Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Thursday, April 15, 2004

Defending the Defenders

The reigning NL Rookie of the Year beat the floundering Montreal/San Juan Expos' bats on the mound yesterday, and, in the fifth inning, he beat the Expos with his bat, driving home the same amount of runs with one swing that the Expos have scored since last Friday.

Dontrelle Willis pitched five innings of shut-out ball against a Montreal Expos team that couldn't buy a run. Then, in the fifth inning, already comfortable with a 5-0 lead, Willis got his third hit of the game, his second home run of the season. This one was a three-run shot off Jeremy Fikac. For Willis, this was the 22-year-old's seventh hit in seven at-bats, dating back to last season. He's 1-for-1 shy of the Marlins record, held jointly by Gary Sheffield and Preston Wilson. As an interesting side note, Willis now holds a .313 career batting average; he's 20 for 64.

But for both teams, this was more than just a drubbing and another outstanding pitching performance from the man who many baseball people felt did not deserve last year's Rookie of the Year Award. For both teams, this game epitomized the short season. Starting with the Expos, this game was just another in a long run of offensively offensive offense. (Try that one on for size.) In 8 games this season, the Expos have managed to eke across just 10 runs, and they have a team batting average of just .203. The Expos have been shut out 4 times in these 8 games. As a comparison, the 2003 Detroit Tigers were shut out 17 times over the course of the entire season. As this rate, the Expos would blow past that mark by the middle of May. Of course, it's only April, and it's silly to project season stats based on the first 8 games. But the Expos' offense won't get much better. Carl Everett, the man responsible for one-third of the Expos' home runs and 2 of their 10 RBIs, strained his shoulder today and could miss a considerable amount of time.

No one expected the Expos to be good, not with the off-season losses of Vladimir Guerrero to free agency and Javier Vazquez in a trade to the Yankees. But for Major League Baseball, this pathetic start does nothing to help them in their efforts to move or sell the Expos. While this start does not make this team more desirable in the eyes of any potential suitor, it makes it abundantly clear that the 29 MLB owners and Bud Selig's team over at the Commissioner's Office must do whatever they can to move the Expos to a real, stable market and find a real, stable owner who can invest money in this team. The Expos couldn't even make an offer to Guerrero because they have no real owner, and General Manager Omar Minaya reluctantly traded Vazquez because he knew at the end of this season that Vazquez would be gone because the 29 owners wouldn't be able to cough up the money to invest in one of the best young pitchers in the game.

A real owner — in a real market with a new stadium on the way — would be able to reinvest in this team. They would be able to draw fans and revenue from a huge market such as the Washington, D.C., area. With this stability in place, the Expos would become a viable franchise again. A new owner would reward Frank Robinson and Minaya with the players and development program these two overly-qualified and highly-neglected baseball men deserve. Yet, Major League Baseball continues to delay, and as the Expos lose and don't score any runs, the value of this franchise continues to drop, both to the owners and to the fans. It's time for some meaningful action on the Montreal front.

On the other side, Wednesday's game represents all that is right with the Marlins, and absolutely nothing could be better for the vibrant Florida Marlins than this opening 7-1 run. The Marlins currently enjoy the best record in the Majors, and the biggest first-place lead of any team. They have a 3-game lead over both the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets. These Marlins were picked by some people to finish fourth or even fifth in the league. The Marlins were supposed to have lost too much talent over the off-season, even if that talented consisted merely of an often-injured catcher, an somewhat unreliable closer who had a strong finish, and an All Star first baseman.

But baseball writers focused more on what the Marlins lost than on what they kept. They still have arguably the top offensive third baseman in the National League in Mike Lowell. (Check out Jon's post from Monday for a look at Lowell's and Morgan Ensberg's offense.) But more importantly, they have Miguel Cabrera the entire season this year. Apparently, Cabrera doesn't understand the idea of a sophomore slump. Or maybe he really is just this good. After Wednesday's game, Cabrera is hitting .387 with 6 home runs. Cabrera, who turns 21 years old has now homered in 4 consecutive games and is quickly becoming a leader of the Marlins' offense. The team now is hitting .302 overall this season, but they've only scored 35 runs in their 7 victories and 1 loss. And that's why this team is more than just the best 21-year-old out there.

