Marlins ready to upstart all over again

Despite player losses, young pitching, nucleus remain for 2003 champs


March 07, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. - The Florida Marlins are well aware that their 2003 World Series championship is supposed to have a short shelf life, but they went ahead and showed up for spring training just in case.

They came out of nowhere to win a wild-card playoff berth last year and parlayed it into the franchise's second unlikely world title in seven years. Who seriously believes that they can weather another free-agent exodus to get back to the postseason this year? Manager Jack McKeon, 73, and still fooling them after all these years, puffs on one of his signature stogies and smiles the smile of a fox who just found a hole in the henhouse.

"That's what we like," he said. "We're down in the middle of the pack. That's the way it was last year. ... I guess we can surprise them again."

The Philadelphia Phillies made more improvements over the winter and appear to be the dominant team in the National League East. The Atlanta Braves, despite the departure of Gary Sheffield and Greg Maddux, have a string of division titles so long it would be foolhardy to discount their chances of winning one more.

The Marlins, meanwhile, return to defend their title without Gold Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez, power-hitting first baseman Derrek Lee, starting pitcher Mark Redman and outfielder Juan Encarnacion, but they aren't ready to concede they are headed for another small-market meltdown such as the one that followed their 1997 title.

"I think we kept a good enough nucleus together as far as pitching and defense," said veteran outfielder Jeff Conine, who was traded back to the Marlins by the Orioles in August. "I think we've got people to compensate for what we lost. I think this team will be very competitive again.

"You really can't compare it [to 1997]. It was a pretty minor exodus compared to the last time. That was a complete dismantling."

No one denies the Marlins will miss I-Rod. He played a major role in the evolution of the club's great young starting rotation and was a clutch performer in the postseason. They also will miss Redman's 14 wins and the 50 home runs and 185 RBIs they got from Lee and Encarnacion.

They can only hope having Conine and second-half hero Miguel Cabrera in the lineup all year will offset the dramatic loss of offensive potential - that and the acquisition of first baseman Hee Seop Choi in the Lee trade. The departure of Redman will only become an issue if the dynamic young pitchers at the heart of the rotation are unable to pick up where they left off last year.

"We lost some guys who were very important," McKeon said. "Pudge, Lee, Redman, Encarnacion ... they were real assets. But we have Conine and Cabrera for the whole year. They should pick up some slack, and we're hoping that big Choi can live up to his potential. We're certainly going to give him the opportunity."

The lineup will again be built around third baseman Mike Lowell, who had 32 homers and 105 RBIs last year before missing the final month of the regular season with a broken left hand.

"We have a chance to improve in a lot of areas," Lowell said. "I'd be disappointed if we didn't make the playoffs. A lot of things have to happen, but based on the talent we have here, I think we have a chance to do it."

The Marlins are depending heavily on their stable of young starters to keep them competitive no matter what happens at the plate.

Hard-throwing Josh Beckett emerged as a top pitcher late in the postseason, mowing down the Chicago Cubs at a pivotal juncture in the NL Championship Series and winning the World Series Most Valuable Player trophy after pitching two outstanding games against the New York Yankees. Left-hander Dontrelle Willis won 14 games on the way to becoming the NL Rookie or the Year. Brad Penny (14-10) and Carl Pavano (12-13) also are coming off successful seasons.

If A.J. Burnett can come all the way back from the severe arm injury that cost him the 2003 season, the Marlins' rotation could be in good shape for the next several years.

"Pitching is our main asset," said Conine. "I would put our starting five against anybody in the National League right now."

It may come down to a matter of maturity. The young pitching staff leaned on Rodriguez last year, but will have to prove it can be as effective throwing to Mike Redmond and Ramon Castro.

"I think everyone knows what we've got to do," said Beckett. "We've got to stay focused on 2004. Everybody's got to step up. Everybody has to make up for the home runs and RBI we lost. Everybody's happy with the catcher we have, and we'll make do. I haven't seen Hee Seop play very much, but he was their [the Cubs'] big prospect. They expected big things out of him, so why shouldn't we?"

McKeon has been around long enough to know that young talent - no matter how good - is unpredictable, so he isn't counting up the wins just yet.

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