Preview: Florida Marlins
Future of Florida Marlins a Big Question
The offseason is usually when hope truly springs eternal for most baseball fans, the time when rumors run wild about which players will be acquired and when championship dreams are hatched. Not in Miami this year.
That traditional wait-'til-next-year mantra doesn't apply these days in South Florida, where three high-priced stars already have been traded, where more roster shakeups are likely. And the team says it may move after the 2007 season.
"I believe it's a market that can handle baseball," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who spent seven seasons with the Marlins before being traded last week to the Boston Red Sox. "I'm just not sure if it's a baseball market yet." Years of plans for a baseball-only stadium went nowhere, and the Marlins have abandoned their hopes of building a new $420 million, retractable-roof facility adjacent to the Orange Bowl in downtown Miami. The team's lease at Dolphins Stadium expires in 2010. The Marlins will not renew that deal.
They could stay in the area, which owner Jeffrey Loria says is his preference. Other cities mentioned as potential Marlins suitors include Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., and Charlotte, N.C.
"I don't think baseball can abandon the Miami market," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College. "If MLB does let that market go vacant, I think it'll be one of the biggest mistakes they ever made."
The Marlins have led a cyclical existence since their first game in 1993, with two World Series titles eventually followed two roster dismantlings many called them fire sales.
They won the World Series in 1997, after former owner Wayne Huizenga took a bit of a gamble and loaded up on big-ticket players such as Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou. Huizenga won a trophy, but said he lost more than $30 million that season so the team was broken up that winter, and the 1998 club went 54-108. by far the worst ever for a defending World Series champion.
Now, two years removed from the 2003 World Series title, Florida officials call this offseason's plan a "market correction."
Don't push panic button on the Marlins just yet
Once again the Florida Marlins are under construction, and like the last time, the trades they have made look awful on the surface.
But once you begin to take a deeper look, the Marlins did OK.
They will be very young and make lots of mistakes, but if new skipper Joe Girardi can keep the confidence up, they could be surprisingly solid next season. The NL East has become much better, and the Marlins might not be able to contend for the division title. But they also won't be as bad as most people think.
Below, we take a look at how the starting lineup would look if Florida took the field this weekend. Rumors have the Marlins still dealing, and if they can acquire a centerfielder (they are in talks with Tampa Bay about Joey Gathright), and maybe some experience for the bench, they could be the surprise of baseball in the 2006 season.
1B -- Mike Jacobs. In 30 games last season with the Mets, Jacobs hit .310 with 11 home runs and 23 RBI. He is a pull hitter and has lots of potential. He also has spent some time at catcher, so that gives Girardi more options.
2B -- Josh Wilson. He is young and untested, but he still is the front-runner. Girardi could turn to Alfredo Amezaga, who is a solid defensive second baseman but isn't ready to hit at the major-league level.
SS -- Hanley Ramirez. He has power and speed, a nice combination for a shortstop. He still needs to learn patience at the plate and could struggle, but the future is bright for Ramirez.
3B -- Miguel Cabrera. We all know about him. He will be the power of the lineup and will hit .300 with 30 home runs -- just pencil it in -- as long as he get pitches to hit.
C -- Josh Willingham. He can hit. Everyone knows it. Girardi will have to take him under his wing and show him the ins and outs of catching, but Willingham hit .337 in Triple-A last season before getting called up, and then he was injured.
CF -- Eric Reed. The Marlins are talking about getting Joey Gathright from the Devil Rays. That would be smart, because otherwise this may be Florida's weakest position. Eric Reed has made his way through the minors quite quickly, but spent about a month in Triple-A last season before getting hurt. Not sure he is ready for the big leagues. A sleeper could be Reggie Abercrombie, who also made his way through the minors quickly. He has good speed and can hit homers.
LF -- Jeremy Hermida. He is one of the top prospects in the National League and has shown that potential in limited playing time. It will be interesting to see how he does in a full season.
RF -- Chris Aguila. He is a free swinger, which could hurt him, but has some pop in his bat and will get a crack at playing with the Marlins this season.
