DALLAS -- Already the most fascinating team in baseball -- everybody from Albert Pujols to the Securities and Exchange Commission is checking them out -- the Marlins aren't done yet. Having added shortstop Jose Reyes and closer Heath Bell, the newly named, newly outfitted and newly relocated Miami Marlins are prepared to push their payroll past $100 million if it means adding Pujols, according to a team source.
"Pujols, [Mark] Buehrle, [C.J.] Wilson . . . we're serious," said the source, referring to their top remaining free agent options.
Buehrle and Wilson are expensive enough -- probably between $13 million and $18 million per year. But Pujols is an even larger investment. Miami would like to add one of them. The Marlins, who spent about $58 million on payroll last year, have already added $26.6 million with Reyes and Bell. Pujols already has been offered $22 million per year by St. Louis, so the Marlins probably need to go north of that for as many as nine or 10 years -- an absurd length given his age and size.
When asked if the Marlins could still afford Pujols after signing Reyes and Bell, the source said, "Yes." So that means, the source was asked, the Marlins are prepared to spend $100 million or more? "If that's what it takes to get Pujols, yes," was the reply.
Is there any doubt the Marlins are the weirdest and least predictable franchise in baseball? It seemed like five minutes ago the players association was putting them on double secret probation for pocketing too much of their revenue-sharing largesse rather than spending it to improve the team. Leaked documents showed when they put their hand out for public money to build a stadium, they actually were turning a profit. Now the SEC has questions about how the very item that is allowing the Marlins to become a big spender -- this new ballpark -- was funded.
So on the day when the Marlins officially introduced Bell, owner Jeffrey Loria had to answer questions about an SEC investigation, saying, "We will work with the SEC in every way possible. We're there to be helpful."
For the moment, the Marlins deserve credit for leveraging a singular window in franchise history: the excitement of their first baseball-only ballpark. If they can't sell tickets now they never will. And the excitement is real. When I asked Loria what the club projected for its 2012 attendance, he replied, "I think we'll be between two and a half and three million -- 2.8 million."
A gate of 2.8 million people would be double what the Marlins drew last year and represent about $56 million in added gate revenue -- roughly what would pay for Reyes, Bell and Pujols and turn the Marlins into the baseball version of the South Beach Heat. The Marlins did draw 3 million people once -- in their inaugural season of 1993. They promptly lost 1.1 million paying customers the next season and have drawn two million fans only once since -- the 2.3 million that showed for the world championship 1997 season.
The short honeymoon of 1993, the notoriously fickle nature of Florida fans of pro sports and the ominous SEC investigation make for a cautionary element to all this newfound excitement about the Miami Marlins. The Marlins, for instance, don't give out no-trade clauses because, well, the castles have always been made of sand in Miami. The next tear-down always seems just around the corner. The club never has spent more than $60 million. Will the Marlins be drawing 2.8 million people in 2013, let alone six years from now? Is this excitement and revenue sustainable?
Maybe Miami can be another Milwaukee. (Boy, that's the first time that sentence ever has been written.) The Brewers drew more than two million fans only once -- and never more than 2.3 million -- before opening Miller Park. But with their shiny retractable roof ballpark, they have exceeded three million fans in three of the past four years. (This disclaimer must be added: the Brewers put a bad team into the new ballpark and took a big attendance hit after the first-year honeymoon.)
So who knows? Maybe all this spending and excitement is the down payment toward turning Miami into a real baseball town. At least the Marlins are trying and leveraging the moment.
It does, however, make for very strange days in this game. It is possible that the Marlins could spend more on 2012 payroll than the Los Angeles Dodgers (about $89 million) or New York Mets ($100 million) and own the free agent winter while the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and White Sox become wallflowers.
If you're concerned about how Hanley Ramirez feels about getting kicked from shortstop to third base by an older player (Reyes is six months older), Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen said don't bother. Guillen said he has had several conversations with Ramirez and is convinced the switch "is no problem at all" for Ramirez.
"I told him, what are you going to do? Go home and leave [$43.5] million on the table?"' Guillen said. "He wants to win, and he understands that whatever we do is because we want to win. I told him, 'Look, can you imagine hitting behind Reyes and [Emilio] Bonifacio with Pujols behind you? Or Mike Stanton? With those rabbits on base that's a perfect place to hit.'
"I told him, 'You'll never play for a better manager. I'll tell you exactly as it is.' And I told him this is better for his career. He doesn't have to worry about going out there every day at shortstop and preparing every day for that grind. It's tough. Playing third base saves his body from the grind. And you take that and combine it with hitting third in that lineup? He could put up monster numbers. He's fine."
You can argue with the wisdom of using the No. 2 hole for Bonifacio, a guy with a career .328 OBP and no power, but in Reyes and Bonifacio, Guillen has the kind of elite baserunners he always wanted at the top of his lineup to play an up-tempo, NL style of offense.
Reyes is a perfect fit for the Marlins. The Mets' breaking point on a contract offer was $90 million, so once Miami pushed past the $100 million barrier to $106 million, Reyes was gone. (He still came up one year and $36 million short of Carl Crawford money. "Fred [Wilpon] is looking pretty good right now," said one team source, referring to what was a much-maligned comment by Wilpon to The New Yorker last spring that Reyes would not get Crawford money. Who knows what might have happened had Reyes remained healthy in his walk year. His time on the DL last season probably cost him $20 million to $30 million.)
