Monday, April 19, 2004 Updated: April 20, 4:53 AM ET
Marlins' staff could own NL East
By Peter Gammons Special to ESPN.com
Alyssa Milano was at Pro Player watching Carl Pavano. Leeann Tweeden was at another game to see Josh Beckett. In a year, the Marlins have gone from South Florida cable access to Access Hollywood, with Bulgari rings to show for it.
Florida left-hander Dontrelle Willis is not afraid to throw his body around for a run.
But while the little girls understand -- as Howlin' Wolf would put it -- the media didn't, at least not completely. With the exception of the '98 Marlins, who were dismantled long before they were dismantled, there has been no world champion in recent memory that garnered so little attention the following spring. "In some ways, I understand it," says Marlin GM Larry Beinfest. "We lost some very good players, like Pudge (Rodriguez), Derrek Lee and Ugie Urbina. But we also got a very good player back like Hee Seop Choi, and we signed Armando Benitez, who we believed would be very successful in our environment. And we also believed that our young pitchers would get better."
The mistakes in dismissing the Marlins were twofold: 1) their talent level last season was underappreciated in October -- the only positional player from the Giants who would have started for Florida was Barry Bonds and the only Cubs position players who would have started for the Marlins were Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou -- and 2) the potential for a young starting rotation and 21-year-old (as of Sunday) franchise player who at this time last season was in Double-A to improve is virtually immeasurable.
Just as, after winning nine of their first 10 games, it would have been a mistake for the Marlins to write off any Bobby Cox team or the talented Phillies (despite Tyler Houston's prediction in his column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal). Over the weekend, the Braves swept the Phish, while the Phillies swept struggling Montreal.
"We did what we could do within the constraints of our budget," says Beinfest. "People saw that Choi batted .218, but we believe he has the potential to hit, which he did in the minor leagues." Choi worked tirelessly this spring with Marlins hitting coach Bill Robinson, who is slowly breaking Choi of his habit of starting his swing by dipping, then coming back up, one of the reasons he sometimes had trouble catching up to above-average fastballs on the inner half. "We knew that while Benitez didn't have a good year, he has great stuff and needed an environment in which he was comfortable. Which has happened. He's very popular here," added Beinfest. For the record, Benitez was 117-for-129 in save opportunities from 2000-2002, while Urbina was 72-for-88 over those same years.
The Marlins beat the Yankees because of their young power pitchers, and while Beckett and Brad Penny weren't at a star level when they dazzled New York, they came back this year not boastful of their October glory, but determined to apply what they experienced toward memorable careers. "What we learned was that it's a lot of fun when you perform and win," says Penny, who during the postseason went from a thrower to a pitcher. "We learned what it takes to be successful, and we all wanted to apply it and carry it further."
Penny and Beckett reported to spring training in the best shape of their young careers. Pavano reported in even better shape than last season, when his career took off. And Dontrelle Willis is ... just ... Mr. Energy, Enthusiasm and Intensity, and such a great athlete. Highlights of his first two brilliant starts were a monster homer, going 6-for-6 and a headfirst slide across home plate. Through April 18, he had more RBI than any Expo except Jose Vidro. Through Sunday, the foursome was 6-3, 1.74 ERA, with a 69-21 strikeout-walk ratio.
"I love the contrast," says one NL scout. "Beckett can be Kerry Wood. Penny is a 240-inning horse who can win 20 games. Willis has tightened his delivery and is dominating. And Pavano throws 91-94, changes speeds and could be a bigger draw on the free-agent market than Matt Morris."
Miguel Cabrera is already second in the league in homers, with Choi right behind. The rest of the lineup has struggled as Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo have started slowly. But the message is clear. For years teams had to beat the Braves' pitching to win the NL East. Now we're nearing the point where they have to beat the Marlins' starters to win the NL East.
The Marlins are the best example of what we underappreciated before the season. Here are some other examples:
Tim Wakefield. Listening to Boston talk radio, you'd have thought Terry Francona lost his mind skipping Pedro Martinez for the Yankees series. "I don't get it," says Joe Torre. "The guy we hate to face is Wakefield. He's amazing." OK, out of relief he gave up the Aaron Boone homer, but as a starter he beat the Yankees twice in the playoffs and had the Red Sox retained their eighth-inning lead, he would have won the MVP of the series. In the last three seasons, he is 10th in fewest hits per nine innings among major league starters, and 16th in strikeouts per nine innings. "He's getting better ever year," says Torre. "I know he drives us crazy."
The White Sox. What we so often forget is that raw numbers like run differential said the White Sox should have won the division last year. Making up for the loss of Bartolo Colon is essential, but Esteban Loaiza has come out throwing his cutter close to the efficiency of '04. Jon Garland and Scott Schoeneweis are off to good starts. GM Ken Williams hopes Schoeneweis, armed with a new cutter and changeup, is this year's Loaiza. They have a lot of thunder, and if the bullpen holds together, what manager Ozzie Guillen has brought is daily energy to a team that in the past was a momentum team.
