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Marlins Retooled for Rerun


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Marlins retooled for rerun


By Juan C. Rodriguez

Posted February 26 2004, 3:43 PM EST


He allayed their fears as best he could. The golden flags of the World Series trophy shining next to him, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria reiterated the promise at every post-championship parade.


"Let me say this as emphatically as I can," Loria told one of the assembled masses last October. "This is not 1997. This is 2003. We are not dismantling."


It's tough to fault anyone who digested those words with skepticism. The numbers were out there. Keeping the team together would cost upward of $80 million, almost $30 million more than the 2003 payroll. Much, if not all, of the organization's financial windfall would likely be funneled toward financing for a new ballpark.


What's more, it had happened here before. The Marlins won the 1997 World Series and by May 15 of the following season were without six regulars, their top two starters and closer. The resulting 108-loss season after a team-best, 92-victory campaign soured South Florida on the organization.


The Marlins, with a payroll projected at $53 million, did not remain fully intact this season either. Catcher Pudge Rodriguez, first baseman Derrek Lee, right fielder Juan Encarnacion, and relievers Braden Looper and Ugueth Urbina won't return for various reasons. Yet when the Marlins open April 6 at Pro Player Stadium against the Expos, they can in good conscience call themselves defending champions.


"There is some change, a lot of it for financial reasons, but when you're talking about three-fourths of your infield, your whole outfield, and four-fifths of your starting pitching coming back, I think that's a long way from dismantling," General Manager Admin Beinfest said. "We can pick it apart and dissect it however you want, but when you look at it in total there are a lot of familiar faces here."


Some unfamiliar faces also are looking to keep the Marlins positioned for another postseason run. To replace Looper and Urbina, the team signed Armando Benitez to a one-year contract. Left-hander Darren Oliver is slated as the fifth starter until A.J. Burnett (elbow ligament replacement surgery) is cleared in April or May. Second-year first baseman Hee Seop Choi, acquired from the Cubs in the Lee trade, will take over at first.


Choi is expected to be the Marlins' only Opening Day starter who did not finish last season with the team. Ramon Castro and Mike Redmond, reserves in 2003, will split time behind the plate. Jeff Conine and Miguel Cabrera start the season as the left and right fielders, respectively.


In addition to signing infielders Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell and Alex Gonzalez to multiyear deals, the Marlins are bringing back their starting rotation with the exception of Mark Redman.


"Getting Mike and Luis back, those guys have been the key acquisitions of the offseason," reserve first baseman/outfielder Brian Banks said. "Locking those guys down shows all of South Florida there in no way was any kind of fire sale going on like after the '97 season. All the players knew, and even fans that we had to lose a few people."


Repeating last season's glory was made more difficult by the offseason alterations of several key opponents. While the Atlanta Braves' grip on the NL East appears vulnerable, the Philadelpia Phillies must be considered the favorite in the division after addressing their bullpen deficiencies, including the addition of premier closer Billy Wagner. The Chicago Cubs, who were five outs from eliminating the Marlins and advancing to the World Series, added Greg Maddux to a superb starting rotation and former Marlin Derrek Lee to their infield. The Houston Astros signed Andy Pettitte and got his Yankee teammate Roger Clemens to boot.


Since 1996, it has taken an average of 92.8 wins to reach the playoffs as the National League wild card. The Marlins did it with 91 victories. Can they reach such a strata again?


Here's a look at some factors that took the Marlins to the 2003 postseason and whether this new mix of players can produce similar results:




The Oakland Athletics of the 1970s proved team members don't have to get along to excel as a group. The 2003 Marlins proved the opposite is also true.


Top to bottom, this collection of players genuinely enjoyed each other's company. Bickering was all but non-existent. The reserves were supportive without groaning about playing time.


Guys who joined the club at midseason had no trouble fitting in. When reliever Chad Fox arrived in August, the easygoing clubhouse atmosphere was the first thing he noticed.


"When I got there, I felt like I'd been there all year long," said Fox, a free agent who passed on the chance to play at home in Houston to re-sign with the Marlins. "You can't help but enjoy yourself. Whether you're doing good or bad, the group of guys made it feel like this is the way the game should be. They make you feel at home, and I loved that."


Disagreements can become commonplace over a six-month season as guys begin to wear on each other. Some of the controversies that did arise were defused with humor.


Injured reliever Tim Spooneybarger received friendly ribbing after he made pointed comments about manager Jack McKeon. Before the last game of a 1-8 trip in late August, one player walked through the clubhouse headed for the indoor cage wearing nothing but batting gloves and turf shoes.


"I think it's huge and something very underrated, especially in baseball because there are so many games and it's day in and day out," Lowell said of team chemistry. "If you don't like who you're with, you're not going to root for them, and the whole energy of the team gets sucked out of it.


"We have so much in common, and that's helpful. We're young. We're hungry. We've all enjoyed a little bit of success, and I think we want to do that again."




The big question last spring was whether the Marlins would hit for enough power and score enough runs to complement a quality pitching staff. To a certain degree that same question remains.


