Search

DEEP SIX IN A BLOCKBUSTER $89.1 MILLION SPENDING SPREE, THE MARLINS HAULED IN HALF A DOZEN FREE AGENTS, LED BY NATIVE FLORIDIAN ALEX FERNANDEZ

Dec. 23, 1996
Dec. 23, 1996

Table of Contents
Dec. 23, 1996

Faces In The Crowd
Sportsman Of The Year

DEEP SIX IN A BLOCKBUSTER $89.1 MILLION SPENDING SPREE, THE MARLINS HAULED IN HALF A DOZEN FREE AGENTS, LED BY NATIVE FLORIDIAN ALEX FERNANDEZ

Dave Dombrowski hunched over the calculator on his desk,
punching in numbers as casually as if he were tallying his
month's dry-cleaning bills. Let's see, there's 4.5, 5, 5, 5.25,
5.25 for Alou. Bobby Bo's at.... "Excuse me," said Dombrowski,
the Florida Marlins' general manager. "I usually don't count it
this way. Normally we look at the total payroll for the year."
He resumed tapping, leaving off the zeroes.

This is an article from the Dec. 23, 1996 issue Original Layout

"O.K.," said Dombrowski, finally tapped out. "Fernandez is $35
million for five years, Cook's $1.7 million for two, Alou's $25
million for five, Eisenreich's $3 million for two, Cangelosi's
$1.075 million for two and Bonilla's $23.3 million for four.
It's whatever that adds up to."

It adds up to the biggest holiday shopping spree ever. In a
three-week binge that began on Nov. 22 and ended last Thursday
when the MasterCard people started getting suspicious, the
Marlins committed $89,075,000 to those six free agents. For that
much money, this Christmas you could have gotten a couple of CDs
for Sis, that sweater Dad has been admiring, a lovely brooch for
Mom and a big league baseball franchise for yourself.

Say this for the Marlins: They buy retail. They overspent for
Bobby Bonilla, who hits plenty but who hasn't found a home
either in the field or with a team since leaving the Pittsburgh
Pirates after the 1991 season. They made journeyman lefthanded
reliever Dennis Cook an offer so generous that his former
general manager with the Texas Rangers, Doug Melvin, urged him
to take it. They paid $4.075 million for two outfielders, Jim
Eisenreich and John Cangelosi, who make a lovely pair of bench
ornaments. They committed an average of $5 million annually
until 2001 for the dynamic but brittle 30-year-old Moises Alou,
who has never driven in 100 runs in a season. The only player on
the markdown rack was Miami native Alex Fernandez, the most
important and costly of the acquisitions. Fernandez, a
27-year-old righthander who spent the last six seasons with the
Chicago White Sox, was offered $40 million for five years by the
Cleveland Indians but took $35 million of hometown money--the
largest financial commitment to a pitcher in history--though,
because Florida has no state income tax, the net difference
between the deals was hardly enough to rent a beach cabana.

Gift wrapping--along with the dinner Dombrowski promised
Eisenreich at Joe's Stone Crab if he signed--is extra.

You don't sweat the jacked-up prices if you are Wayne Huizenga's
Marlins, whose projected 1997 payroll is $48 million, or 55%
more than it was in '96. This is a short limo ride from the $51
million threshold for a luxury tax (35% of the salaries over
that amount) that will kick in next year for the five teams with
the highest payrolls. If the new collective bargaining agreement
was supposed to provide a drag on salaries, it seems as
ineffectual as the warnings on cigarette packs. Fourteen
shop-till-you-drop clubs committed $216,625,000 to 28 free
agents last week, including Florida's $61.7 million for Alou,
Cook and Fernandez.

"I came from a situation where dollars were tough to come by,"
says manager Jim Leyland, the former Pittsburgh Pirates skipper
who became the first big-name Florida free-agent signee this
off-season when he agreed to a five-year, $7.5 million contract
on Oct. 4. "To come from there and go to a team where the
payroll jumps from $31 million to $48 million--that's a little
overwhelming for me. I was talking to [Pittsburgh general
manager] Cam Bonifay not long ago about it. Another team would
sign a player, and I'd tell Cam, 'Ah, they overpaid for that
guy.' I guess I was jealous. The thing I'd always realize is
that no matter what they paid, they got the player. Well, some
people'll say the Marlins overpaid, but we got those players.
When a guy's at the plate, you don't care if he makes six bucks
or six million. You want a guy up who has a chance. We feel,
with this team, we have a chance."

A chance at what? At succeeding the Atlanta Braves as the
National League superpower? Leyland, doing everything but
spitting at the suggestion, ticks off the Braves' renowned
starting pitchers, applauds their veterans, praises their young
talent and notes that the four-year-old Florida franchise has
achieved nothing. "Atlanta's not getting too nervous, believe
me," he says. "The teams aren't comparable." The Miami Herald
couldn't agree more. Last Friday the newspaper ran the projected
every-day lineups for Atlanta and Florida in 1997, favoring the
Braves at just two positions.

This was no impulse buy, no Steinbrenneresque rush to grab the
most baubles and figure out where they go later. During
organizational meetings in October, Florida targeted six
areas--leftfield, third base, a No. 1-3 starter, lefthanded
relief, bullpen set-up and reserve outfielders--and ranked
players it thought might be available in each category and got
ready to start dialing.

