When the oh-so-smart Marlins traded arbitration-eligible players Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham to the competing Nationals in November, it looked like a typical small-revenue club salary dump. But with the Marlins, typical dealings are almost always more than they seem.
Beside the obvious benefit of extricating themselves from two arbitration cases they didn't need or want, the Marlins received three younger players in the deal, including speedy infielder Emilio Bonifacio, whose value was declining fast -- at least in the eyes of others. When Arizona dealt Bonifacio to Washington straight up for set-up man Jon Rauch only last summer, many figured that the Diamondbacks had ripped off the Nats (although Rauch has turned out to be nothing short of a disaster for the Diamondbacks). And this winter most accounts of the Marlins-Nats trade involving Bonifacio portrayed the speedy infielder, who hadn't distinguished himself during his brief tenure with the Nats, as an afterthought or throw-in.
But the Marlins knew better. And now, a week into his Marlins career, Bonifacio, who moves faster on the diamond than anyone in baseball, has moved up in everyone else's eyes. Those outside the Marlins organization once again view the 23-year-old as an exciting young player after watching him ignite the Marlins offense with a .500 batting average, exhibit the best baseball speed since Deion Sanders and lead his club to a 5-1 start.
The Marlins' scouts seem to know things others do not, so they figured it might be worthwhile to give Bonifacio, primarily a second baseman, a look at third base. So far the slap-hitting speed demon has looked like a star at a position normally reserved for power hitters. Bonifacio put together multiple-hit efforts in the Marlins' first five games of the season and produced enough theatrics to excite even the minimal crowds they draw down here. Johan Santana shut him down on Sunday, but his 0-for-4 effort only dropped him to .500 on the season. President of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, while noting that it's still very early, said, "We recognized the bat was still developing. It's not a finished bat."
His legs, not his bat, will make Bonifacio, but if he can make consistent contact he'll be dangerous. Scouts say he's an 80 runner (on their 20-to-80 scale), and viewers could see why during his Opening Day inside-the-park home run against his former Nationals mates, during a triple in Game 2 and then again on an infield hit that caused fellow speedster Jose Reyes, the Mets shortstop, to rush to try to record the out (he couldn't do it).
"It's a different feel for us," Beinfest said. "It's a different way to try to manufacture runs from a year ago, when we relied on the home run." The big game-changing twist came when the Marlins inserted Bonifacio, moved power-hitting Jorge Cantu from third (where he was a liability) to first and removed all-or-nothing first baseman Mike Jacobs.
If Bonifacio's bat has been a revelation, his glovework has been no less so. "Our [scouts] thought he had enough arm for shortstop [when they acquired him], so they thought they'd take a look at third," Beinfest said. But there's a big difference between having the arm and playing the vastly different angles at third, and early in spring there were questions about whether Bonifacio would be able to make a smooth switch from second. (Some Marlins people believe the team would be better off with Bonifacio at second instead of power-hitting star Dan Uggla, though they do need Uggla's pop.)
But Bonifacio looks fine at third, and he has helped make the Marlins a speedier, slightly better-fielding team than a year ago, when they surprised folks by winning 84 games despite ranking 15th in the NL in fielding percentage. Florida also trots out an impressive quintet of under-27 starters this season, beginning with superb talents Josh Johnson (who looks like he's ready to emerge as a true No. 1 after outdueling the Great Santana on Sunday, 2-1), Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad. Nonetheless, Las Vegas odds makers posted the Marlins' over-under number at 76 wins. That's quite a slight considering they won 84 last year when journeyman Mark Hendrickson was their Opening Day starter while Johnson carried out rehab, Nolasco worked out of the bullpen and Volstad pitched in the minors. "We didn't have our pitchers lined up last year," Beinfest said when asked about the 76-win prediction. "We don't talk about rebuilding here. We try to play in October."
That's true, even though, as always, the club made all its changes with the bottom line in mind. Beinfest delicately summed up the trade with Washington by saying, "We needed to reallocate our assets." In addition to Bonifacio the Marlins acquired two low-level minor leaguers in the deal, second baseman Jake Smolinski and pitcher P.J. Dean, two "young guys we like," Beinfest said. So far in Washington, meanwhile, Olsen has been awful and Willingham's an unhappy bench player.
While the Nats deal with those players and their impending arbitration cases, the Marlins continue to maintain a payroll that, while up to $35 million this year from an absurd $24 million last year, is surely well below their revenues. (While Beinfest doesn't complain, their revenue-sharing monies alone should support a greater payroll than $35 million.)
