Five Questions: Florida Marlins

1. What happened last year?

The Marlins have been a great example of the thin line between success and failure over the past two seasons. They started 2003 as an afterthought in the National League East, got off to a slow start, fired their manager, and then began a surprising and improbable late-season charge to and through the postseason. In 2004, they got off to a good start, slowed down in the middle months, and never got things going like they did down the stretch the year before, finishing nine games back in the Wild Card standings. The funny thing is that, aside from the part about one team winning the World Series and one team missing the playoffs, there wasn’t a huge difference between the 2003 and 2004 Marlins.

In 2003, Florida had a 4.04 team ERA and ranked sixth in the NL with 692 runs allowed. Last season, the Marlins had a 4.10 ERA and ranked sixth in the league with 700 runs allowed. That is a difference of eight additional runs allowed in 2004, or one extra run surrendered every 20 games. So it must have been the offense then, right? Sort of. The Marlins scored 751 runs to rank seventh in the NL in 2003. Last season, Florida scored 718 runs to rank 11th in the league, for a dropoff of a little less than 5%. Overall, Florida was about one win worse defensively last year and around three wins worse offensively. Add that up and toss in a slightly worse performance in one-run games, and you get pretty close to the difference between going 91-71 and 83-79.

2. Now that we know what happened, how did it happen?

Let’s focus on the offenses, because the difference between the pitching staffs was pretty negligible. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the offensive production Florida got in 2003, versus what they got in 2004:

                      2003               2004            RC
                  OPS      RC        OPS      RC        +/-
Catcher          .808      98       .626      55        -43
First Base       .867     109       .793      92        -17
Second Base      .761      95       .778     102         +7
Shortstop        .724      74       .692      64        -10
Third Base       .883     112       .857     108         -4
Left Field       .732      73       .747      82         +9
Center Field     .731      99       .781     104         +5
Right Field      .748      85       .852     105        +20
Pitcher          .343       0       .373       3         +3
Desig. Hitter    .933       5       .680       4         -1

If you add up the Runs Created (RC) plus/minus column, you get a loss of 31 runs. They scored 33 fewer runs in real life, so that’s a pretty good estimate. As you can see, the two places where the Marlins suffered huge dropoffs were catcher and, to a lesser extent, first base. Not coincidentally, those are the positions Ivan Rodriguez and Derrek Lee played in 2003. Rodriguez left Florida to sign with Detroit as a free agent, while the Marlins traded Lee to the Cubs. Ignoring those two positions, the rest of the Florida’s offense actually out-produced the 2003 group by 27 runs, largely due to Miguel Cabrera playing a full season (and having a great year).

With Rodriguez gone to Detroit, the Marlins handed the starting job to his backup, Mike Redmond, who hit .240/.302/.312 in 2003. Redmond actually improved significantly in 2004, hitting .256/.315/.341, but that was no match for the gaping hole Rodriguez’s .297/.369/.474 performance from 2003 left. The Marlins addressed the problems at catcher by trading for Paul Lo Duca at midseason, but Lo Duca hit a very Redmond-like .258/.312/.363 after the trade and Florida traded away their starting first baseman, Hee Seop Choi, to get him.

While Choi was horrendous down the stretch after being dealt to the Dodgers, he was actually quite good with Florida. In fact, Choi’s .275/.390/.504 performance in 95 games with the Marlins was right on par with the .271/.379/.508 Lee hit for Florida in 2003. The problem was that when Choi wasn’t in the lineup, the Marlins filled the position with Jeff Conine, Damion Easley, and Wil Cordero, who combined to hit just .248/.311/.387 in about a half-season’s worth of playing time there. That domino-effect involving Rodriguez, Lee, Redmond, Lo Duca, Choi, and Conine is more or less how the Marlins lost about 5% of their offense last season.

3. Now that we know how it happened, can the Marlins get that offense back?

This is where things get interesting. The 2005 lineup is essentially the same as the 2004 lineup, with two exceptions. One is that Lo Duca will be around for a full year, which should help bring the production at catcher closer to 2003 levels. The Marlins have also filled the hole created at first base in acquiring Lo Duca by signing the best first baseman available this offseason, Carlos Delgado. Assuming Lo Duca and Delgado perform similarly to their career numbers, the Marlins should see significant improvement offensively at catcher and first base. Of course, Lo Duca didn’t hit after coming to Florida and Delgado missed 34 games with Toronto and had his worst OPS since 1997, so neither of those things are a given.

Still, even if Delgado struggles a bit, he should have no problem beating the .261/.351/.442 production the Marlins got from their first basemen last year (assuming he stays healthy). Similarly, even a slight dropoff from Lo Duca’s .285/.340/.424 career numbers would represent a big improvement over the .235/.300/.327 Florida catchers hit last season. If the rest of the lineup can collectively repeat what they did in 2004 (which seems like a decent bet, considering everyone returns), the Marlins should be able to not only make up the ground they lost offensively in 2004, but potentially put together a better offense than they had in 2003.

4. Great, so they should score more, but what about the pitching?

Here is where the Marlins may run into some problems. While their pitching staff suffered only the slightest dropoff from 2003 to 2004, the same can’t necessarily be expected this time around. The Marlins lost an awful lot of good pitching during the offseason, as Carl Pavano took his 18-8 record and 3.00 ERA in 222.1 innings to New York, while Armando Benitez and his 47 saves and 1.29 ERA in 69.2 innings left for San Francisco. Pavano and Benitez were not only Florida’s best pitchers last season, they were two of the best pitchers in the league, combining to go 20-10 with 47 saves and a 2.59 ERA in 292 innings.

Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett were very good last season, but combined to throw just 276.2 innings, so healthy seasons from those two would go a long way towards making up for losing Pavano. Of course, Beckett’s 156.2 innings last season were actually a career-high and Burnett has thrown just 143 total innings in the past two years because of arm problems, so counting on them for bulk innings in 2005 is a little iffy. In the bullpen, Guillermo Mota takes over for Benitez. Mota is an excellent reliever and should do a fine job closing games, but it will be nearly impossible for him to match Benitez’s amazing performance last season.

However, I do think the Marlins are capable of putting together a more complete bullpen than the one they featured for much of last season. Mota takes over for Benitez, which almost can’t help but be a dropoff, but the Marlins have added setup men like Todd Jones, Antonio Alfonseca, John Riedling, and Jim Mecir. That is far from the most reliable group of relievers, but it should be an upgrade considering the fact that Florida ranked 11th in the league in bullpen ERA last year. When you’re coming off a season in which you got 230 innings from Josias Manzanillo, Darren Oliver, Toby Borland, Nate Bump, and Matt Perisho, it’s not that difficult to improve.

5. Gain a little offense, lose a little pitching. What does it all mean?

The Marlins look to me like an 80- to 85-win team, which is essentially what they’ve been for this whole decade (408-401 since 2000, with 79, 76, 79, 91, and 83 wins). While the NL East is a little more wide open than it has been in past years, Florida still likely needs a few breaks to make it to the 90 wins or so that would put them in a position for another playoff run. In addition to things like Delgado, Beckett, and Burnett putting together healthy seasons and Lo Duca producing for an entire year, Florida could really use Al Leiter defying age and a plummeting strikeout-to-walk ratio to give them another dependable arm in the rotation. Cabera continuing to develop and Dontrelle Willis bouncing back after a disappointing sophomore season also wouldn’t hurt. If most of those breaks go their way, the Marlins will definitely be in the playoff mix deep into September. If not, they might be headed for another 83-win season.

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