Jack McKeon, left, and Larry Beinfest worked miracles for the Marlins last year.
They took their world championship team and allowed Pudge Rodriguez, Juan Encarnacion and Urbina to move on to balance the payroll. The Marlins signed Armando Benitez and traded Derrek Lee's salary for Hee Seop Choi's promise. And last week, when they realized they needed a catcher, a setup man for Benitez and some additional sock, they moved Choi, Brad Penny and Billy Murphy -- the left-hander they got from Oakland for Mark Redman -- for Paul Lo Duca, Encarnacion and Guillermo Mota.
So, if Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Dontrelle Willis pitch to their potential, as Carl Pavano has, the Marlins have every expectation of being back in the October high life. All of which is a tribute to Larry Beinfest, the quiet, cerebral general manager who has earned himself the respect as one of the brightest and most aggressive executives in the business. "As the deadline approached Larry was in the middle of the majority of trades out there," says one AL GM. "What makes him so good to deal with is that he is direct, honest and not afraid to trade talent to get what he wants." In the Larry Walker case, the money just didn't fit, even if they kept trying right up to Saturday noon.
But there are some huge "ifs" with the Marlins. To begin, just how good is that rotation? Pavano has matured into a frontline, reliable starter. Entering Thursday's start, he's 11-4 with a 3.06 ERA and is sixth in the National League in quality-start percentage (75). Dontrelle Willis had a 3.93 ERA and had quality starts in half his outings; he, incidentally, is the only one of the Big Four with a career winning record. Because injuries that have stalled their careers, Burnett (2-5, 4.46 this season with 58.0 quality-start percentage and a 32-37 career record) and Beckett (4-7, 4.54, 36.0 quality-start percentage, 21-24 lifetime) are hopes and promises.
And to make things more cloudy, there is the issue of Benitez's elbow.
But even if they don't win, it would have been a grave mistake not to try.
Keep an eye on ...
One thing you can bet on: Justin Jones will turn out to be a good pitcher. Justin Jones? He's the left-hander acquired by the Twins for Doug Mientkiewicz via the Cubs organization. Like Johan Santana, Kyle Lohse, David Arias Ortiz, Joe Mays, Jason Bartlett, Nick Punto, Lew Ford and so many other players the Twins flushed out of other organizations, Jones was earmarked by Terry Ryan and his people. "What's amazing about the Twins is that they always ask for the right people," says one GM. Hence they passed on trading outfielder Jason Kubel for Kris Benson, which tells us that Kubel is going to be as good a player as his minor league statistics say he will be. It should be noted that there are those involved in the four-way deal that felt that the Twins were shortchanged, and that the Cubs, Red Sox or Expos owe them another player.
Minnesota's organization is so good that they can move Mientkiewicz and have Justin Morneau ready to step in. They can bring reliever Jesse Crain out of their system and plop him into their bullpen. And if anything happens to any of their outfielders, Kubel can continue his meteoric rise through the organization right into the BaggyDome.
There may be several waiver deals in August, but just as important are players coming out of the minors into pennant races, the way Brendan Donnelly and Francisco Rodriguez changed the Angels in 2002, Miguel Cabrera sparked the Marlins and Rich Harden stepped into the Oakland rotation last summer.
Some to watch:
Merkin Valdez, RHP, Giants. Unable to deal for Urbina or any experienced reliever, San Francisco stuck the fire-balling Valdez, whom they acquired from the Braves in the Russ Ortiz trade, in the bullpen in Double-A and now have brought him up to the majors.
Yhency Brazoban, RHP, Dodgers. Acquired by Dan Evans from the Yankees last summer, Brazoban shot through the minors and had a 17-1 strikeout-walk ratio in Las Vegas. He throws a consistent 94-97 mph.
Jose Capellan, RHP, Atlanta. The Braves started him out in the Sally League to get him innings and worked on all his pitches, but the monster with the 98 mph fastball and hard slider could end up being fitted into the Braves' bullpen in lieu of Antonio Alfonseca down the stretch. Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone are masters of breaking in young pitchers, and the easiest position for a young player to make an impact is in middle relief.
Jairo Garcia, RHP, Oakland. The A's thought Joe Blanton would be ready to step into their rotation by this time, but Blanton has struggled. Meanwhile Garcia, whom the Royals tried to get in the three-way Carlos Belltran trade, has risen from the Midwest League to Texas League on to Sacramento. Don't be surprised if he's in the 'pen come Labor Day.
Joe Borchard, OF, White Sox. Some feel his swing is too long, but he is an extraordinary athlete who Ken Williams says will produce when he relaxes and adjusts from his football to baseball mentality.
Grady Sizemore, OF, Indians. Cleveland weaves the future in with the present with a special player.
News and notes
The way the Yankees view their Jose Contreras-Esteban Loaiza deal is simple: if Loaiza regains his command and his cutter, fine, they have a candidate to compete with Jon Lieber and Orlando Hernandez for the fourth starter spot in the postseason rotation. If not, they saved $12 million off Contreras' contract. "That's cash we can use next year in the free agent market," says Brian Cashman.
The Red Sox ended up with Dave Roberts to fill their outfield void caused by the lingering quad problems of Trot Nixon, but near then end of the week had a deal in place that would have brought them Eric Valent from the Mets for minor league starter Beau Vaughn. Problem is, Valent hit for the cycle Thursday and the Mets reneged on the deal.
When the Red Sox were in Minnesota last weekend, Manny Ramirez went into Terry Francona's office and suggested that the club was "(expletive) around too much." Francona agreed, Manny went down to first in 4.2 second in every at-bat for the weekend and made a spectacular catch Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
Now that the Cubs are bringing up Ryan Dempster into their bullpen and Lieber has been a regular starter for the Yankees, one AL GM says, "I think more and more teams will carefully examine the viability of signing pitchers with arm problems. Medical science is so advanced today, it's worth signing a Dempster or Lieber under value and accepting the rehab time and costs."