Five Questions: Florida Marlins

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     .763

The 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.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.
                     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     102

One 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   .628

Suffice 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.

In Closing…

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.

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