C.C. Sabathia. He should have won all three of his starts, but is 1-0, 1,71. He has won 44 games, 20 more than Mark Prior who is next on the list of pitchers who have yet to turn 24. The only active pitcher with more wins before his 24th birthday is Greg Maddux -- with 45. Sabathia has almost three months to pass Maddux.
How confused Adam Dunn got last season. Two weeks into the season, Dunn is second to Barry Bonds' OPS. He's going back to using the whole field, waiting on pitchers and becoming the next Jason Giambi as a hitter. Hats off to Reds hitting coach Chris Chambliss, who helped Dunn forget about trying to hit home runs and get back to his natural style.
News and notes
When Omar Minaya signed Livan Hernandez to the three-year, $21 million extension that restructured some of this season's salary and made strides on deals for Orlando Cabrera and Brad Wilkerson, there was speculation that the Expos' GM had a signal from Major League Baseball that a 2005 destination for the club was near. "I haven't been told anything," says Minaya. "I'm just trying to get the club in the best shape I can for the future. Whatever happens, we all want as many of the players tied up as possible." Minaya approached Jose Vidro, but the All-Star second baseman declined, and likely will hit the market this winter. There are a half-dozen teams looking for a second baseman, and Vidro, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were the only middle infielders with five straight complete seasons with an OPS over .800. The final crowd of 8,494 in San Juan is not a good omen.
It's early -- four starts early -- and his spring training was interrupted by the death of his father-in-law and the start of the season was a psychological mess, but Mike Mussina concerns the Yankees. His velocity is down 4-5 mph and his normal command is lost, Again, it's only four starts.
The inferiority obsession of a small group of Red Sox "fans" when it comes to the Yankees hit a new low this weekend when several saw Jeter and A-Rod eating at The Capital Grille on Newbury Street and hurled vocal and demonstrative obscenities at the pair. "No matter," says Rodriguez, "I still love the atmosphere here. Everywhere in this city, people are passionate about baseball. That's why I was so excited about coming here. That and I really hit it off with Theo (Epstein). Too bad it didn't work out, but I am very fortunate to be where I am now." The current ownership's attention to security kept problems in the park at a minimum, and the chants of "you used steroids" with every Jason Giambi at-bat were amusing.
However, while one can debate the rights and wrongs of using supplements that were legal -- from andro to human growth hormones -- there are too many rumors that at least one of the players on the BALCO list did not tell the truth to the grand jury to think this is just going to fade away.
Don't think it hasn't been noticed that White Sox phenom center fielder Jeremy Reed is hitting over .400 at Triple-A Charlotte, after hitting .373 on the way up last year. He could give them some left-handed balance to a right-handed lineup.
Milton Bradley has turned out to be a godsend to the Dodgers, and the fact that he has his family support system there in Los Angeles helps him. Dodgers manager Jim Tracy is also playing Paul Lo Duca in left field and giving him as much rest as possible from behind the plate, as Lo Duca's first-half career average is 59 points higher than the second half, and last season he hit one homer after the All-Star break. Lo Duca tried to address that in the offseason by working with a nutritionist, the result being that he gained 20 pounds while looking as if he lost 10.
Several agents thought Garret Anderson's four-year, $48 million deal was light, but Anderson has never been a money person and wanted to stay with a very successful team where he is the unspoken heart and soul. "That should impact Troy Glaus if he wants to stay there," says one agent. "It also impacts Magglio Ordonez (whom Williams is trying to lock up) and Nomar Garciaparra."
Yes, Mark Bellhorn did reach base 24 times in his first 10 games with the Red Sox.
Speaking of the Red Sox, they hired Bill Haselman as a special assistant to help with scouting, development and other issues until he knows exactly what he wants to do. David McCarty was approached about being the Dodgers' farm director, but plans to keep playing.
The consensus is that the June draft is extraordinarily weak. "Players that were picked in the 30s last year might be in the top 10 this time," says one scouting director. "And what's scary is that there are no position players. Other than (Oklahoma State third baseman) Josh Fields, there isn't a college position player that is a lock for the first round. In fact, B.J. Szymanski (the Princeton center fielder who is an all-Ivy League wide receiver) might be the next college position player chosen. And Matt Bush (Mission Bay, Calif. shortstop) is probably the only surefire high school position player. It's entirely a pitching draft."
Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew went into the year as the highest-rated position player, but his penchant for being out of the lineup -- dating back to the regionals last year against Texas -- have raised a lot of red flags. "Most teams won't touch Drew," says one GM. "He's got the Northern League written all over him."
Arizona State first baseman/outfielder Jeff Larish has been hurt, which has lowered his stock. Jered Weaver of Long Beach State and Justin Verlander of Old Dominion are the consensus 1-2 picks to the Padres and Tigers. The fact that Rice's Jeff Niemann has had some physical problems makes the rest of the top 10 all the more complicated.