One of the big stories this offseason was the Marlins' second fire sale in the past decade, but buried beneath the outrage was the fact that the Marlins actually made a large number of smart baseball decisions in purging their roster of aging, overvalued players while stocking their system with prospects. Now, in last June, the team everyone had written off over the winter is in third place in the NL East, three games ahead of the perennial division champion Braves, and sports a Pythagorean record just a hair shy of .500.
That's impressive enough, but what's been even more impressive is how this team has gelled. Don't look now, but the Marlins have gone 20-7 since May 22 including a 10-game winning streak that was halted on Wednesday and climaxed with a three-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays last weekend. The secret to that recent success has been pitching. The Marlins have held their opponents to less than three runs in 13 of those 20 wins and allowed more than three runs in just three of those 20 victories, a 5-4 win over the Cubs, a 6-5 win over the Braves, and last night's 8-5 victory over the Orioles.
So who are these guys? Here's a quick look at the Marlins' rotation along with their ages and 2006 salaries:
Dontrelle Willis, 24, $4.35 million
You know D-Train, he was the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year and just missed out last year's Cy Young. 'Nuff said.
Josh Johnson, 22, ML minimum ($327,000)
Replacing: Josh Beckett, 26, $4.325 million
Drafted by the Marlins in 2002, Johnson was solid in double-A last year and finished the season with four appearances for the Fish. This year, without the benefit of a stint in triple-A, he's posted a 2.01 ERA while striking out 7.93 men per nine innings in nine starts. Josh Beckett, meanwhile, has a 5.09 ERA and just 7.41 K/9 for more than ten times Johnson's salary in Boston, while trading Beckett netted the Fish their starting shortstop, top pitching prospect Anibal Sanchez, and two other minor league arms, one of whom, Jose Garcia, has joined Sanchez in double-A and just may be pitching his way past his more highly touted teammate.
Ricky Nolasco, 23, ML min.
Replacing: Al Leiter (retired) and 23-year-old Jason Vargas, the latter of whom is starting for the Marlins' triple-A club with good peripherals, but an ugly ERA.
Nolasco came over from the Cubs in the Juan Pierre deal along with Sergio Mitre and Renyel Pinto. The 25-year-old Mitre was in the rotation until he hit the 60-day DL with inflammation in his pitching shoulder. The 23-year-old Pinto did not allow a run in four big league innings earlier in the year and is pitching very well save for a high walk rate in triple-A Albuquerque. Nolasco turned in a strong season in double-A last year and has posted a 3.15 ERA in 60 innings for the Fish thus far this season with a solid 6.45 K/9. Pierre, meanwhile, is hitting .242/.290/.306 for the Cubs, fulfilling my prediction of a Womackian future for the 28-year-old who is pocketing $5.75 million of the Cubs greenbacks for his services.
Scott Olsen, 22, ML min.
Replacing: A.J. Burnett, 29, $55 million/5 yrs
The left-handed Olsen, like Johnson, is a home grown product who pitched well for the double-A Carolina Mudcats in 2005. A strikeout machine in the minors, the 22-year-old Olsen has struck out 7.79 men per nine innings with the Fish in twelve starts this year and held hitters to less than a hit per inning, but has struggled some with his control, resulting in a 4.70 ERA. Burnett, meanwhile, has made just three starts for the Jays thus far this year due to repeated problems with his surgically repaired pitching elbow. In those three starts, Burnett has a Beckett-like 5.06 ERA thanks in part to his surrendering four home runs in 16 innings.
Brian Moehler, 34, $1.5 million
Moehler, tonight's starter, was retained as a budget rate, league-average insurance policy. He's not held up his end of the bargain, posting a 6.29 ERA while allowing 97 hits in 73 innings.
From that alone this fire sale thing doesn't look too shabby, does it?
The trend continues around the diamond. The best player the Marlins traded this offseason was 34-year-old Carlos Delgado, who is still owed $52 million over four years, only $7 million of which the Fish picked up in the deal. In that trade they acquired not only pitching prospect Yusmeiro Petit, but 25-year-old first baseman Mike Jacobs, who tore the cover off the ball in 100 at-bats for the Mets last year (.310/.375/.710) and is representing this year with a .269/.357/.486 line and ten homers as the Marlins' first baseman.
