Know What You’re Walking Into with the Marlins

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I had thought that the Marlins truly intended to alter their hardline, organizationally advantageous strategies now that they finally have a new ballpark, but the revelation that the biggest holdup in a deal with Mark Buehrle and presumably other “name” free agents is that the team is steadfastly refusing to give out no-trade clauses, I’m not sure.

Are the conspiracy theorists and naysayers right as they scoff at the Marlins’ excessive display in hosting Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols? Were the welcoming committees and promises little more than a publicity stunt in the hopes that the markets for those players would crash and allow the Marlins to acquire them for team-friendly terms without a no-trade clause?

In a separate issue, the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the aforementioned new ballpark and its financing. You can read about that here in the Miami Herald.

All of this is lending credence to the possibility that any major payroll increase is going to be accompanied by a “wait-and-see” approach. Sans the new park, the situation is eerily similar to former owner Wayne Huizenga’s spending spree in 1996-1997. During that off-season, the Marlins signed Bobby Bonilla, Alex Fernandez, Moises Alou and manager Jim Leyland; during the 1997 season, they were right in the middle of the pennant race when attendance figures weren’t what Huizenga expected; with no new ballpark on the horizon, he decided to sell the team.

Following their World Series win in that year, they dumped all their big contracts in trades and lost 100 games in 1998.

Even with the new ballpark opening, the foundation is there to repeat that strategy.

What happens if the Marlins sign or acquire 2-3 more recognizable players to join Heath Bell (with whom the Marlins agreed on a contract yesterday), they’re in contention and the fans still don’t show up? Will Jeffrey Loria use the star players to have another clearance and reference floating and questionable “facts” as to his finances and employ verbal sleight-of-hand to justify it?

This is not an organization with a history of telling the truth. They’re ruthless and self-interested and have been successful under a strict and limited payroll mandated by ownership. Everyone from Loria to team president David Samson on down through the baseball department with Larry Beinfest, Michael Hill and Dan Jennings toes to the company line and closes ranks when necessary.

If the business will continue to be run like a glossy sweatshop with the brutal and greedy owner calling the shots, Reyes and others had better be aware that if they don’t get that no-trade clause they might sign with the Marlins, play in Florida for a year and find themselves traded to Oakland, Seattle or some other far off West Coast team that they specifically avoided because they wanted to stay in the warmer weather, closer to the East or were hoping the absence of a state income tax in Florida would allow them to bring home more of their paychecks.

All those who are considering doing business with the Marlins—especially Reyes—had better walk into the situation with their eyes open. Obviously he’d be leaving a dysfunctional and cloudy mess with the Mets, but if it’s between the the Marlins and Mets, isn’t it better to be with the devil you know instead of the one you don’t?

Knowing.

That’s the key word.

Anyone preparing to do business with the Marlins had better know the possibilities before thinking they’ve found a home in Miami.

It might be for a shorter than expected stay. Much shorter.

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The Marlins Sign a Name—Heath Bell

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If any team exemplifies the ability to find someone (anyone) to accumulate the save stat and do a reasonable job as the closer it’s the Florida Marlins.

The Marlins signed Heath Bell to a 3-year, $27 million deal with a vesting option for a fourth year at $9 million; this is more about getting a “name” and “personality” to drum up fan interest than acquiring someone whom they can trust as their ninth inning man for a club that clearly has designs on contending.

To be clearer, the Marlins have an intent on looking like they’re trying to contend.

So it was that they made offers to Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes and made a great show in hosting C.J. Wilson.

What the offers were and whether they’re truly competitive enough to snag any of those players is a matter of leaks, ignorant guesswork and storytelling.

The Marlins traded for a feisty and successful “name” manager as well when they acquired Ozzie Guillen from the White Sox.

They’re doing a lot of stuff.

Bell will be at least serviceable as the Marlins closer and probably good. $27 million over 3-years isn’t a ridiculous amount of money, but if the Marlins were still running the team as they did under Jeffrey Loria in the days of saving money and collecting revenue sharing fees while putting forth the pretense of being broke and desperate for a new (publicly financed) stadium, under no circumstances would they have paid Bell.

And that’s the point.

On an annual basis, the Marlins closer was dynamic and interchangeable with a bunch of journeyman names that changed (in more ways than one considering the situation of Leo Nunez AKA Juan Oviedo) and were decent at an affordable price.

Braden Looper, Ugueth Urbina, Armando Benitez, Todd Jones, Joe Borowski, Kevin Gregg, Matt Lindstrom, Oviedo—all were the Marlins nominal closer at times. Some were very good; some were mediocre; some were bad. But all accrued saves for a team that was on the cusp of contention for much of that time and they did it cheaply. Would the Marlins have had a better chance to make the playoffs had they been trotting Mariano Rivera to the mound to the blistering tune of “Enter Sandman”? They might’ve won a few more games and it might’ve made a difference, but Bell is not Rivera.