With the Marlins, however, it's never worth looking at the payroll. No matter what they spend, they think they can compete. And by landing players like Bonifacio, they usually do.
What's going on with all the aces?
The most valuable commodity in baseball is a star starting pitcher. But so far the stars have stunk. At least many of them have.
Aaron Cook (23.14 ERA), Cole Hamels (17.18) and Chien-Ming Wang (17.18) have been the worst of the worst so far, but they have plenty of company.
The following Nos.1 and 2 starters have also pitched very poorly, though perhaps not quite as poorly as Cook, Hamels and Wang: Fausto Carmona (10.80), Cliff Lee (9.90), Justin Verlander (9.35), Jon Lester (9.00), Edinson Volquez (8.31), Tim Lincecum (6.94) and Roy Oswalt (6.23).
CC Sabathia was right in that bad mix after an amped-up Yankees debut, but righted himself in a hurry, and now, after a superb second start against the Royals, has his ERA at a more manageable 4.50.
A couple folks inside the Yankees' clubhouse say they believe that LeBron James will be headed to New York as a Knick in a couple years. How they know this, well, they didn't say. But my guess would be that Sabathia, who knows James from his Cleveland days, expressed this opinion to them. I am sure he wouldn't give away any secret like this publicly, so there's no sense in me even asking him. But it's something to watch for.
• Dontrelle Willis views his D.L. stay as temporary and believes he'll be ready to rejoin the Tigers' rotation shortly after coming off the D.L., his agent Matt Sosnick said. However, Willis' expectations could lead to a confrontation, as scouts generally didn't see a big-league pitcher this spring after an atrocious 2008 season. Willis believes he'll be fine as soon as the anxiety disorder that was diagnosed subsides, though the Tigers are more likely to seek a minor-league stint of decent length to straighten out his pitching. Whatever happens, our best to a very nice young man who was a bolt of excitement in Florida for a few years.
• The Giants and Lincecum aren't ruling out in-season contract talks, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the Giants are close to locking up Lincecum, who'll want to beat Hamels' $20.5 million deal to cover his three arbitration years.
• Diamondbacks people don't think Brandon Webb's shoulder issue is anything serious and the MRI revealed no structural damage.
• Freddy Garcia didn't look like he was quite ready early in spring when he got hammered in a Mets' intrasquad game and a few other games, but he's been lights out lately. He has allowed only one run in three extended spring starts and has hit the high 80s comfortably. While he doesn't have a specific "out'' in his contract, it's generally understood that if another big-league team is ready to give him a shot, the Mets would either try to find room for him or let him go. With Livan Hernandez off to a nice start, it doesn't appear that there's an obvious spot for Garcia in New York.
• Two more comeback pitchers to watch could be Gustavo Chacin, who's working his way back with the Phillies, and Carlos Hernandez, the former Astros hotshot who's doing the same with the Rays. Hernandez looked like a major prospect before arm trouble, but he has remade himself without the high 90s fastball and is on Tampa's radar.
• Tom Glavine's shoulder soreness is slightly worrisome. Perhaps big-time Braves pitching prospect Tommy Hanson will appear sooner than expected.
• The Angels are one of baseball's best organizations, top to bottom, and they deserve credit for the very nice tribute they gave Nick Adenhart, and also for managing to play an excellent series against the very tough Red Sox following Adenhart's tragic death at age 22.
• If anything good comes from the killing of Adenhart and his two friends, perhaps it's that young players will understand that it's sheer stupidity to drive drunk, as the idiot who's charged with plowing into Adenhart's car allegedly did. This is a far bigger problem in the NFL, but pro athletes can afford to hire taxis. There's no excuse.
• Good for Gary Sheffield that he recognizes he's not ready to take over for Ryan Church in right field, especially at Citi Field, which looks like it's going to be tricky in addition to large. Mets manager Jerry Manuel said he might consider Sheffield for Wednesday, but won't play him in the field in Santana's games since he's expecting those to be low-scoring affairs and doesn't want to give up the defense.
• It would be nice if the Mets were opening their Ebbets Field-inspired Citi Field by playing the Dodgers instead of the Padres on Monday night. Though I'm just glad that Tom Seaver's throwing out the first ball rather than any of the Citibank executives who helped get us into this economic mess.