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Five Questions With The Fish

When I first mentioned the idea of this to Mike of FishStripes, the upcoming Cubs/Marlins series loomed a lot larger with playoff hope than it does now.

Nevertheless, we decided to exchange Five Questions about the Marlins and Cubs; first, my questions for Mike about the Marlins and his answers:

Q: Apart from Miguel Cabrera, who is the Most Valuable Marlin this year and why?

A: Two names immediately come to mind: Dontrelle Willis and Todd Jones. The Marlins have been carried by pitching this season. Expectations were high coming into the year for Josh Beckett to A.J. Burnett. I think it's fair to say that they've (at best) lived up to expectations.

However, there were questions surrounding Dontrelle Willis coming into the year. He started the season as the team's 4th starter (really - it's true), behind Beckett, Burnett, and Al Leiter. Willis had a spectacular first half, and then we started to worry that Willis would fade in the second half like he did in 2003 and 2004. There have been some bumps in the road, but Willis has been pretty solid throughout the year.

Without Todd Jones, I'm afraid to think of where the Marlins would be right now. There's no stability in the Marlins bullpen, but that's often quickly overlooked because the starters (three or four of them at least) have been so good. Jones has really held everything together though ( 1.13 ERA on the year, 0.92 WHIP; 0.00 ERA in August; 0.51 ERA since the break). Jones was supposed to be a middle reliever/set up guy this year, but when Guillermo Mota struggled and went on the DL earlier, Jones assumed the role of closer.

As much as Willis has been great for the Fish this year, I'd have to give the MVP nod to Jones. Without Jones in the bullpen, the Marlins would not be in contention for the Wild Card right now.

Q: Will Jack McKeon return next year as manager? If not, who's going to take over? Who would YOU want to take over?

A: Jack will not be back next year. That's not official, but I just can't imagine he's up for another year. There was talk earlier in the season (when the Marlins were struggling a little more than they are right now) that Jack wouldn't make it through this season and that his style wasn't working with the Marlins anymore. It turns out that Al Leiter (most likely) was the one complaining to the media about Jack.

Still, Jack seems to have lost it. He's always been unconventional, and in 2003 those moves seemed to work (odd pitching changes, random lineup moves, etc.). But this year it seems to have gone beyond just unconventional (calling Jeff Conine "Steve", referring to Dontrelle Willis as the "A-Train", and not knowing Matt Perisho's name when he called him in to notify him that he'd been DFA'd).

In terms of a replacement, that's tough. I don't think anyone realized it at the time, but losing Ozzie Guillen after the 2003 season was a big loss for the Fish. Ozzie related well to the players (as he was fairly close to their age) and he's bilingual. The Marlins current staff is very old and seems to struggle with English at times (ok, maybe that's just Jack).

While he doesn't fit the requirements I just laid out, I'd like to see the Marlins bring Jim Leyland back. Leyland had success with the Marlins before (managing the 1997 team) and he seems hungry to get back into the game. If they bring Leyland on, I'd like to see someone like Lenny Harris (assuming he retires), Andre Dawson (a member of the front office), or Joey Cora added to the coaching staff.

Q: How does Lenny Harris keep doing it, pinch-hitting as well as he is now, two years after the Cubs released him because he was horrible? What's his secret?

A: I wish I had the answer to this. It just doesn't make any sense. The only thing that I can think of is that it's the environment. That's not a knock on the Cubs or any other organization. But Lenny clearly has a role with the Marlins. He's the pinch hitter and he's also a leader in the clubhouse. Most of the guys that the Marlins depend on are very young. Guys like Beckett, Willis, and Cabrera are established, but they're also under 25. Harris seems to be enjoying the role as a clubhouse leader. My guess is that's made him happier and more productive.

Q: Will the Marlins break the bank to keep A. J. Burnett next year? Or are they willing to let him go? If so, do they have a hot prospect to replace him?

A: A.J. is as good as gone. There was allegedly an offer on the table during the spring worth about $24 million for 4 years. A.J. refused that and I doubt the Marlins will come up with more. The word down here is that A.J.'s wife is from the Baltimore area and that she'd like to move the family up there.

Next year's rotation will include Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, and Jason Vargas. They'll likely add either Scott Olsen (a lifelong Cubs fan) and/or Josh Johnson to the rotation as well. Olsen was brought up earlier in the year and pitched well. Johnson hasn't reached the majors yet, but he's about as highly regarded as Olsen and Vargas, so hopes are high that there are more young starters waiting for the Marlins in the minors. Behind them, there are about a half dozen other prospects who will likely become solid major leaguers, but won't likely become number one or two starters.

The fifth starter next year will probably be Brian Moehler (if he can be had at a reasonable price and if his recent struggles aren't a long term thing) or Ismael Valdez.

Q: Will the Marlins get their new stadium approved? And if not, will they have to move out of south Florida, or even be a contraction candidate after 2007?

A: Unless someone comes up with a donation of land (not the crazy Palm Beach idea that Don King suggested) or coughs up a serious chunk of money, the stadium isn't going to happen down here. There isn't public support for it and there isn't enough money to come from the various government areas.

Since it looks like the NFL isn't going to turn Dolphins Stadium (the current name of the Marlins ballpark) into a permanent or semi-permanent home of the Super Bowl (as Wayne Huizenga - former Marlins owner, current Dolphins owner, and current Dolphins Stadium owner - had hoped), my guess is that the stadium folks will be more flexible about working something out with the Marlins. They're not going to want to lose a tenant for 81 days per year. There just isn't anything in South Florida to replace that business.

