In a classic case of gilt-by-association, the Marlins think first baseman Carlos Delgado can turn an otherwise middling playoff contender into pure gold. With Delgado hitting cleanup for the most balanced batting order in the division, Florida 1) has a dominant lefthanded power bat for the first time in its 13-year history, 2) will provide protection for 21-year-old leftfielder Miguel Cabrera in the number 3 hole, 3) can give third baseman Mike Lowell (190 RBIs over the past two years) even more run-producing opportunities in the 5 slot and 4) figures to force opposing managers to burn two relievers late in games while they deal with a fierce lefty sandwiched between formidable righties.
"Delgado's our Manny Ramirez, our Jim Thome, our big dog," Lowell says. "Cabrera's a superstar in the making who'll reap the benefits of having Delgado there. And I know they'll be walking Delgado to face me, playing for the double play because I don't run well. I welcome that. I think we reap the benefits on both sides."
Florida has had only one lefthanded batter, Cliff Floyd, belt at least 30 home runs in a season; Delgado topped that mark seven times in his 12 years with the Blue Jays. "There's a learning curve going to a new league," says Delgado, 32, who signed a four-year, $52 million free-agent contract. "So we'll see. I'm pretty hard on myself."
In spring training there was awe from his new teammates and aw-shucks from Delgado, who seemed as impatient with his 0-for-12 start as centerfielder Juan Pierre was with a calf strain that kept him out for three weeks. Known for his durability, Pierre is the ideal leadoff hitter for a lineup that is strong 1 through 8--assuming he doesn't get giddy. Pierre ranked second in the NL with 45 steals in 2004, but he was thrown out 24 times, prompting manager Jack McKeon to urge discretion if not outright caution on the basepaths. Still, with Pierre and switch-hitter Luis Castillo at the top of the batting order, the hits should keep on coming. The Marlins are so stacked that their number 6 hitter, catcher Paul Lo Duca, batted third for the Dodgers most of last season and their number 8 hitter, shortstop Alex Gonzalez, swatted 23 homers and drove in 79 runs.
Of course, blistering fingers will have perhaps an even greater impact on Florida's season than blistering speed or bats. Josh Beckett, MVP of the 2003 World Series, was bedeviled by a blister on his right middle finger that twice relegated him to the disabled list last season. The 24-year-old, who was shut down three times with blisters in 2002, avoided them during the championship season. But questions linger in the Marlins' clubhouse whether baseball's most spectacular .500 pitcher (26--26 lifetime, albeit with a 3.49 earned run average) was sufficiently diligent in caring for his digits last year. Beckett and A.J. Burnett, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2003, have been on the DL a combined 11 times over the past three seasons. If they combine for 60 starts this year--their highest was 50, in 2002--they could be to Florida what Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt are to the Astros. "You have extremely talented and young starting pitchers with superior stuff," says 39-year-old lefty Al Leiter, the former Met, who was a shrewd signing because of his added value as a pitching coach without portfolio. "But there's more to it than how hard you throw. These guys are sharp, sharper than I was when I had stuff like them 12, 15 years ago. Maybe there are some things I can help bring into focus."
To close games, the Marlins initially will depend on righty Guillermo Mota, another pitcher with an incendiary fastball but little track record as a closer. But a team with a $66 million payroll can't afford everything. With an improved bullpen that includes former closers Antonio Alfonseca and Todd Jones, Florida should have enough buffers to smooth Mota's transition.
Delgado rejected the Mets' free-agent offer because he thought the Marlins gave him a better chance to win. If the Braves falter, the Delgado trickle-down effect could be positively uplifting in Miami. --M.F.
Last year Juan Pierre became the first major leaguer to play every inning of every game in a season since Tigers third baseman Travis Fryman in 1995.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Marlins
"THE MARLINS did some good Christmas shopping this off-season. They have one of the best lineups in baseball as far as balance goes. They have speed and the ability to move up runners, and they're dangerous from the left and right sides.... Mike Lowell is underrated, and Juan Pierre is going to win a batting title someday. His work ethic is phenomenal.... The catching situation is a problem, with Paul Lo Duca dealing with a cyst in his right hand.... There aren't too many 1s and 2s with stuff as good as Josh Beckett's and A.J. Burnett's. Burnett is looking healthy, and the two seem to feed off each other.... Al Leiter was a good signing with the leadership he brings. He's still a good five- or six-inning pitcher, and he's gotten smarter. He's developed a curveball to go with his cutter, which is not as dominating as it used to be.... Guillermo Mota's fastball is consistently in the upper 90s, he's durable, and he has the stuff to be a closer. I think he's ready mentally, having had success pitching in the eighth inning and having been around great closers in Armando Benitez and Eric Gagne."
projected roster with 2004 statistics
C Lo Duca
CARLOS DELGADO [New acquisition]
PAUL LO DUCA
3rd in NL East
third season with Florida
New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws IPS: Innings pitched per start WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)