What the baseball analysts failed to include in their assessments of the Marlins was the team's pitching. As I've said before, the Marlins have one of the best young rotations in the Major Leagues, and as long as their pitchers are healthy, it's impossible to discount this team. Willis is already 2-0 this season with a 0.00 ERA. In 12.2 innings, he's given up 9 hits and has struck out 12. And the catch is that Willis is not even the best starter on this team.

World Series MVP Josh Beckett this year has silenced all the critics so far. Everyone cited his 17-17 regular season record and his history of injuries. But in two starts, Beckett is 1-0 with a 0.64 ERA. He has surrendered a grand total of 6 hits in 14 innings while striking out 20. Opponents are hitting .125 against Josh. Compared to Willis, Josh at 23 is an old man, but Roger Clemens is old enough to be Beckett's father. Unless a bad arm injury comes along, Beckett is set for a fine career. While some people will say that it's inevitable these days for a young pitcher to get injured, especially after Beckett's workhouse-like nature in the playoffs last October, I think otherwise. Beckett models himself off of his idol, the Rocket, and Clemens has never suffered a debilitating arm injury. There's no reason to think Beckett will one day face surgery; he's just not that kind of pitcher.

Rounding out the rotation are Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and Darren Oliver, for now. A.J. Burnett will eventually rejoin this team, but even without Burnett, the top starters are a formidable foresome. These guys are young, and they're not afraid to pitch. Just look at the success they all enjoyed at Yankee Stadium during the World Series. It truly was the world's biggest stage, and the team with the least experience came out on top in a very convincing fashion. So far, this year, the team's pitching has picked up where it left off. The Marlins, in 8 games, have given up 13 runs. That's it; just 13. No team in the American League has given up fewer than 29 runs, and the Reds have surrendered 18 runs in 7 games. For comparison's sake, the league's worst pitching team, the Cardinals, have given up 69 runs in 10 games. The Cards are pitching to an ERA of 6.90 while the Marlins are throwing blanks. Their team ERA is 1.63. Pitching truly does win games, championships and fans.

So then, if this losing is bad for the Expos, the winning — and with young players to boot — is great for the Marlins. Florida's ownership is currently waiting for the city of Miami to decide on the fate of a proposed new stadium planned for the downtown area. The team may have to give up the Florida moniker to become the Miami Marlins. But that's the least of their worries. The State of Florida is not too keen to help the Marlins out financially in their efforts to secure $325 million for a retractable roof stadium in Miami-Dade County. The Marlins' ownership says they need the promise of a new stadium by May 1 to remain financially viable in the upcoming seasons, but it's becoming more and more unlikely that this deadline will be met. There may be a state-wide vote on certain tax matters relating to the stadium, but in the end, the Marlins still need to find a way to get money for the stadium.

The best thing for this team, then, is to keep on winning. As long as they win, they'll keep up the interest of the millions of potential fans in South Florida. If interest is up, attendance is up, and if attendance is up, it's more likely for the fans to support money for a new stadium. I've seen Pro Player Stadium. It's a non-descript, enclosed football stadium located well outside the city. The Marlins need a domed stadium to guard against the constant summer rains, and they need a better located stadium. If the Marlins show they're for real — and a 7-1 start certainly is a big step — Floridians might just be willing to show the Marlins that they too are for real and that a nice, state-of-the-art stadium is for real as well.

On the surface, the pressure may be on Dontrelle to pick up that hit in the next at-bat. But for now, the Marlins no longer need to prove themselves to the baseball analysts. They were ignored World Champions who were supposed to be a flash in the pan team. But in the early going, they've set their reputation, and opposing hitters know it's not a walk in the park to face this team’s young arms. As the rest of the NL East is mired in mediocrity or worse, the Marlins could turn this early start into a runaway season. In the end, nothing could be better for the long-term success of this young and exciting franchise than their first place finish in the history of the franchise. Who knows? Maybe they'll even get another one of these fancy-looking, expensive rings at the end of the season.

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