Yet the Marlins demonstrated how exceptional pitching lessens the burden on the bats. The Marlins won the World Series as a middle-of-the-road offensive team. Their 2003 NL rankings: fifth in batting average (.266), eighth in runs (751), seventh in hits (1,459), 11th in homers (157), eighth in RBI (709), 10th in total bases (2,310) and 13th in walks (515).


Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and Dontrelle Willis combined to win 49 games. Beckett (injury) and Willis (minors) were not in the rotation the full year. Factor in a healthy Burnett, and it's conceivable the starting staff could win 75 games.


That assumes they benefit from decent run support. Lee, Encarnacion and Rodriguez accounted for 42 percent of the Marlins' 157 homers and 39 percent of their 292 doubles. They also combined for 34.8 percent of the team's runs and 31.5 percent of its hits (1,459).


The Marlins can look forward to a full season of Conine and Cabrera. Conine has averaged 15.7 homers and 89 RBI during the past three seasons he appeared in 139 or more games. Based on his 2003 numbers (87 games), Cabrera would have hit 22 homers with 115 RBI over the entire season.


"Derrek going to Chicago and not being able to sign Pudge, it's going to hurt us a little bit, but it allowed us to sign our starting pitchers back," Banks said. "If you can't increase the payroll to $80 million to keep everybody, I think the right decision was made in at least keeping our pitching intact."




The hope last season was that speed and defense would help counter whatever shortcomings existed in the power department. Though the Marlins were less aggressive in their stolen-base attempts toward the end of the season, they still finished with 50 more steals than any other NL team.


Though they have the majors' stolen-base leader in Juan Pierre, don't look for the Marlins to match that total. Encarnacion, Lee and Rodriguez combined for 50 stolen bases. Pierre likely will lead the league again, but Castillo (21 steals) showed he doesn't have to run wild to maximize his productivity.


"With two guys that can run and get on base, we can create a lot of runs without having to get that big hit," Pierre said.


Pierre and Castillo were also key contributors to one of the league's better defensive units. The club's franchise-best .987 fielding percentage tied for first among NL teams with St. Louis. Only the Cardinals (77) committed fewer errors than the Marlins (78).


"With our infield, you can allow a hit or two and you're out of the inning because these guys turn [the double play]," McKeon said. "If you hit a ground ball to those guys with one out, you know it's going to be two."


The Marlins did lose one of their Gold Glovers in Lee, who had a lot to do with keeping the error total down. Though Choi is regarded as an above average defender, Lee is in another league with the glove.


The outfield defense should be solid, but not as good as last year. Pierre covers considerable ground in center but lacks a good throwing arm. Conine performed admirably in left considering he hadn't played there in a while, and Cabrera is a third baseman who must adjust to right.




Last year's Marlins wouldn't have won the World Series without meaningful contributions from young players. Willis' Rookie of the Year campaign reinvigorated the franchise in the standings and at the ticket office. Though Cabrera only appeared in 87 games, he received Rookie of the Year votes.


The Marlins need both to reprise their debut seasons in addition to getting quality numbers from Choi and relievers Mike Neu, Tommy Phelps and Nate Bump. Though Castro, who turns 28 Monday, is old enough to be a veteran, he hasn't played regularly in the majors.


"They showed they weren't afraid and didn't back down to anyone," Lowell said. "A guy like Cabrera and Ray Castro and Dontrelle, they stepped up big for us during the season, and I don't see any reason why they wouldn't this year. Hee Seop Choi is going to be good for us, too. He's a big, left-handed guy. We're going to see a lot of righties, so that might be good for him."


McKeon prides himself on helping young players turn the corner. Jim Kaat, Zoilo Versalles, Tony Oliva and Jimmy Hall all made the jump to the majors with McKeon's help.


"The biggest thing I try to do with the young guys is make them realize nothing comes easy," McKeon said. "Don't cheat yourself. If you want to be good you have to work at it. Sometimes with young guys, like my own kids, it takes a while. But when the light flashes on, now we have a bunch of stars here. ... You make them realize this is a great opportunity they have and if they work just a little bit harder they can be one of the elites in the game."


The trick is staying there.


"When we get the rings, every athlete, they feel like they have a complete career if they have a world championship," Lowell said. "We've done that, and I think we're still hungry, though. I don't think we're going to rest. I think we want to prove we're a good team for the long term."


Juan C. Rodriguez can be reached at [email protected].?

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Great article! We have lots of opportunity to excel again this year.


Top to bottom, this collection of players genuinely enjoyed each other's company. Bickering was all but non-existent. The reserves were supportive without groaning about playing time.


Guys who joined the club at midseason had no trouble fitting in. When reliever Chad Fox arrived in August, the easygoing clubhouse atmosphere was the first thing he noticed.


The key is the chemistry. If McKeon can keeps the guys loose and instill confidence in the younger players, then you have to ask yourself, why not? Why couldn't they get that same magic going again?


It's going to be fun to watch. That's for sure. :thumbup

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