After a late collapse of their pitching staff, and despite strong play across their infield, the Fish are trending down. The Florida Marlins, after hovering just under .500 for most of the year, are still mired in a nightmarish string of games – losing twelve of fourteen games matched up against the Giants and Padres – falling 15 games out of first place.
Despite their differing fates, there are a lot of similarities between these two teams' performances this year. The Marlins and Cardinals have similar differentials between their runs scored and allowed – both are nearly half a run behind their competition – and both have suffered through some staggeringly bad defensive play.
But while the Redbirds have played better than their stats, the Marlins have not. An old-school baseball observer might chalk this up to the difference between having a 2,000-win manager versus having Fredi Gonzalez, whose 56 wins acquired this year are the first on his ledger. A sabermetric wiseguy would simply call this "luck." The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Something Smells Fishy
Many of the things that have gone wrong for the Marlins this year are certainly outside the manager's realm of control.
The manger can't prevent Dontrelle Willis' herky-jerky mechanics from completely falling apart, as they have this year. Willis' ERA has ballooned up to 4.91, and is careening from quality starts to close-your-eyes terrible starts without any semblance of predictability.
The manager also could not prevent Anibal Sanchez (the former Red Sox pitching prospect, a throw-in in the Hanley Ramirez deal, who threw a no-hitter late last year) from shredding his shoulder and hitting the 60-day DL. Nor could he prevent Josh Johnson, a 12-game winner last year, from befalling a similar fate.
Two 23-year-old phenoms lost to the winds, and a third is trying to drive himself there. Lefty Scott Olsen has managed to stay on the field this year, but without the brash effectiveness of his pitches. As his ERA has blown up to 5.25 (from a very respectable 4.04) and his strikeout rate has fallen from nearly nine per game to six, Olsen himself has lost control of his temper. His felony arrest last month, for DUI and attempting to fight off his arresting officer, has the team's president preparing to cut ties.
The Marlins' one consistent pitcher for much of the season has been former Cubs prospect Sergio Mitre. Mitre, who was acquired along with two more pitching prospects for the perennially overpaid Juan Pierre, has finally learned how to control his stuff and is getting outs with regularity. However, he too may be hitting the wall. Since coming out of the All-Star break with an ERA of 2.85, Mitre has recorded only three quality starts, and only one in his last six outings.
As a result of this turmoil in the rotation, Marlins GM Larry Beinfest has taken a page from Walt Jocketty's playbook, and scoured the garbage heaps for pitching. Why not take a flyer on Jorge Julio? Why not flip him for Byung Hyun Kim? Why not take on Armando Benitez, if the other team is willing to pay the tab? Hey Wes Obermuller, couldn't pitch your way onto the Brewers, why not pitch for us?
However, Beinfest might need a lesson in discretion, as none of his refuse has yet to bloom a rose, where Jocketty has somehow managed to get something positive out of Joel Pineiro, Todd Wellemeyer, and even this new, nailsy version of Kip Wells.
An Overdue Fate
Most people across baseball expected this Marlins team to be overmatched like this last year, when payroll was slashed to the point that their 40-man roster was owed less than one year of Barry Zito's mammoth salary. And yet, thanks to the emergence of shortstop Hanley Ramirez and second baseman Dan Uggla, and the continued brilliance of Miguel Cabrera, the Florida offense became pesky enough to put a dent in opposing teams' pitching.
And when their young pitching staff, led by the "veteran presence" of a 24- year-old Dontrelle Willis, started pitching to their potential, the Marlins exploded back into relevance, eclipsing the .500 plateau in mid-September. They had become what everyone said they couldn't – a winning team with a $15 million dollar payroll.
And yet, something didn't feel quite so good about this feel-good story. Their rookie manager Joe Girardi won manager of the year, and was then promptly fired thanks to a dispute with ownership, perhaps a firing that he himself orchestrated. By getting axed, Girardi exits a thankless five-year rebuilding process in front of zero point zero fans, and gets paid to be on TV, slowly polishing his image as a baseball savant and waiting for "the right job" to get back into managing. He has already turned down at least one offer that we know of – from Peter Angelos and the Baltimore Orioles – and probably pulled his name out of several other hats as well, including Chicago and Cincinnati. Because for a former Yankee with a rep bigger than his deeds, there is only one "right job," and that is in the Bronx.
The Marlins, who seemingly had a foundation they could have built on, refused any quick influx of talent off the free agent market, but also refused to commit long-term to either of their anchors, Dontrelle and Cabrera. Both have years before they are eligible for free agency, and yet smart money could be spent now to lock these players up, as the Mets did with Jose Reyes and David Wright, and as the Phillies did with Chase Utley. Instead, each received a one-year contract that will surely hasten them out the door as soon as their arbitration years are up.
The M.O. of the Marlins is the result of some bad-boy baseball economics. They figure that there simply isn't enough of a fan base in Miami to bother committing to, so why bother signing "fan favorites" long-term? They'll cut the team down to the bone for several years, hoarding money and prospects until the free agent market gets soft enough to land a full crop of aging free agent mercenaries, and make one desperate run at another World Series.
GM Larry Beinfest passes a cold, calculating eye across the roster of every team they play, wondering if in 2011, Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols might become his Kevin Brown and Carlos Delgado, two players who led the Marlins to trophies in the past.
The thought turns my stomach cold.
Quick, name the only National League shortstop to have hit forty home runs and stolen eighty bases in the last two seasons!
If you said "Jose Reyes," you would be wrong. The owner of these deeds is Hanley Ramirez, who has emerged as at least Reyes' peer, if not barely edging the Met as the greatest offensive force at shortstop in the National League.
Both players have scored more than 200 runs combined over the past two seasons, and both have driven in better than 120, while batting almost exclusively from the leadoff spot. Given his power, Ramirez's RBI numbers would be even better with the kind of bottomof- the-lineup quality that the Mets have at their disposal. ($100 million extra in payroll helps with that sort of thing.)
Among all of the creative destruction that was wreaked on the World Serieswinning roster of the 2003 Marlins, trading high-salaried veterans for highceiling prospects, landing Ramirez (and Anibal Sanchez) from the Red Sox for Josh Beckett was the gem. Granted, Beckett may very well lead the Sox to another World Series win this year, but Sox fans were howling last year when Beckett was scuffling and Ramirez was emerging from seemingly nowhere to post a season of .292/.353/.480 with 17 homers and 51 stolen bases. And this year, Hanley has been even better.
Ramirez's power contributes to an odd offensive split on the infield, one that turns conventional wisdom on its ear: Miguel Cabrera, Ramirez, and Dan Uggla are each outhomering their first baseman (Mike Jacobs, converted from catcher because of his power potential) by at least 10 on the year so far.
It's too bad that the Marlins have so few fans – their attendance ranks 16th of 16 National League teams – because these fresh young infielders at least would give them their money's worth.