Five Questions: Florida Marlinsby Matthew Namee
March 30, 2004
The follow-up to the latest Marlins championship has been nothing like the dismantling that took place after their '97 World Series win. Mike Lowell re-signed for four years, and Luis Castillo will be back for another three. The only really big departures are Ivan Rodriguez and Derrek Lee. In the case of Pudge, the guy was asking for more money than he was worth, and the Marlins have decent replacements waiting in the wings (Ramon Castro and Mike Redmond). As for Derrek Lee, he was sent to the Cubs for the promising Hee Seop Choi. Believe it or not, the (two-time World Champion) Florida Marlins are in a position to do something they've never done in their 12-year history: post back-to-back winning seasons.
1) What's the future for Miguel Cabrera?
After dominating the Southern League to the tune of a .365 batting average, Miguel Cabrera played 87 major-league games at the age of 20, batting .268/.325/.468 with 12 homers, while holding his own in the postseason. That got me wondering, what other 20-year-old hitters did well in about half a season?
It's a pretty short list. OPS is a relatively blunt object for analysis, but in this case, we're just doing a little sorting (with Lee Sinins' encyclopedia), so we'll use it. Here are the best age-20 seasons since 1900 for a player with between 60 and 100 games, sorted by OPS:
YEAR G AVG OBP SLG OPS Bob Horner 1978 89 .266 .313 .539 .852 Tony Horton 1965 60 .294 .361 .485 .845 Dick Kokos 1948 71 .298 .374 .426 .800 Miguel Cabrera 2003 87 .268 .325 .468 .793 Terry Puhl 1977 60 .301 .385 .402 .786 Jose Reyes 2003 69 .307 .334 .434 .769 Dick Bartell 1928 72 .305 .377 .386 .763The strange thing is, none of the guys on that list became superstars. Intuitively, I would assume that a 20-year-old with a .790 OPS in half a season would be a good bet for stardom, but this suggests otherwise. Bob Horner hit 218 homers and Dick Bartell had over 2,000 hits, but it's a rather unimpressive list.
I don't think that means anything bad for Cabrera, but he's a long way from either 200 homers or 2,000 hits, much less Hall of Fame territory.
As for the immediate future, Cabrera should at least match those '03 rate stats this year. It wouldn't surprise me if he hits .300 with 100 RBIs, but .270 with 75 RBIs is much more likely.
2) Will Josh Beckett be able to carry over his postseason success into 2004?
In case you missed it, Josh Beckett threw 42.2 postseason innings, finishing with a 2.11 ERA and a 47/12 strikeout/walk ratio, while taking home World Series MVP honors. It was the highest high Beckett has had in a mercurial career.
A former second-overall draft pick, Beckett has been pretty successful when he's pitched. In 273 career innings, he has a 3.32 ERA and 289 strikeouts. Unfortunately, blisters caused him to miss about half of the 2002 season, and elbow problems sidelined him for nearly two months last year.
I don't have any doubt that, if healthy, Beckett can be an ace-quality starting pitcher. If he can throw 220 innings every year, he'll win a Cy Young award or three. The problem is that big, ugly if. To that end, here are two pieces of information:
- Beckett hasn't missed time with blisters since September of 2002, and
- Beckett came off the DL on July 1. From then until the end of the postseason, he threw 144 innings and posted a 2.56 ERA.
As for his 2004 numbers... you want a shot in the dark? Okay, 200 innings, 2.75 ERA.
3) Can Dontrelle Willis sustain his success?
Dontrelle Willis, like Cabrera, is one of the most exciting young players in baseball. Above we looked at 20-year-olds who had similar success to Cabrera, so here, let's take a look at similar players to Dontrelle Willis.
Last year, the 21-year-old Willis threw 160.2 innings and had an ERA that was 22% better than the league average. Since 1900, there have been 14 other 21-year-old pitchers who 1) threw between 140 and 180 innings, and 2) had better-than-league ERAs.
