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Marlins Prospects - Where will they fit in?

Today is the Marlins first off-day of the season and that means two things: one, the Marlins have an excuse to skip Ismael Valdez for his next turn in the rotation.  That means that Beckett, Burnett, Willis, and the old guy will make their starts with their normal days of rest (and not based on the number of games played).  The off-day also means that we have some time to get into what we hope becomes a season long off-day tradition of discussing the Marlins prospects and how they'll impact the team in the coming years.

First, some resources: Baseball America is always a great resource for prospects.  Here's a link to the Marlins top 10 (based on BA's preseason assessment).  Over at Maverick Ball there's a very thorough depth chart for Marlins at all levels.

How will those prospects make their way to the big leagues?  Well, there are a couple of ways.

First is a way we hope not to see - injuries.  While it worked out very fortuitously for the Marlins in 2003, bringing prospects up to the majors to replace injured players usually represents a downgrade in the short run and limits the prospects development.  Dontrelle Willis (who came up from AA when A.J. Burnett went on the DL in 2003) and Miguel Cabrera (who came up a few weeks later when there was a lineup spot available, are exceptions to the rule.  They came up to the majors a little earlier than the organization would have preferred and they succeeded immediately.  It was a win-win for everyone involved.

If injuries were to force call-ups this season, prospects like Jeremy Hermida (OF), Scott Olsen (P), and Miami native Robert Andino (SS) could probably get the job done.  Ideally though, the Marlins will stay healthy in the majors and these youngsters will continue to develop in the minors.

The other way that these guys will make it to The Show is either by forcing their way into the lineup via their minor league accomplishments and/or holes that open up at the major league level.  A number of holes could open up after this season on the Marlins major league roster as a some high profile players become eligible for free agency.

Should he stay healthy and continue to put up numbers like he did the other night, A.J. Burnett will likely be the most sought after pitcher on the free agent market (particularly with Tim Hudson, Johan Santana, and Ben Sheets inking long term deals recently).  Burnett could command a contract like Carl Pavano did this past offseason - or even a more lucrative one - which would almost definitely price him out of the Marlins budget.  That would open up a spot in the rotation for Scott Olsen.

Both Juans could be gone too as Juan Pierre and Juan Encarnacion are due to be free agents at the conclusion of this season.  My guess is that Pierre will more than likely be back, but he too could be very attractive to a team looking for a leadoff hitter that shows up ready to play everyday and constantly gets on base.  If the team isn't too concerned about defense, Pierre's an even better fit. With Bernie Williams' skills declining and no one in the minors lighting it up, I fear that Pierre could be lured to the Yankees.  While they've already taken Pavano, losing Pierre to the Yanks would be akin to Luke Skywalker going to the Dark Side.

His two grand slams notwithstanding, Encarnacion might be lucky to last through the season as a Marlin.  His departure is almost a certainty - at least at this point, and if Hermida continues to develop he'll fill an opening in the outfield.

The potential free agent that worries me most is Alex Gonzalez.  He's been the Marlins shortstop since the Marlins traded Edgar Renteria to the Cardinals in the post-1997 World Series fire sale and he's something of a fixture in the Marlins lineup.  The issue with Gonzalez is that if he has a year like he's capable of this season, he'll likely price himself out of the Marlins budget - but that could push the Marlins into the playoffs.  If Alex doesn't live up to his abilities this year, the Marlins will definitely be able to afford him, but the question will then be whether or not they want to keep him.  Possibly making the issue more difficult is that Andino could be ready to assume Gonzalez's role.

Aside from the prospects previously mentioned, the Marlins also have a bevy of highly regarded pitching prospects, plus position players like Jason Stokes and perennial prospect Josh Willingham waiting in the wings.  There's plenty of depth throughout the organization and plenty of reason for hope.  Many of these prospects just need some more seasoning and development.

The list of potential free agents is also much longer - including Jeff Conine, Al Leiter, and Ismael Valdez.  Each of those players is very replaceable - either via free agency or prospects.

Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, and Miguel Cabrera will remain under the Marlins control for the 2006 season.  Beckett will be eligible for arbitration finally - and that should prove to be an ugly battle, considering how Josh's contract renewals have typically gone.  Willis and Cabrer will still be subject to the Marlins wishes, as they won't have accumulated enough service time to be eligible for arbitration.  While that's good in the sense that they will very likely be Marlins in 2006, it also increases the chances that ill-will will be created between the player(s) and the club if the Marlins continue to pinch pennies with their younger stars.

Hopefully that covers some of the areas of opportunity for the Marlins young prospects.  Feel free to add your comments and thoughts below.  With the next off day we'll some detailed commentary on what to look for with the likes of Olsen and Hermida.