Young Florida Marlins Could Win It All in ’05

One week into the young 2005 season, I would like to make a prediction. The Florida Marlins are going to win the World Series.

The Marlins are often forgotten in the National League East. They didn’t make the back pages of major sports sections this offseason by signing Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. They haven’t won 13 straight divisional titles. They haven’t been an orphan team for three years that finally settled in the Nation’s Capital. And they’re not perennial underachievers playing in a city that always seem to come in second place (or worse).

Instead, the Marlins are often remembered for their ownership, their battle with Wayne Huizenga and their constant search for a new stadium in downtown Miami. Owner Jeffrey Loria is the man who sold out the Expos to Major League Baseball. They’re the team that can’t get approval from the state of Florida, Dade county or Miami for a new stadium, and Huizenga, former team owner, has threatened to evict them from Pro Player Stadium after the 2009 season. What is overlooked on the field, however, could bring this team its second World Championship in three years.

The Marlins live by their pitching and die with their offense. That much was clear in 2004 when the team gave up just 700, fifth-lowest in the Majors, but scored just 718, eighth-fewest around the Bigs. As the defending champs, they finished at 83-79, 13 games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves and nine behind the Wild Card-winning Houston Astros.

In scoring fewer than 4.5 runs per game last year, the Marlins’ weaknesses were obvious. They needed another established bat in the lineup, and they needed a lefty threat in the middle to break up the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Lowell tandem that powered their offense last year.

During the winter, they addressed their needs. While the Mets were making waves by giving Kris Benson a lot of money and landing Martinez and Beltran, the Marlins quietly stole Carlos Delgado from under everyone’s eyes. With Delgado in the lineup, the Marlins addressed both of their needs in one swoop. Delgado, who has driven in 91 runs or more every year since 1996, gave them their lefty power hitter to insert in the clean-up spot. For those Marlins, just one year removed from a shocking World Series title, it was a match made in heaven.

So far this year, the Marlins have shown why they should be considered the team to beat in the National League East. While they sport a 3-3 record, that stat doesn’t begin to tell the tales from the first six games. Against two of their NL East opponents, the Marlins have given up just 9 runs. That’s just 1.5 runs per game. On offense, they’ve scored 31, nearly a run per game more than they averaged last year. But with that pitching, who needs 5 runs per game? Last year’s 4.5 would be just plenty.

Incidentally, their losses again show why they still live by pitching and die by the offense. They’ve thrown three shuts outs but have lost two games by one run and one game by two runs. The most they’ve surrendered is four runs, and they’ve scored eight or more runs in their three shutouts. Eventually, the offense will catch up to the good pitching, and when it does, the rest of the NL should look out.

I pick the Marlins precisely because of the pitching. For the first time in a few years, their two young guns – Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett – started the season in the rotation. Burnett and Beckett have been highly touted prospects for approximately forever. They’ve also had their fair share of arm problems, recurring blisters, and bouts of inconsistency. This year is the year they put everything together.

Beckett, who turns 25 in May, impressed the world when he threw a complete game shut-out in the decisive game 6 of the 2003 World Series. Statistically, his trends indicate that this is the year he really comes into his own as a pitcher. He strikes out a little over nine guys per nine innings. He lowered his walk rate last year and threw a career-high 156.2 innings.

This season, he’s racked up 17 strike outs in 15.2innings. He given up just seven hits, while walking four, and he has yet to give up a run, earned or otherwise. He’s also changed his approach on the hill to one that resembles the way his idol Roger Clemens approaches pitching. “It’s a basic formula I’m using this year – control the things you can control, and don’t worry about anything else,? he said after his shut out on Sunday. “Right after the last pitch of the game, you start thinking about your next one. If you don’t, you’ll go out and get shellacked, and I’m back to being a .500 pitcher again.?

Behind Beckett is Burnett, Dontrelle Willis, Al Leiter, and Brian Moehler. Burnett missed much of 2003 and some of 2004 with a serious arm injury, but he came back last year to put up impressive numbers. Willis, just 23 years old, threw a five-hitter against the Nationals on Friday and sports a career ERA of 3.61. Leiter gives the Marlins a veteran lefty presence who will throw strikes.

On offense, Delgado completes the picture. The lineup starts out with speed and contact in Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo. Cabrera, Delgado, and Lowell are as good as any 3-4-5 hitters in the Majors. Paul LoDuca, Alex Gonzalez, and some combination of Juan Encarnacion (plus his two grand slams this year) and Jeff Conine round out the bottom part of the order.

This team is well-balanced with a potent pitching staff. They’re young, energetic, and finally learning how to become pitchers instead of throwers. I, for one, won’t be at all surprised if the World Series trophy once again gets to winter in Florida this year.

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