Five Questions: Florida Marlins

It’s been a rough offseason for Marlins fans. The 2005 season had barely ended when Jeffrey Loria and Co. put up a big “Everything Must Go” sign at Dolphins Stadium. In a matter of weeks, almost everyone was gone.

By Christmas, the Marlins had dealt Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Guillermo Mota, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, Paul LoDuca and Juan Pierre. They also let free agents A.J. Burnett, Todd Jones, Damion Easley, Jeff Conine, Juan Encarnacion, and Alex Gonzalez go. By the time the players reported to Spring Training, all but one of the starting eight position players (Miguel Cabrera) and two of the starting pitchers (Dontrelle Willis and Brian Moehler) were gone.

What they got in return were prospects, lots of them. Some won’t see the majors for a few years yet, while others will be starting for the Marlins this season whether they’re ready for the majors or not.

1. So who are the 2006 Marlins?

C: It’ll be Miguel Olivo, Josh Willingham, or Matt Treanor. Maybe manager Joe Girardi knows and is keeping us all in suspense. Or maybe he’s just as clueless as we are and intends to settle the matter with a few rounds of rock, paper, scissor. (See question #4.)

1B: Mike Jacobs likely has the starting job, with Wes Helms filling in from time to time. Jacobs showed a lot of promise in 100 at-bats with the Mets last season; he hit .310 with 11 home runs and 23 RBIs.

2B: Now that Pokey Reese is out of the picture, the job belongs to Dan Uggla, who was selected in the Rule 5 Draft in December. He hit .297/.378/.502 in Double-A last season—primarily as a third baseman. But he was drafted as a second baseman, so this shouldn’t be a huge move for him.

3B: Miguel Cabrera is moving back into third base, a position he played well whenever filling in for an injured Lowell. At 22 years old and with two-and-a-half years of major league experience, he’s a veteran on the team, and they’ll be depending on his bat this season.

SS: Hanley Ramirez has been tearing up the ball in Spring Training, hitting .396 in 48 at-bats with three home runs and four triples. The five-tool player was one of the most highly touted prospects in the Red Sox organization before being traded in the Lowell and Beckett deal.

OF: The only set outfielder is Jeremy Hermida in right. The other two spots will likely go to Reggie Abercrombie, who was claimed off waivers from the Diamondbacks in early 2005, and Chris Aguila, who hit .244 in 65 major league games last year. That is unless Willingham starts in left field, which looks likely.

P: Dontrelle Willis, thankfully, is still around, and he’ll be the team’s number one starter this season. Brian Moehler performed admirably last season despite getting very little run support from his teammates. Sergio Mitre, Jason Vargas, and Scott Olsen, who was sent down to Triple-A for a few weeks but should be in the majors soon, all have big upsides, along with big question marks. Vargas pitched in 17 games with the Marlins last season, and finished with a 4.03 ERA, not bad for his first time in the majors. Olsen split his time last season between Double-A Carolina (3.92 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 80 innings) and the majors (3.98 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 20 innings).

2. Exactly how good is Jeremy Hermida?

On Aug. 31, 2005, Hermida announced his arrival in a very big way: he hit a grand slam in his first major league at-bat, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since 1898. Maybe it was a fluke, or maybe it was a sign of great things to come.

Hermida was taken as the 11th pick in the 2002 draft; he’d been projected to go higher, but was passed over because of the threat he’d enroll at Clemson. But as soon as they could, the Marlins nabbed him and made him $2 million richer.

While he was a consistently solid hitter in the minors, his power didn’t really show up until last season, when he hit 18 home runs in Double-A and four in the major leagues. He’s a patient hitter: he led the Southern League with 111 walks last season. In his 41 at-bats last year, Hermida went on to hit .293/.383/.634. Oh, yeah, and he can run pretty well too: last season, he stole 23 bases in Double-A and got caught just twice.

He won’t be winning any Gold Gloves in right field, but his bat should more than make up for it. If he hits as well as PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, says he will (.257/.361/.439 with 22 home runs), then he’ll almost certainly be involved in Rookie of the Year discussions.

