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Fire sale alone won't help Marlins

by Jim Callis
January 4, 2006

CHICAGO--It's like deja vu all over again for the Marlins. But it's not nearly as funny as a Yogi Berra malaprop.

After his team won the 1997 World Series in just its fifth year of existence, then-Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga immediately announced he had lost $34 million that season (despite evidence that the club credited as much as $40 million in revenue to other sources). The thinly-veiled attempt to blackmail taxpayers into giving him a new retractable-roof stadium failed, so Huizenga ordered the immediate dismantling of his club.

Less than a month after Edgar Renteria singled in the Series-winning run, Moises Alou, Robb Nen, Devon White and Jeff Conine had been traded. Kevin Brown and Dennis Cook were dealt in December, Al Leiter in February. Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson and Gary Sheffield were shown the door in a May 1998 blockbuster for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile, and both Piazza and Zeile were gone by the July 31 trading deadline.

At that point, Florida's payroll had been slashed from $53.5 million to $13 million as the team was headed to a 108-loss season‹the worst ever for a defending champion.

The Marlins rose from the ashes of five straight losing seasons to win the 2003 World Series and make runs at wild-card berths the last two seasons. But owner Jeffrey Loria has been rebuffed in his bid for a publicly funded ballpark, so Florida has embarked on yet another fire sale.

Since Thanksgiving, the Marlins have traded Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Guillermo Mota, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, Paul Lo Duca, Juan Pierre and Ron Villone. Those moves shed about $92 million in contract obligations, including $49 million for 2006, when their payroll is expected to be the lowest in baseball. Florida probably won't top $20 million after spending a club-record $65 million in 2005.

Can the Marlins avoid 100 losses this year? Almost assuredly not. But the biggest question is, can they rebuild via a massive exchange of veterans for prospects again?

Prospects Can Be Suspect

While the Marlins' post-1997 moves obviously weren't going to help them in the immediate future, then-GM Dave Dombrowski got credit for hauling in a talented group of prospects. He landed five one-time first-round picks (Joe Fontenot, Geoff Goetz, Mark Johnson, Derrek Lee, Preston Wilson) and six other players who made Baseball America team Top 10 Prospects lists (Fletcher Bates, Oscar Henriquez, Rafael Medina, Jesus Sanchez, Mike Villano, Ed Yarnall).

There's a good reason why you don't remember a lot of those players eight years later.

Lee, one of three Padres acquired for Brown, was the only direct contributor to the 2003 championship club. A.J. Burnett, part of the Leiter trade with the Mets, opened that season in Florida's rotation but blew out his elbow in his fourth start.

The Marlins smartly used some of their prospect haul in further trades that helped pay off in 2003. The Yankees had no place to play Lowell, so Dombrowski sent Johnson, Yarnall and Todd Noel (a 1996 Cubs first-rounder picked up in a minor deal) to New York for him. Wilson was part of a salary-dump trade with the Rockies that brought Pierre to Florida.

The truth is that the fire sale alone did little to help Florida build a championship team. Of the 21 prospects acquired in the 1997-98 trades, just three had significant big league careers: Burnett, Lee and Wilson. Without developing homegrown talent and making astute trades and free-agent signings, the Marlins never would have come close to winning it all in 2003.

Hard Road Ahead

So Marlins fans, don't go putting a down payment on 2011 World Series tickets yet. If Loria can find a free ballpark elsewhere, the club will have bid goodbye to south Florida by then anyway.

Strictly from a talent standpoint, the Marlins' second closeout sale isn't as immediately as impressive as the first. Hanley Ramirez, the key to the Beckett/Lowell/Mota deal with the Red Sox, was the best shortstop prospect available on the trade market. But he's also something of an enigma who has yet to put up numbers to match his considerable tools.

Ramirez is one of seven new Marlins who has appeared on a team Top 10 Prospects list in the last year. Righthander Anibal Sanchez (also part of the Beckett trade) has a lot of upside, and righty Yusmeiro Petit (included in the Carlos Delgado deal with the Mets) has had stunning success in the minors.

But there aren't many scouts who are confident Petit's average stuff will play so well in the majors. The other Top 10ers‹righty Gaby Hernandez (from the Mets in the Lo Duca trade), first baseman Mike Jacobs (Delgado), lefty Renyel Pinto (part of a Cubs package for Pierre), righty Ricky Nolasco (ditto)‹are closer to role players than future cornerstones. It's possible that one of the other eight youngsters Florida has added will blossom like Burnett did, but that's also not something to count on.

The Marlins still have Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and blue-chip outfield prospect Jeremy Hermida as a nucleus. They did add several promising pitchers in the 2005 draft, when they had five picks before the second round. But plenty of work remains before they can dream of contending again.

You can contact Jim Callis by sending e-mail to jimcallis@baseballamerica.com.