliver.

 

 

I really hope that DWillis can at least post some half way decent numbers, since after all the man is a fan favorite and does attract more people in the stands, which is what we need.

 

 

oh not to mention that i am not the biggest Darren Oliver fan, never was never will.... but hey i gotta support the dude somewhat

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I am sick and tired of people getting it totally wrong with D-train. Some say opponents figured him out after the ASB. Brandon Webb, of course, cried about it. As Micheal Keaton said (as Bruce Wayne) in Batman, "Wanna get nuts? C'mon, let's get NuTs!!!" Here are D's stats for September:

 

37.1IP, 2.89ERA, .232AVGA, 33/15K/BB, 32H.

 

Enough said. Kid has got game...

 

If Jack wants D-will in the pen, Oliver has to be pitching out of his mind. Remember, Willis not only has a great arm, but a damn fine bat too. It could be done with the playoffs in mind, but I doubt that would be the case. You go with who got you here, and if it comes down to Oliver and D, D wins in my book. We'll see - that would be a great position to be in and I certainly wont complain.

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