Guillen's style, what Loria called the "energy" of South Florida and the warm weather make Reyes such a good fit. You could break down Reyes' Mets career in two subsets: cold weather and warm weather. The worst months of his career have been early and late. In cooler weather he was a worse hitter and stole bases with less frequency and less success than in the warmer weather:
So where do the Mets go from here without Reyes? They will carry a payroll of about $100 million and don't figure to be a contender in the increasingly difficult NL East. They will not be shopping for big-time free agents, though a mid-range closer on a one- or two-year deal would interest them. That would seem to imply that New York ought to strip the club further by trading third baseman David Wright. The Mets have discussed that possibility and have received inquiries from other teams about Wright. But their plan now is to hold on to him.
Why? For one, Mets ownership still regards Wright as a franchise cornerstone with a legacy in the organization, and the owners regard that sort of perceived value as important. GM Sandy Alderson, who doesn't have such a history with Wright, would be more cold-blooded about moving him, but in fact knows he will have difficulty getting good value for Wright at the moment -- especially because Alderson needs an obvious "win" in a trade to convince ownership.
Wright is coming off a down year with injuries. Also, other teams consider him a rental player because Wright can wipe out the 2013 club option in his contract if he is traded. The combination of a down 2011 season and no control over the player after 2012 gives Alderson poor leverage.
What the Mets plan to do is to revisit Wright's value in midsummer. The club has brought in the walls at Citi Field, which could help a healthy Wright re-establish his value. And if Wright does not bounce back, the Mets could decide before the trading deadline that he is not a $16 million a year player -- the club option for 2013 -- and decide they are better off getting prospects for him.
Ron Santo is no longer the best player not in the Hall of Fame. It was a bittersweet honor, at least among those who have run their course on the writers' ballot, that passes to Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso or Gil Hodges. The Golden Era voting committee of the Hall of Fame overwhelmingly elected Santo on Monday, with 15 of the 16 committee members naming Santo on their ballots. Twelve votes were required for election.
Santo was a superb ballplayer who went underappreciated in part because his Cubs never played in the postseason, because third basemen tend to be underrepresented in the Hall (Santo is only the 12th major league third baseman to be enshrined) and because his skills at getting on base and playing defense are better quantified and appreciated today than in the years when Santo never gained 50 percent of the writers' vote.
His posthumous election was great news for his family and the Cubs. It also should be good news for Scott Rolen.
Scott Rolen? You may not have thought of Rolen as a Hall of Famer -- he has finished in the top 10 of MVP voting only once -- but you might have to think again now that Santo is a Hall of Famer. Their careers are close enough parallels for Rolen to get some Cooperstown consideration. First, the raw numbers:
For extra credit, Rolen won more Gold Gloves, 8-5, and Santo was named to more All-Star Games, 9-7.
Finally, consider this list of the most seasons by a third baseman with an OPS+ of 120 or greater:
Every one on that list except the still-active Rolen is in the Hall of Fame. No one is putting Rolen in Cooperstown just yet, but his candidacy just became a little bit better without playing in another game. And what about the competition from his peers? Third base continues to be a sparse place for Hall of Famers. Only one third baseman that debuted in the past 37 years has made the Hall (Boggs) and, while considering Alex Rodriguez still has more games at shortstop than third base, only one active player so far has built a solid chance of getting in (Chipper Jones).
• Keep a close eye on the negotiations between Jimmy Rollins and the Phillies, where there is a wide gap on the length of the deal. Rollins has watched the club dole out four- and five-year deals for Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon, and as a core player of one of the greatest eras in Phillies history figures he should be in line for a five-year deal. The club prefers to keep Rollins, 33, on a three-year deal. One source close to Rollins said, "Don't underestimate the pride factor." Rollins would interest the Brewers and Giants if the Phillies keep a hard line on him.
• Here was one manager's take when told that job-hunting Manny Ramirez is in good shape: "Does he look like he's on steroids? Because he can't hit when he's not on steroids."
• The Cubs have two strong trading chips to turn into building blocks: pitchers Matt Garza and Sean Marshall. The Yankees have interest in Garza, especially because he has succeeded in the AL East. Outfielder Tyler Colvin is intriguing but of less certain value. Said one talent evaluator, "I liked him when he first came up. Now I can't tell whether he just needs a change of scenery or maybe they played him enough to like him less."
• Yu Darvish remains the international man of mystery. Rumors were flying about when and if he will be posted. One club said an official from Darvish's club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, was due at the meetings, indicating a possible imminent posting. But an official from another club said Darvish may be waiting until January, possibly after attending to a divorce and depressing the posting fee, which might leave more for him in salary. "It's all about the money," said the source.
• The Tigers never even kicked the tires on Reyes, though he appeared to be a good fit while pushing Jhonny Peralta to third base. "I kept hearing we were the team jumping in," said a club source, "but that was never the case. We're just tinkering around the edges; nothing big like that."