Much of the problem now is that the lease agreement between the Marlins and the stadium is horrible. Both sides argue that it's a bad proposition for them. But this deal was negotiated two ownerships ago, when the team was desperate to secure something of a future in Miami and when Huizenga and team was bent on squeezing as much as they could from the team. If both parties can be reasonable with each other, the Marlins may be able to stay in Dolphins Stadium on a more permanent basis.

That's not ideal, but it keeps the team in South Florida.

I just don't see the team as relocating anywhere. Where would they go? It took years to get the Expos relocated to D.C. And when that happened it didn't seem like Vegas, Portland, or anywhere finished in a desirable second place.

Contraction is another issue. Since the Twins are closer to getting a new stadium than the Marlins, I guess you'd have to put the Marlins up towards the top of the list if that sort of talk ever becomes reality again.

Here are Mike's questions to me and my responses, many of which we have debated here amongst ourselves:

Q: Lately it seems like Dusty could be on his way out. Do you think he'll be the Cubs manager next season? If not, what needs to happen to save his job/keep him in Chicago?

A: Dusty Baker is absolutely, positively going to be the Cubs manager in 2006. He's under contract, and despite a loud chorus of Cub fans calling for his head, Jim Hendry isn't going to cut him loose before the end of his deal; if he did, that'd be two high-profile managers in the last five years (Don Baylor as well) that the Cubs would eat a million-dollar-plus year or more of a contract. It simply won't happen.

Baker's strengths and weaknesses are well known. Hendry didn't prepare a very good roster for Baker to use this year, partly because of the Sammy Sosa Circus, partly due to injuries and the failure to recognize that LaTroy Hawkins was not a closer. This cost the Cubs at least four games before they finally installed Ryan Dempster as closer, and he has done a good job.

Q: Who's next year's opening day shortstop for the Cubs - Nomar, Neifi, or someone else?

A: I'd pick Nomar. He could be the on-field leader that the Cubs have been looking for since Damian Miller and Eric Karros left after 2003; he's just been hurt too much. I'd offer him a incentive-laden contract with option years; that way, if he makes his incentives (at-bats, games played, etc.) he gets his money, if not, you cut him loose after one more year. He and Mia Hamm are building a house in the Chicago area; they like it here, and I know he wants to stay.

Neifi Perez is a useful utility player, but starting him every day for an extended period is a recipe for failure.

Could they go after free agent Rafael Furcal? Maybe, but I think he's so valuable to the Braves that they'll re-sign him. I like Nomar, and I'd like to see him for just one full season, at least, to see what he can do. He is only two years removed from a .301, 120 run, 28 HR, 105 RBI season.

Q: I'm sure we have a different take on the 2003 NLCS. Who or what do you fault for the Cubs losing that series (or do you think it was more a matter of the Marlins coming back to win the series)? What was the most painful end to a season in your memory?

A: Well, that had to be it, in terms of pain. Five outs away and rolling along. I do not blame Bartman; that was only a potential trigger. The key to game six was Alex Gonzalez (our guy, not yours) booting a sure inning-ending DP ball, which would have gotten the Cubs to the ninth leading 3-1. It hurts. A lot.

One of the other keys to that series was not going in for the kill in game 5. Beckett was lights-out, when the Cubs had the Marlins on the ropes and could have won it in Miami.

That said, I give credit to the Marlins for winning; it wasn't just the Cubs losing. They took advantage of every opportunity that was given to them, and that's what winning teams do.

You'll forgive me if I don't say too much more. Two years later, it still hurts. A lot.

Q: If the Cubs don't make the post-season, will you be cheering for the White Sox?

Hoo boy, another tough one. I am watching the White Sox with bemusement right now as they are not winning, and looking bad doing it. If they back into the playoffs (similar to the way they did in 2000, when they had a mediocre second half after breezing through the first half), they could go three-and-out, particularly if they play the A's. Oakland has their number and they know it.

Will I "root" for them? No. I think fan allegiance is to one team only, and mine's to the Cubs. I suppose if they win, it's "good" in some way for the city of Chicago.

Don't even think of asking what I'd do if there's a White Sox/Cardinals World Series. Maybe watch "Entourage".

Q: What does the future hold for Kerry Wood?

A: Here's what someone in Cub management has to do with Kerry: sit him down and explain how Dennis Eckersley was converted to closer in mid-career and rode it all the way to the Hall of Fame. Or how John Smoltz, beset with injury problems, spent 3 1/2 years as a closer, was lights-out, made a ton of money, and then when his arm was totally sound again, returned to the rotation.

Wood has been terrific -- a couple of damaging homers notwithstanding -- in relief. He consistently throws 97, 98 MPH and has a devastating 88 MPH slider that no one can touch. Throwing one inning at a time saves wear and tear on his elbow.

I'd install him at closer and re-sign Dempster to be his primary setup man. That solidifies the bullpen, although it also means you have to go out and find a quality starting pitcher. But the Cubs have had so many bullpen woes over the last decade -- you have to go back to Randy Myers to find someone who closed successfully for the Cubs for more than one season in recent years -- that when a solution like this presents itself, I believe you take it. I'd much rather see Wood closing, than hear for the umpteenth time that he's got a "twinge" in his elbow and has to spend another month or two on the DL.