Sunday, June 22, 2008

Marlins deserve more credit

With all of the talk about the surprising Tampa Bay Rays and the possibility of a White Sox-Cubs World Series, another team has been, for the most part, left out of the discussion: the Florida Marlins.

When Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria fired Joe Girardi in 2006, many thought the decision was a poor one. After all, with a payroll just under $15 million, Girardi had guided the Marlins to an intriguing 78 wins. Marlins GM Larry Beinfest backed the decision.

"Joe is not returning because it was not a good fit," Beinfest said. "I will take some of that blame. I'm in charge, and it's my job to make sure everything runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible."

After firing Girardi, the Marlins hired Fredi Gonzalez, a 42-year-old former third-base coach for the Atlanta Braves. Gonzalez was thrilled to be managing, and the Marlins were happy to have Girardi gone.

The season before, in 2005, the Marlins, heading towards a disappointing finish with no postseason appearance in sight, chose to trade several star players away. In November of 2005, the Marlins traded first baseman Carlos Delgado and cash to the Mets for two prospects and another first baseman, Mike Jacobs. Also in November, the Marlins traded starting pitcher Josh Beckett, third baseman Mike Lowell, and reliever Guillermo Mota to the Red Sox in exchange for top shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez and pitchers Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado, and Harvey Garcia. In December, the Marlins traded outfielder Juan Pierre to the Cubs for three pitching prospects: Ricky Nolasco, Renyel Pinto, and Sergio Mitre. Also in December, the Marlins shipped second baseman Luis Castillo to the Twins for two pitching prospects: Travis Bowyer and Scott Tyler. Catcher Paul Lo Duca was also traded to the Mets for minor league pitcher Gaby Hernandez and outfielder Dante Brinkley.

The fire sale of 2005 ridded the Marlins roster of plenty of high-priced players and left them with an extremely young core of very talented players. Things didn't work out, as stated before, for the Marlins in 2006 (78-84) or 2007 (71-91). Again feeling the need to trade quality, established players in the offseason, the Marlins sent third baseman Miguel Cabrera and starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers for a plethora of young players: outfielder Cameron Maybin, pitcher Andrew Miller, catcher Mike Rabelo, and minor league pitchers Eulogio De La Cruz, Dallas Trahern, and Burke Badenhop.

While every baseball analyst was ready to consider the Tigers new and improved lineup the greatest of all time, the Marlins had put together lots of cheap talent for the 2008 season and beyond. (Interesting note: At this point in the season, the Tigers have hit 78 HRs and have a team OPS of .761. The Marlins have 111 HRs and a team OPS of .773.)

So far this season, the infield has been the most productive part of the team. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez, only 24, is the team's best player, and he's hitting .300 with 16 HRs, 33 RBI, and 19 SBs. Twenty-eight-year-old second baseman Dan Uggla, a Rule 5 pick in 2005 from the Diamondbacks, is hitting .296 with 23 HRs and 57 RBI. First baseman Mike Jacobs has 17 HRs and 46 RBI, and third baseman Jorge Cantu, signed to a $500,000 minor league contract in the offseason, is hitting .285 with 14 HRs and 43 RBI. These four infielders have hit a combined 70 HRs so far, and it's not even the All-Star Break yet.

Besides Ramirez and Jacobs, other acquired players from previous deals have played important roles in 2008. Starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco, who is 25, is 7-4 with a 4.31 RA and 58 Ks. Renyel Pinto, also 25, has two wins out of the bullpen and a 2.74 ERA. Twenty-three-year-old Andrew Miller is 5-5 in the Marlins starting rotation. He's pitched mildly well, with a 4.87 ERA and 62 Ks, and his future is very bright. Mike Rabelo serves as the backup catcher, but he's only hitting .208 with 3 HRs.

Other key performances for the solid start to the season:
  • Kevin Gregg: 5 Ws, 13 Saves, 2.52 ERA, 28 Ks. Acquired from the Angels in 2005 for pitcher Chris Resop.
  • Josh Willingham: .341 average, 6 HRs, 16 RBI. Currently on the disabled list, drafted in the 17th Round in 2000.
  • Jeremy Hermida: .268 average, 7 HRs, 36 RBI. Drafted in the first round in 2002.
  • Scott Olsen: 4-4, 3.51 ERA, 50 Ks. Drafted in the sixth round in 2002.
  • Luis Gonzalez: .273 average, 5 HRs, 29 RBI. Signed in the offseason for $2 million.
  • Cody Ross: .216 average, 12 HRs, 29 RBI. Acquired from the Reds in 2006 for the always-popular "player to be named later."

Currently, the Marlins, at 40-34, are one game back of the Phillies in the NL East. The Marlins have a payroll of $22.6 million, which is last in the league. Their payroll also happens happens to be $20 million below the second-to-last place team, the Tampa Bay Rays. The highest paid player on the Rays is Carlos Pena, who makes $6 million this season. The highest paid player on the Marlins is Kevin Gregg, who makes $2.5 million.

Some people don't like how the Marlins operate because they always seem to acquire young talent, wait until they improve and get a little older, and then trade them before they have to pay them any type of significant salary. But even though the Marlins remain competitive every few years, fans don't go to see the team play. Since 2001, the Marlins have ranked in the bottom five in total attendance every season. Even when the team won the World Series in 2003, the Marlins were 28th (out of 30 teams), averaging only 16,290 fans per game. So far this season, the Marlins are ranked dead-last, averaging just 14,795 fans per game.

Are the Marlins' fortunes about to change? Possibly. A new stadium is being built for the Marlins in Miami, and the team is scheduled to play there in 2011. As part of the deal, the Marlins will be called the "Miami Marlins." And with the deal to play in a new stadium, the organization signed Hanley Ramirez to the biggest contract in Marlins history in May: a six-year, $70 million contract.

Whether or not the Marlins will start to spend big money on free agents with the new ballpark on the horizon, the front office obviously knows how to acquire talent through trades and smart, cheap moves that seem to happen quickly and silently.

If the Marlins happen to earn the Wild Card berth in the NL, look out, because they may just win the World Series again. Besides, that's how it happened in 1997 and 2003.

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