YEAR IP ERA ERA+ Eppa Rixey 1912 162.0 2.50 144 Wayne Simpson 1970 176.0 3.02 134 Sam McDowell 1964 173.0 2.71 133 Kerry Wood 1998 166.2 3.40 128 Bart Johnson 1971 178.0 2.93 123 Dontrelle Willis 2003 160.2 3.30 122 Rickey Clark 1967 174.0 2.59 121 Bob Moose 1969 170.0 2.91 120 Bill Gullickson 1980 141.0 3.00 119 Dave Boswell 1966 169.0 3.14 115 Steve Trout 1979 155.0 3.89 110 Tom Gordon 1989 163.0 3.64 106 Carl Cashion 1912 170.1 3.17 105 Dan Petry 1980 164.2 3.94 105 Larry Christenson 1975 171.2 3.67 102One of those guys (Rixey) made the Hall of Fame, while four had a 20-win season at some point in their careers (Rixey, McDowell, Gullickson, and Boswell). Five of these pitchers went on to win at least 100 games, though only Rixey reached 200 wins. Six of the pitchers on the list had an ERA+ within 10 points of Willis'. Only one of those six, Gullickson, reached the 100-win plateau, though Kerry Wood will probably get there too. All that suggests that Willis has about a one-in-three chance of winning 100 games in his career. That might sound low, but for a 21-year-old pitcher, it's not too bad.
4) Can Ramon Castro and Mike Redmond possibly replace Pudge Rodriguez?
The Marlins are obviously downgrading at catcher; the question is, by how much? I've long thought Mike Redmond was one of the most underrated catchers in baseball, and while he had a disappointing '03 season, he does have a career .290 batting average and .355 OBP. Redmond is almost 33, though, so time may be running out. He's a guy dying to be in a platoon -- against lefties, Redmond has a career .332 batting average.
By the looks of things, Redmond won't do a lot of starting in 2004. That job belongs to Ramon Castro, who hit .283/.333/.604 in 53 at bats last year. He's nowhere near that good, but take a look at his combined raw minor-league numbers from his last two minor-league seasons, 2000 and 2001:
AB R H 2B HR RBI BB SO AVG OBP SLG 608 125 204 55 41 135 54 112 .336 .388 .628Suffice it to say I think Castro will hold his own as a major-league hitter. At 28 years old, he's still in his prime. As long as he can stay out of jail, Castro should hit around .275 with decent power.
Redmond and Castro probably won't out-play Ivan Rodriguez in 2004, but considering the relative cost, I think the Marlins did right in letting Pudge walk. Barring Castro being incarcerated, the catcher's position should again be a plus for the Fish.
5) Should the defending champs really be considered underdogs?
Heck yeah. First of all, they might be the defending champs, but they didn't even win their division last year, finishing 10 games behind the Braves. There's another problem, too:
1) The Marlins' run differential was that of an 87-win team, meaning they were lucky by four games, and
2) Philadelphia, which won just 86 games, had the run differential of a 90-win team.
Meaning, while the Marlins were good last year, they were lucky to nab second place, let alone the World Series. The Phillies will probably be at least a little better this year, and even if the Marlins hold steady, they're no sure bet for 90 wins. There are something like 10 NL teams who are roughly as good as Florida (including two in their own division), so the odds of a Marlins repeat are long indeed.
All things considered, Florida is in pretty good shape. No, they probably won't repeat as champs, but they will field a contender for the second straight year, which is uncharted territory for the franchise. This is also just a fun team to watch - Beckett, Cabrera, Willis, Juan Pierre, and Luis Castillo are some of the most entertaining players in the game. And with a few breaks their way, Jack McKeon's boys just might surprise us again.
Matthew Namee cofounded The Hardball Times in 2004, when he was working as the assistant to baseball author and Red Sox executive Bill James. Matthew still lives in Kansas, where he is currently pursuing a law degree. He can be reached at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.