That same franchise is now responsible for the three most lucrative free-agent contracts disseminated at this year's winter meetings -- $106 million over six years to shortstop Jose Reyes, $58 million over four years to left-hander Mark Buehrle and $27 million over three years to closer Heath Bell, with a hefty offer to lefty starter C.J. Wilson still on the table -- and is now readying for what could be a period of multi-year contention that's unprecedented in franchise history.
Miami has committed $191 million to three men after spending approximately $210 million combined on the past six years of 25-men rosters. It now sports a projected payroll for 2012 that, based on finalized contracts and estimated arbitration numbers, may well approach as much as $120 million, barring all other transactions. The club spent $58 million on payroll in 2011 and as little as $15 million in 2006.
The Marlins are baseball's nouveau riche, ready to build a sustainable long-term contender by hedging the bets of future revenues in their soon-to-open ballpark. It's a risky endeavor as they try not to become a sporting equivalent of last decade's housing bubble burst or last century's dot-com crash.
But those were economic phenomenon occurring without direction by a complicated financial system. The Marlins, on the other hand, are doling out dollars in accordance with a long-ago conceived plan. In doing so they are rapidly building a serious threat not just to the divisional heavyweight Phillies but also the rest of the majors. For a formerly frugal franchise, Marlins president David Samson conceded that the new experience is "nerve-wracking."
"We still need to be right," Samson said.
Samson said this winter's plan was internally conjured as a "three-part move" -- manifested in the additions of Bell, Buehrle and Reyes -- that dated back nearly three years to when the club received formal approval to break ground on the new ballpark. The Marlins front office said they invested time evaluating the players on the expected free-agent list for this offseason, when they knew they'd have the capacity to spend.
And they were aggressive when this winter came, visiting Reyes in New York at 12:01 a.m. on the first day contact was permitted and pursuing just about every big name available, even Albert Pujols, to whom they made what was reported to be a very competitive offer. "Execution of a plan was not a problem because we had a plan in place," said president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, "and we've done a lot of work obviously on pro formas and revenues and things to know what we can do, and ultimately [owner Jeffrey Loria] makes those decisions."
That plan could now potentially be four parts if Wilson joins, which would even exceed the plan to lure players to join the club's "move South" -- its euphemism for the nearly 15-mile southward trip from their current home in Sun Life Stadium to the sparkling new $634 million retractable-roof ballpark in Miami's Little Havana.
"Instead of waiting for it to sellout and then signing players," Samson said, "the decision was made to improve the team and win on a consistent basis and show the fans that not only do we have a new ballpark, we've got a team that we expect to make the playoffs and be competitive."
If the fans of the historically fickle baseball market do respond with attendance that meets the Marlins' projection of 2.8 million ticks of the turnstile -- and, as hitting coach Eduardo Perez said, "I don't see how anyone in the city of Miami can't be ecstatic with what's happened in the last few days" -- then presumably the club would also have the ability to retain the club's incumbent young talent, such as power-hitting right fielder Mike Stanton, left fielder Logan Morrison and first baseman Gaby Sanchez. In the days of yore, Miami traded ace Josh Beckett and first baseman Miguel Cabrera, while allowing many more to leave via free agency.
"We have a glorious new park, and we want to be good," owner Jeffrey Loria said. "And better. And we want to win."
An Internet leak last summer gave writers and fans a rare unfiltered look at the Marlins' financial records, which suggested that the club was profitable but seemingly nowhere near the level necessary for the pricey acquisitions they'd made. Then again, no one is privy to the in-house projections on which the Marlins are basing this spending and how much revenue-sharing dollars they might have saved from previous season.
And it's unclear if a recently-disclosed Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the public financing of the new ballpark -- local officials in the city and county pledged 80 percent of the $634 million tab -- might have any impact on the operations of the club, an idea the club refutes. "There's absolutely no questions," Loria said Monday. "We will work with the SEC and help them in any way possible."
The Marlins only drew 1.5 million fans in each of the past three years -- and those figures represented improvements on the previous three years. Many new ballparks suffer a second-year decline, but mostly in situations when the on-field club wasn't competitive.
Though last year's team only won 72 games, its two best players, ace Josh Johnson and shortstop Hanley Ramirez, were among the players who missed significant time with injuries. Good health, further development from its young core players and the major free-agent additions should guarantee a rise up the standings. Miami is banking on a similar rise in attendance or else it won't be able to afford the expensive new players, and it seems there's a reason the team doesn't grant no-trade protection to players.
"I'm very pleased and very excited about this lineup," new manager Ozzie Guillen said. "I mean, there's three or four guys in the top, and I look all the way to the eighth hitter, it's pretty exciting. I think they look pretty good. Hopefully they'll play the way they look."
Like any baseball club, there will be questions, ranging from the usual (keeping star players healthy) to the specific (keeping Ramirez happy). There's been wild speculation that Ramirez was resisting a move to third base or was even demanding a trade (a report that was promptly shot down by Samson).
Much of the Marlins' team-building plan was to construct a championship club around Ramirez, whom Guillen called "the main course of this lineup." And Perez said he's confident Ramirez will return to form and perhaps even improve with Reyes hitting in front of him.
"You know what, adding Jose Reyes to the lineup only increases his opportunity to drive in runs and to get better pitches," Perez said. "[Ramirez] is a smart player. He's a smart individual. I really got to know him for the last three and a half months that I was there, and I can tell you, this kid is really, really good. A few years ago everybody was saying he was the best player in baseball. What's different? Well, he had injuries. He's still as dynamic as people say and as he knows he can be."
And, for a change, next year Ramirez will no longer be the Marlins' sole bearer of the burden of stardom.
Management's plan to load the field with stars may help change the perception of the club. There's a new name (Miami Marlins) to go along with the new ballpark and the new uniforms with their new team colors. But the real change in hue is of the color most closely associated with the team: from orange for the ubiquitously vacant seats at the old ballpark to the green of new money generated by the new one.