Friday, September 12, 2008

Scouting Report: Nationals at Marlins (9/12)

The team I love to hate as much as any in our division because of the role owner Jeffrey Loria played in the dismantling of the Montreal/Washington franchise remains the prime example of the "build up and tear down" method of team-building.

Through savvy trades, drafting, player development, and at least in 1997 a willingness to go for broke in free agency when the time comes, combined with an unblinking refusal to pay to keep their own star players (Hanley Ramirez excepted), they've won two World Series in their first 15 years and remain competitive this season, despite unloading two of their most recognizable stars, Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, on Detroit. There are lots of teams that have won with almost entirely home-grown players and without playing in big time free agency (A's, Indians, Twins), but there are very few who have done it without keeping virtually any of their best players long-term.

Here's my take on game one of the Marlins-Nationals weekender in Miami.

When the Marlins Are Up
--The Marlins have potent offense because they get more out of the premium defensive positions of 2B and SS than anyone in baseball, with Hanley "Manny Fears Me" Ramirez and Dan "Even His Momma Says He's" Uggla. Both of them work deep in counts, take a lot of walks, and hit for power. Ramirez, with ARod and few others, is in the conversation for the best player in baseball.

--Jorge Cantu doesn't walk or get on base much but has hit the ball over the fence 24 times this year. I don't expect that to happen again, but it's been a nice comeback year for him.

--Cody Ross has broken out in his age 27 season with 21 homers and 26 doubles. He's just keeping CF warm for Cameron Maybin, but this guy, who had gone from prospect to journeyman, has probably earned himself a starting job somewhere else when the Marlins give the job to the kid.

--Mike Jacobs, the former Met who came over in the Carlos Delgado deal, is also having a career year, as his power has finally emerged at the big league level. He's clubbed 32 homers, although he's also sporting a terrible .293 OBP, which is mainly because he walks so rarely (6.8%) but also partly the result of a miserable .258 BABIP. If his luck evens out he could take another step next year. Or if pitchers take advantage of his aggressiveness and inability to work hitters counts, the power could fall back.

--Jeremy Hermida has been a disappointment. After going .339 / .403 / .559 last year from July 1 on, he's regressed to .248 / .322 / .406 this year. If he'd taken the step they'd hoped, the Marlins would be even more in the thick of things in the NL East.

--"I Do Like" Josh Willingham "Sam I Am" isn't the bopper that you want out of a corner outfield slot, but he's ok and the Marlins can live with it because of what they get from Ramirez and Uggla.

--Catcher has been a gaping hole. Going into the season, they made the dubious decision to platoon Mike Rabelo, who came over from the Tigers, with Matt Treanor (aka Misty May's hubby). Treanor (.231 / .299 / .296) has given them significantly sub-replacement level offense, Rabelo was even worse (.202 / .256 / .294) before getting hurt. Enter some 27-year-old named John Baker (sounds like a made-up name to me), who has gotten most of the playing time recently and is doing darn well (.290 / .376 / .455), though it won't continue. Oh yeah, and Paul Lo Duca's on the bench, unable to start in this pitiful group.

Pitching Match-Up
Scott Olsen: The Crystal Lake South High alum (not too far from where I grew up--think John Hughes-style tony Chicago suburbs, except a teeny bit more rural exurban but no less rich) has been in physical fights during and before games with teammates Randy Messenger, Sergio Mitre, and Miguel Cabrera. The first of those fights memorably left him making a start with a big ol' shiner. He was suspended last year for undisclosed "insubordination." He flipped the bird to the nice people of Milwaukee after a rough outing in Miller Park. And last July he was arrested for driving drunk, then fought with the cops and got himself tasered. Of course, he made his next start less than a week later. The extra electricity in that arm didn't keep him from giving up seven runs in five innings. However, Olsen's really had no serious run-ins since last July. I guess those anger management instructors really earn their keep.

(Quick quiz: what do these things have in common: punching teammates, drunk-driving, getting tasered, and growing up in a superrich privledged, wealthy suburb? They're all things Elijah Dukes has never done!)

To the matter of Olsen the pitcher: he's a 6'5", rail-thin lefty. His best pitch is a slider, and his other pitches are a high-80s fastball and a change-up. In 2006, he came up in June and posted an excellent 8.27 K/9 rate and looked like a real stud. Since then, his reputation is the only thing that's suffered more than that K rate, which is down to 4.86 this year. He's walking 3.14 per 9, and his flyball rate has also jumped from 37% two years ago to 44.1%. In short, even discarding his personal issues, he doesn't look like half the pitcher he did as of July 2006.

All that said, he has a 4.41 ERA and is on track to pitch about 200 innings, which ain't nothing to sneeze at. He's floating a bit on a .266 BABIP (typically this number is around .290 and is largely a function of defense and luck). His Fielding Independent ERA (which attempts to figure what a pitcher's ERA would be if luck and defense were out of the equation) is over 5.

And over his last six starts he's really faded, posting a 6.56 ERA in his last six starts. His innings count isn't any higher than what he's done the last two years, so he shouldn't be out of gas.

Finally, Olsen is a candidate to get non-tendered this off-season, which would make him a free agent. I know a certain GM who has a fancy for troubled athletes and needs a couple SPs... and should have no interest in my former school-district-mate.

Shairon Martis: In his first start, the 21-year-old Martis showed the wildness that has been his bugaboo. Using all four pitches--fastball at 90-91, slider, curve, change--he threw 46 balls and 46 strikes while walking 5. He also showed his flyball tendencies, with 8 balls in play hit in the air against just 5 on the ground. The Braves were unable to capitalize, getting just one extra-base hit, a one-out, bases-empty triple by Kelly Johnson. It was a successful debut for exactly the reason Manny said--he didn't embarrass himself.

Expect the Marlins, who are third in the league in homers, to turn some of those LOBs into 3-run jobs if Martis doesn't pitch much better. On the other hand, the Marlins have lot of hackers, so if they bail him out by waving at bad pitches for a few innings, Martis could survive 4-5 innings.

I wonder if St. Claire shouldn't consider simplifying Martis's repertoire for a start or two.

Fearless Prediction
(Season record: 26-15)
This is a tough one to predict. I don't expect either Martis or Olsen to fare very well. It'll be a match-up of bullpens with two teams breaking in new, unproven closers (fire-balling Matt Lindstrom and Hanrahan) and lots of unsettled roles in middle relief. I'll go with the superior firepower in the Marlins' lineup to win a slugfest 14-10.

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