3. What’s going to happen with Dontrelle?

Last season, Willis finished second in the NL Cy Young voting, behind Chris Carpenter. But by going into rebuilding mode, the Marlins have ensured that Willis won’t be on the short list of candidates this year, even if he duplicates his excellent 2005 season.

Willis finished the 2005 season 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. PECOTA projects a rise in the ERA and WHIP to 3.50 and 1.23, respectively. But the big difference is the win-loss projection: 11-11, because of the expected decrease in run support from the young players as they adjust to major league pitchers.

Given that the Marlins will almost certainly be sellers at the trading deadline, it’s very possible that Willis’ days in South Florida are numbered. He’s already making $4.35 million, and that number should increase significantly—most likely to a figure that the penny-pinching Marlins won’t pay—when he goes through arbitration for the second time at the end of the season. There’s a good chance the Marlins will shop him around for top prospects.

4. So who is going to be calling the shots behind the plate?

With Opening Day less than a week away, Manager Joe Girardi has yet to announce who will have the starting catching job. He’s got three options: Olivo, Willingham, and Matt Treanor.

Willingham was going to be the starter prior to the Olivo signing, or at least that’s what everyone assumed. He’d been tearing up Triple-A (.324/.455/.676 in 2005) and had gotten over 20 at-bats in the majors in 2004 and 2005 each. This spring, he’s making a very good case for himself by hitting .435/.533/.870. General manager Larry Beinfest has said that he definitely wants Willingham’s bat in the lineup, and they’re reserving the option of moving him to left field; he started there last Saturday for the first time this spring. Girardi told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that Willingham will still catch, however, and that he’ll be moved around throughout the season.

Olivo might be a good choice to guide this group of very young pitchers; he’s an experienced veteran with solid defensive skills who seems to do a good job of handling pitchers. On the other hand, he’s a career .229 hitter who has struggled in Spring Training this year, hitting .176/.200/.382.

Then there’s Treanor, the career minor leaguer who finally got a chance to play in a substantial number of games at the major league level last year, after playing in just about two dozen games in 2004. Because he hit just .201 last season (in 134 at-bats), he’d seem like the logical choice to send back down to Triple-A. Treanor, however, has decided to complicate the issue for Girardi by hitting .478 with a .538 OBP in Spring Training. According to a report in The Miami Herald, the improved performance at the plate is due to a shortened swing after offseason shoulder surgery.

It looks like Girardi is leaning towards starting Olivo and keeping Willingham in left field, while sending Treanor back down to the minors. But I’d expect to see some shuffling around throughout the season if one of the players starts slumping.

5. Will this team be as bad as the last post-fire sale Marlins team?

Unless this Marlins team implodes, they won’t be as bad as that 1998 108-loss team, despite the fact that the 1998 team’s payroll was higher than that of the 2006 team ($33 million to about $20 million). The 1998 team didn’t have a slugger like Cabrera, and it got over 750 innings from starting pitchers (Livan Hernandez, Brian Meadows, Jesus Sanchez, Andy Larkin, Rafael Medina, and Ryan Dempster) who averaged a 6.18 ERA. The 2006 Marlins have Dontrelle Willis leading a young group of pitchers with huge upsides, as well as a player already being discussed as a Rookie of the Year candidate in Hermida.

PECOTA’s projecting a record of 71-91, with 650 runs scored and 763 runs allowed. If they get a few breaks along the way, they could get a few more wins than that, which, while it wouldn’t be a winning season, would be a great accomplishment for such a young team.

It’s too bad all the talk of relocation has to taint this team, because they should be an exciting bunch of guys to watch, even if they don’t crack .500 or make it to the postseason. Given another year or two, at least a handful of them should blossom into major league stars. Of course by that point they may be well on their way to San Antonio.

References & Resources
Baseball Reference
The Baseball Cube for minor league stats.
Baseball Prospectus for projected 2006 stats.

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