This is something the stat people don’t understand when they say “anyone” can get the saves. It’s true, but not accurate in full context.

The 2008 Phillies could’ve found someone to be the closer, but that closer wouldn’t have been as great as Brad Lidge was in the regular season or the playoffs and with them teetering on missing the playoffs entirely, they might not have made it at all without Lidge.

Rivera’s aura says that the game is essentially over upon his arrival; his ice cold ruthlessness behind a pacifist smile and post-season calm provides the Yankees with a not-so-secret weapon; the biggest difference between themselves and their closest competitors during their dynasty was Rivera.

The Phillies could’ve kept Ryan Madson to be the closer and saved a few dollars rather than paying Jonathan Papelbon, but with the way they’re currently built around starting pitching, it made no sense to risk blowing games or overuse those starters because of an untrustworthy closer. Their window to win in within the next 3-4 years and they needed someone with a post-season pedigree and the known ability to handle a high-pressure atmosphere like Philadelphia.

That’s aptly describes Papelbon.

With the Marlins, they have so many other holes to fill that Bell is a nice bauble to acquire; he’ll generate some headlines and send a signal to the rest of baseball and the free agent market that they’re not putting on a show to garner attention, but are legitimately improving. They could’ve done it in a different, cheaper way, but it’s not about Bell and Bell alone—it’s about several things including public relations, media exposure, selling tickets and that aforementioned message to the other free agents to say, “hey look, we’re not doing this just so people talk about us.”

Whether it works and they lure free agents to Florida is another matter; and if they’re going to do that and get Reyes, Wilson, Prince Fielder, Mark Buehrle, Pujols or any combination of the group, they’ll have to write them a check substantially higher than the $27 million they just handed Bell.

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What Price Friendship?

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New Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen said in a conference call that he would consider shifting Hanley Ramirez to another position. Presumably that position would be third base. This set off speculation—that has been advanced in the past—that a Ramirez shift would coincide with the Marlins making a big move on Ramirez’s close friend and current Mets free agent shortstop Jose Reyes.

A big move would have to include many, many zeroes on the check Reyes receives for signing the contract.

In prior years, the Marlins would never have been involved with trying to sign a marquee free agent such as Reyes; but with their new ballpark and new manager, it’s been said that they’re going to be heavily involved in bringing recognizable star players to Miami to try and win with payroll rather than finding players on the scrapheap.

I do believe it’s possible that Reyes is courted by the Marlins; I also believe Ramirez would move to another position to facilitate the signing.

Talent-wise, it’s a terrific move to have two dynamic, offensive forces on the left side of the infield. Reyes is a far better defender than Ramirez; Ramirez would be able to play third base.

Financially, one would assume the Marlins can do it.

Logistically, it might draw a number of fans who would ordinarily find other avenues of entertainment in Miami.

In practice, I don’t know if it would work.

Reyes’s injury history is what it is. If, in his contract year, he was injured twice with the recurrent hamstring woes that have plagued him forever, it’s a warning sign for when he’s assured of $120 million.

Regardless of whether the Marlins and others begin to decry the Mets medical protocol as substandard and imply that they’ll keep Reyes healthy, he’s continually gotten hurt with the same injuries—the Mets didn’t make mistakes every time with Reyes; it’s not an issue to be discounted amid a celebratory gala to introduce him as the newest team star.

Ramirez is another matter.

Apart from 2011, he’s been durable and ultra-productive; he’s also been a nuisance by using his status as the highest paid player; the star of the team; and the pet of owner Jeffrey Loria to be the alpha-male in the clubhouse and try to bully colleagues and ostensible superiors. When Andre Dawson has to venture down to talk to Ramirez about his attitude (and bring Tony Perez along with him to prevent him from strangling Ramirez), it’s not a good sign.

The friendship between the Reyes and Ramirez is legitimate and not a made-for-public-consumption golf outing between two players like Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson who were said to detest one another; Ramirez is the godfather to Reyes’s daughter and they would undoubtedly love to play together if circumstances are right.

Before automatically believing said circumstances are “right”, the Marlins need to calculate all the probable eventualities.

If the Marlins sign Reyes to a contract worth $120 million, where does that leave Ramirez?

Hanley Ramirez is signed to a super-team friendly deal that, when he signed it, was worth $70 million through 2014. He’s set to make $15 million in 2012; $15.5 million in 2013; and $16 million in 2014.

A signed contract is relatively meaningless in today’s sports world and that agreement doesn’t mean he won’t want an extension commensurate with what Reyes would be paid; with what Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Braun received from the Rockies and Brewers respectively to essentially set in stone that they won’t suit up for another club for the rest of their careers.

Am I the only one who can picture Ramirez grinning happily at the Reyes press conference not only because his friend is joining the Marlins, but because he thinks he too is going to get a similar contract as a matter of course with the club’s new free-spending ways?