Rotation -- Dontrelle Willis, Jason Vargas, Sergio Mitre, Josh Johnson, Brian Moehler. Not really that bad when you think of all the Marlins lost. Willis will be the ace. Vargas pitched well last season and should be better in 2006.
Moehler is injury-prone, and the Marlins will need him to stay healthy and help this young rotation. Mitre showed signs of becoming really good when he was in Chicago. Not being at Wrigley will help, as he got shelled when the wind was blowing out.
Josh Johnson is young but pitched well in limited time last season.
Bullpen -- Travis Bowyer (closer), Yusmeiro Petit, Randy Messenger, Chris Resop, Anibal Sanchez, Logan Kensing, Ron Villone. The Marlins got Bowyer from the Twins in the Luis Castillo deal and he could be special. His fastball is in the mid-to-high 90s and is working on off-speed pitches.
If he can't get it done, the bullpen could be in trouble as they are all young with the exception of Ron Villone, who could end up being the closer. Petit, Kensing and Messenger have plus fastballs, but not much experience.
Blame fire sale on South Florida, not tight Marlins
There’s no reason for South Florida to go back to the ballpark – unless, perhaps, you’re going there to root for the other team. But even then it might not be worth the cost of a ticket.
Why pay major-league prices to watch your favorite team play against a bunch of minor leaguers?
That’s what you’ll be getting in the 2006 Florida Marlins, who are in the process of ridding their roster of every recognizable name and anyone who had anything to do with winning the 2003 World Series.
Except, maybe, for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. But only because they’re both still young, still working for far less than they’re worth and still under contract to the Marlins with no say in their immediate futures.
Everyone else, though, is gone, ... or on his way out.
Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca, Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo already have been traded, trimming about $41 million from the team’s payroll, which was at $60 million on Opening Day 2005 but probably won’t be half that amount on Opening Day 2006.
Let’s not forget the departure or soon-to-be departures of free agents A.J. Burnett, Juan Encarnacion and Alex Gonzalez.
In return, the Marlins received a crop of young, talented prospects who should be ready to play by, say, 2008 – or the franchise’s first season in Las Vegas or Portland or whatever town cares enough about baseball to build one of those state-of-the-art, retractable-roof ballparks.
But we’ll get back to the future in a moment.
Truth is, baseball hasn’t seen this kind of salary dump since, well, the Marlins dismantled their championship team within weeks of winning the 1997 World Series.
This time, however, you can’t blame the owner, who spent millions of dollars to put a competitive, fun-to-watch team on the field while working within the constraints of a stadium lease that made it impossible to turn a profit.
This is South Florida’s fault.
Jeffrey Loria did his job. Fans didn’t do theirs. They didn’t show up, or build a ballpark, or do anything to show anyone they really care. That’s why the owner is cutting payroll and raising ticket prices. That’s why the Marlins, with the blessing of commissioner Bud Selig, are looking for a new home in a city that might actually want a baseball team.
Clearly, South Florida doesn’t.
South Florida doesn’t care much about any team, except the Miami Dolphins and whatever other team happens to be trendy. Ten years ago, it was the Florida Panthers, who made a rousing run to the Stanley Cup Finals. In 1997 and 2003, it was the Marlins. Currently, it’s the NBA’s Miami Heat, thanks to the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal and the emergence of Dwyane Wade.
But as the Panthers and Marlins found out – as the Heat will learn, when Shaq’s done and Wade’s gone – the novelty doesn’t last long.
Maybe it’s the climate. Or the demographics. Or because so many people are from somewhere else.
Whatever the reason, South Florida is a lousy sports market.
Oh, people like sports. They might even like the local teams. They like knowing they’re there, just in case they want to go to a game. But they don’t show up until they get to the playoffs.
Let’s face it: When the Marlins leave, they won’t be missed. Most won’t even notice they’re gone.
So the Marlins might as well start packing now – because nothing’s going to change.
Except the faces on the field. .... and the cost of a ticket.