They dumped an overrated and overpaid ($10 million over two years) 30-year-old Luis Castillo on the Twins for a pair of minor league arms and handed the second base job to 26-year-old minor league free agent Dan Uggla, who had lit-up the Southern League with the Diamondback's double-A franchise in 2005. Uggla has the early lead in the NL Rookie of the Year race, hitting .313/.366/.532 with 13 homers while playing a Gold Glove-level second base.
At shortstop the Beckett deal netted them 22-year-old Sox prospect Hanley Ramirez, who caused a sensation over the first two months of the season before a recent slump that is strangely in synch with his team's winning streak torpedoed his numbers. Ramirez was hitting .340/.417/.484 with 16 stolen bases in 19 attempts on May 23, but has hit just .139/.187/.257 since then. Still, that deal not only netted them those three aforementioned pitching prospects in addition to Ramirez, but it allowed them to unload 32-year-old Mike Lowell's contract ($25.5 million over three years left), thus opening third base for their 23-year-old future Hall of Famer, Miguel Cabrera. The Marlins wisely recognized the fact that it would be easier to find viable corner outfielders than a third baseman that can hit like Frank Robinson or Albert Pujols (Cabrera's top two PECOTA comps).
In Cabrera's place in right field the Fish have installed 22-year-old home-grown prospect Jeremy Hermida, who is hitting a solid, if somewhat powerless .286/.385/.429. The good news is that at 22, Hermida has time to develop his power stroke. In the opposite pasture, the Marlins finally found a home for 27-year-old former catching prospect Josh Willingham, who has hit.268/.352/.470 and will be activated from the disabled list for this weekend's series.
With those six stacked at the top of the line-up, of whom only Cabrera at the insane low price of $472,000 is earning more than the league minimum, the Marlins have installed 27-year-old veteran Miguel Olivo behind the plate for the modest sum of $700,000 and have been able to give 25-year-old Reggie Abercrombie an extended look in center. Of the six rookie Marlins in the everyday lineup, only Abercrombie has failed to rise to the occasion, but given the success of the others, they're able to remain patient with the man they, perhaps erroneously, still hope is their center fielder of the future.
So maybe the bench is a bit thin (Helms has pop, Amezaga can play anywhere, Borchard and Ross once had promise and are still in their 20s, Treanor is a holdover) and the bullpen is a bit of a hodgepodge (veterans Borowski and Herges, 2005 A-ballers Martinez and Tankersley, holdover Messenger, rookie Logan, and the truly off-the-radar Fulchino), but you have to commend a team that's able to purge $60 million in active payroll and tens of millions more owed in subsequent seasons, get 3 ½ years younger as a team and actually improve its long-term outlook in the process. Willis and Cabrera are young enough that they will peak along with the new crop of players, rather than ahead of them. It may have looked ugly this offseason, but with the Braves having finally tumbled off their perch and the Mets relying on a crop of old fogies (Pedro, Glavine, Trachsel, El Duque, Wagner, Valentin, ex-Marlin Cliff Floyd and 2005 Marlins Delgado and Paul Lo Duca), these Fish just might surprise a lot of people in a few years. If so, one might have to wonder if the Marlins have stumbled upon a new method of small-market management in which a Championship is followed by a fire sale which leads directly to another Championship within the decade, repeat. Remember, Burnett and Derrek Lee were picked up in the post-1997 purge, as was Preston Wilson who was flipped for Pierre, and Ed Yarnall who was flipped for Lowell, while Josh Beckett was drafted second overall in 1999 after the Marlins finished 1998 with the worst record in baseball (the expansion Devil Rays got the number one pick). Also, don't forget that the Marlins won two Championships in their first eleven years of existence, while no other expansion team has ever won more than two titles (Mets, Blue Jays) and seven expansion clubs of equal or older vintage are still looking for that first ring. Kinda makes you think, don't it?