The Marlins aren’t exactly the warmest and fuzziest of organizations; they’re ruthless bordering on brutal and—Loria’s prodigal son or not—won’t be automatically predisposed to compensating Ramirez to keep him quiet and happy.

With Reyes, he wasn’t malingering through his injuries and this is both a positive and a negative; if he couldn’t stay on the field in his contract year when the talk of him making a Joe Mauer-style killing in free agency was at its height in June while he was scorching hot, what are the chances of him getting through a 6-7 year deal on his aging, fragile, meal-ticket legs without the requisite hamstring problems popping up again?

And with Ramirez, his attitude has always been questionable; he’s gotten away with transgressions because of the reasons elucidated above. If he walks up to Larry Beinfest, David Samson or Loria himself with wide eyes and an expectant nod regarding an extension on top of his current contract, they’re more likely to tell him to take a hike than they are to acquiesce to his demands.

That’s where things get dicey; that’s where things can blow apart before they’re completely constructed.

Hanley Ramirez’s demeanor has always tended more toward the Manny Ramirez than the Jose Reyes.

Manny was well-known for letting his displeasure with whatever it was that irritated Manny at that particular moment seep into his on-field play. He would not hustle; he’d throw tantrums; he’d try to force his employer’s hand. The Red Sox ignored him (while trying to dump him repeatedly) because he was one of the most productive players in the history of the sport and because they needed him. It was only when he was in the final year of his guaranteed deal and set to have his contract options exercised—and was outright demanding that they not do so—that the team said enough was enough; they were able to bring back a reasonably comparable bat in Jason Bay, and they finally traded him.

It all looks good now and will look better if the Marlins do pursue and get Reyes. They have Guillen, an established manager with a long-term deal who won’t be under and mandate to tolerate Ramirez’s act; they’ll be talented enough to make a run at the playoffs if Josh Johnson returns healthy. But if Ramirez thinks he’s being slighted, that close friendship could turn into jealousy and anger before spring training is over.

Players go where the money is, not where their friends are; and after the heady excitement from childhood of “imagine if we played together in the big leagues” wears off, all that remains is reality.

The reality is almost exclusively about money.

On paper, getting Reyes and making Ramirez a third baseman would be a brilliant strike; but they’d better think long and hard about the signing and potential reverberations before jumping in with both feet because the aftermath could be disastrous if it doesn’t go according to the blueprint.

And these things rarely go according to the blueprint.

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The Marlins Find An Undervalued Aspect—Tackiness

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This is going to be activated every time the Marlins hit a home run in their new ballpark.

And here’s the video from the Miami-Dade County Department of Public Affairs on Facebook.

It looks like something L. Ron Hubbard might’ve come up with while cavorting with young boys on a boat.
Or possibly a cheesier, more tacky version of art in Atlantic City.

Actually, it’s worse.

The Mets and Twins built ballparks where hitters can’t hit home runs; the Marlins built one where they won’t want to hit home runs.

Interested teams should call about Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison immediately. They’re going small ball and it’s due to an undervalued, Moneyball-style strategy: bad taste.

The most egregious part of all this is that the owner—Jeffrey Loria—made his fortune as an art dealer!!!

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The Marlins Plan A Spending Spree

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In the winter of 1996-97, then Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga gave GM Dave Dombrowski permission to spend money and sign/trade for veteran players to augment a solid core of talent Edgar Renteria, Robb Nen, Charles Johnson, Devon White, Jeff Conine, Al Leiter and Kevin Brown.

Back then it was an annual undertaking for the club to try and gain public financing for a new ballpark; in this case, winning was seen as the cure. They hired Jim Leyland to manage; signed Bobby Bonilla, Alex Fernandez, Dennis Cook and Moises Alou.

The 1997 Marlins won the Wild Card, upset the Braves in the NLCS and beat the Indians in a 7-game World Series.

Then they dismantled the team when they couldn’t get a new ballpark and were sold.

Now the Marlins have a new ballpark on the way; a talented group of young players; and money to spend.

Apparently they’re intent on spending it.

The circumstances mirror each other.

They’re going to hire a name manager (most likely Ozzie Guillen).

They have a foundation of players upon which to build (Logan Morrison, Mike Stanton, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez).

They need a third baseman and Aramis Ramirez is being mentioned; they need pitching and C.J. Wilson is available; they have a first baseman in Gaby Sanchez, but he’d be trade bait if they made a move on Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder; Jose Reyes would allow them to shift Hanley Ramirez to third base; Jonathan Papelbon would fill the void at closer.

Many players are from warm climates and would prefer that type of venue; or they’re attracted to the absence of a state income tax in Florida.

Players will want to play for the Marlins.

But will that bring in fans?

Will a contending team and a new, retractable roof ballpark attract the notoriously fickle and easily distracted, football-preferring masses to support the Marlins for the entire season rather than when they’re in the World Series?

We’re going to find out.

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