By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
On Wednesday, Sept. 14, the Florida Marlins and their fans woke up in wonderful spirits. Josh Beckett's 4-2 win over Houston the night before -- highlighted by home runs from Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca -- gave the 78-67 Marlins a full-game lead over the Phillies in the National League wild-card race, with three weeks to go and a favorable schedule pointing directly toward the playoffs. "It's exciting," Delgado bubbled to the Miami Herald. "Just because you know you're playing meaningful games."
That day seems so distant, you'd think Chuckie Carr had been leading off. The Marlins immediately imploded, losing 12 of 14 games and becoming a postseason also-ran. But even that was better than what followed: After local authorities denied public funding for a baseball-only stadium, the club hocked all its assets like Lenny Dykstra after a bad night in A.C.
Before fans knew it, the three players most responsible for that hope-rousing win back in September -- Beckett, Delgado and Lo Duca -- were shipped off for prospects. Second baseman Luis Castillo, center fielder Juan Pierre, third baseman Mike Lowell and reliever Guillermo Mota were also dumped for young players. The team made less of an effort to keep A.J. Burnett than the French did Louisiana. Heck, for another Double-A arm, Billy the Marlin would be fishing with the Mariner Moose.
The result? Just three regular-season weeks after playing those meaningful games in Florida, the only meaningful games Delgado & Friends will play in 2006 are for other clubs. And the unluckies still coughing through the smoldering ruins that are the Florida Marlins have one very long year awaiting them.
Will they lose 100 games? Maybe 105? Could they approach the sickening 108 defeats that the club endured after its 1997 championship, the season that led Jim Leyland to break the Guinness record by smoking 74 cigarettes at one time? When you enter a season with your fans hoping just to finish with fewer drubbings than the Kansas City Royals, you're not in limbo, but playing it.
To be fair, baseball's build-and-burn economics forced Florida to stockpile prospects for the 2007 and '08 seasons, leaving this upcoming year all but a 162-game tryout camp. After picking at the Marlins' bones like alley cats for two months, general managers can't help but join the rest of baseball in wondering just how bad this will be.
"They have some talent but it's going to be a very difficult situation for them," said Phillies general manager Pat Gillick. "They'll be frustrated because of the losing in the short term. But in a couple of years they'll be OK. I'll tell you what -- I wish I had some of the players they have over there."
Sure enough, the Marlins do boast two of the most coveted commodities in baseball -- a 22-year-old masher who hit .323-33-116 last year (Miguel Cabrera), and a 24-year-old lefty coming off 22 wins and a 2.63 ERA (Dontrelle Willis). And their rookie right fielder, Jeremy Hermida, is not just one of the best hitting prospects in baseball but has already acclimated himself to the big leagues, batting .293 with discipline (.383 on-base percentage) and power (.634 slugging) in his 23-game trial last September. (His grand slam in his first big-league at-bat was trivia; the rest was pure talent.)
But these guys are about to feel like Leo DiCaprio on "Growing Pains." Panning the field, it's hard to imagine more than middling contributions from everyone else in teal.
First baseman Mike Jacobs, acquired from the Mets for Delgado, has promising left-handed power -- he hit .310 with 11 homers in 30 games after getting called up -- but could just as easily be the next Kevin Maas. He will be flanked by veteran second baseman Pokey Reese, who hit .215 and .221 in 2003 and 2004, then became far more valuable by spending all of last season on the Mariners' disabled list. (Second could otherwise be manned by Rule 5 draft pick Dan Uggla. Insert joke here.) At shortstop will probably be Hanley Ramirez, a top switch-hitting prospect acquired from Boston, but the 22-year-old still could be overmatched in jumping from Double-A.
Third base is cloudier than Nick and Jessica's prenup. With Lowell gone, Cabrera could finally return to his natural and preferred position, but because the Marlins have no left fielder to speak of, he could be grudgingly sent out there again. (According to sources close to the Marlins, Cabrera is already peeved that the club didn't hire a Latin-American manager or coach; given that he's now the team's best player and will be looked up to by young Latin players such as Ramirez, this gets even more complicated for new manager Joe Girardi.) If Cabrera does not play third, look out for Wes Helms -- particularly if you sit behind first base.
Making a trade for a center fielder (say, Tampa Bay's Joey Gathright) would solve several issues, the first being that convention mandates you have one. Chris Aguila is more of a reserve type and Eric Reed, trying to prove his worthiness, had a poor winter-ball season. If offense-oriented Josh Willingham proves not to have the skills to catch ahead of Miguel Olivo, which most scouts expect, he could be tried in left field, if only to make Cabrera less unhappy.
As for the rotation, Willis will feel even more marooned than Cabrera. Veteran righty Brian Moehler (6-12, 4.55 in cavernous Dolphins Stadium) rarely falls down on the mound, earning him the No. 2 spot. Following him could be youngsters Sergio Mitre (2-5, 5.37), a former Cubs prospect whose shutout last June came against -- yep -- the Marlins, and Jason Vargas (5-5, 4.03), a homegrown lefty who shot through the minors.
A slew of other promising young arms will be in the mix: Primarily holdovers Scott Olsen and Josh Johnson, and recently acquired prospects Anibal Sanchez (from the Red Sox) and Yusmeiro Petit (Mets). Particularly the last two need more seasoning, but could be forced into duty. Any ninth-inning leads will be entrusted to Joe Borowski or, perhaps, prospect Travis Bowyer.
With the farm system bursting with arms just one or two years away, don't be surprised if one of the starters gets traded for a center fielder. Not exactly a win-now philosophy -- more like a don't-lose-120 philosophy -- but perhaps the best way for Florida to remain remotely major league for 2006. After that, hope for '07 and beyond is actually legitimate, with the talent assembled and this year's payroll savings (precious few players will make more than $500,000).
"My thought is if you're going to go young, go all young," Girardi said at the Winter Meetings in December. "They can grow together, learn to rely on each other, be accountable. And the competition is good. The competition for the spots is healthy.
"A big part of my job is making sure that these guys understand that they belong in the big leagues and they can do it. That's going to be my message -- that just because you're young doesn't mean you can't play."
Play and win are two different things, of course. Even the previous blown-up Marlins of 1998 (with young talents such as Derrek Lee, Edgar Renteria, Cliff Floyd, Mark Kotsay, Livan Hernandez and Matt Mantei) lost 108. About the only thing keeping baseball onlookers from predicting the same for this year's group is respect for general manager Larry Beinfest, whose proven astuteness suggests a coherent plan here.
It's hard to know what they'll be saying about these Marlins after 2006. But we can probably guess what the Marlins will be saying come June 2007.
"With the first pick in the 2007 amateur draft, the Florida Marlins select ... "