Not everything went according to plan. The Marlins were
reportedly willing to spend almost $10 million annually for four
years on volatile leftfielder Albert Belle, but they were
trumped by the White Sox. This is probably just as well because
1) White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf's five-year, $55 million
winning bid for Belle nudged owners into signing the new
collective bargaining agreement, which 2) granted Alou and
Fernandez the service time they needed to become free agents,
which 3) allowed Dombrowski to use the money earmarked for
Belle, plus a little more, to sign them both. If these six new
Marlins play as expected, they might not win the World Series,
but they should be candidates for the No-Belle Peace Prize.
Consider:

--Bonilla, who hit 28 home runs and knocked in 116 runs for the
Baltimore Orioles last season, brings some punch to a position,
third base, at which the Marlins ranked last in the league in
home runs (11) and next-to-last in slugging percentage (.362)
and extra-base hits (43). The switch-hitting Bonilla, who has
played third, first and the outfield in his 11-year career
(though his best position is DH), not only can protect Gary
Sheffield--the National League's best righthanded hitter drove
in 120 runs while walking 142 times last season--but will also
do much of it from the left side. The Marlins batted a
league-worst .251 against righties.

--The signing of Alou moves Jeff Conine from leftfield to first
base and juices up the offense. Alou isn't among the Barry
Bonds-Ken Griffey Jr. first rank of outfielders, but, when
healthy, he's near the top of the B list.

--Leyland requested two spare, seasoned outfielders: one who
could lead off an inning, another who could drive in a run.
Cangelosi can lead off. Eisenreich can do everything. Dollar for
dollar, the 37-year-old Eisenreich might turn out to be
Florida's top free-agent bargain. He hit .361 last year with 24
doubles in 338 at bats for the Philadelphia Phillies, his fourth
straight season batting at least .300. The switch-hitting
Cangelosi, a onetime Leyland acolyte in Pittsburgh, had a .378
on-base percentage for the Houston Astros but was below the
radar screen as a pinch hitter (1 for 28).

--After lefthanded hitters cuffed Florida southpaw relievers in
'96, Dombrowski signed the 34-year-old Cook, who was tough on
lefties (.206), tougher in clutch situations (only 16 of 81
inherited runners scored, and batters hit just .177 against him
with runners in scoring position) and almost untouchable against
the first hitters he faced (.065).

--Fernandez joins a starting rotation that in 1996 was known as
Brown, Leiter and Lightweight. Kevin Brown and Al Leiter were a
combined 33-23 with a 2.39 ERA; the other starters went 26-38
with a 4.91 ERA. Fernandez comes off four seasons in which his
combined numbers (57-34, 3.52 ERA) were similar to those of
Atlanta's John Smoltz from 1992 through '95. Last year Smoltz
won the Cy Young Award. The more intriguing comparison is with
Greg Maddux, who also left Chicago (the Cubs) as a free agent
when he was turning 27. From age 22 to 26, Maddux won 22 more
games than Fernandez, but their winning percentages (Maddux,
.585; Fernandez, .580) and their ERAs (Maddux, 2.97; Fernandez,
3.52) were comparable. "Very few pitchers become free agents in
their prime, Maddux being a rarity," Dombrowski says. "Alex
certainly fits that category. Does a five-year contract for a
pitcher concern me? Yeah. We stretched a bit, but that's where
the market was. We could have signed another pitcher for four
years and a few million less, but Alex has a special ability.
He's someone we wanted very much."

Baseball has always had hometown heroes--Pete Rose in
Cincinnati, Paul Molitor late in his career in Minnesota--but
perhaps no local player has been more important to his city and
franchise than Fernandez could be in Miami. His is not just the
appeal of familiarity, a kid whose name has been in the local
sports sections since he was in high school. He is
Cuban-American, poster boy of a proud, passionate South Florida
community that adores baseball, even if it doesn't show it by
supporting the Marlins. "The feeling was, 'O.K., Cubans love
baseball, build it and they will come,'" says Florida vice
president of sales and marketing Jim Ross. "It hasn't happened
that way." Fernandez can help. Since he signed on Dec. 9, the
phones haven't stopped ringing at the Marlins' ticket office and
at his house, 10 minutes from Pro Player Stadium.

But it wasn't only the Hispanic community that had grown
indifferent to the Marlins. The club averaged 38,311 during its
inaugural season in 1993, but baseball's suicide attempt the
following year--the strike, the cancellation of the World
Series--reduced the sport to just another South Florida
amusement. "Baseball," Dombrowski says, "stopped being the
happening thing to do." Florida's attendance fell to an average
of 21,835 fans a game last year as the season-ticket base
dwindled from a high of 20,000 in 1993 to 12,500. Huizenga has a
notion of building a baseball-only stadium, but it hinges on how
many South Floridians actually care about the Marlins.

Dombrowski took the Florida job with the idea of building from
the ground up, developing a solid farm system and, when the team
looked ready to win, topping off with free agents. He had a
five-year plan. So, too, did Stalin, and it didn't do much for
either of them. The organization has been productive--starting
middle infielders Edgar Renteria and Luis Castillo and Gold
Glove catcher Charles Johnson came from the minors--but it was
taking too long. Florida's expansion rivals, the Colorado
Rockies, went the expensive free-agent route right off and made
the playoffs in 1995. The NFL's second-year Carolina Panthers
are in the playoffs this season for the same reason. And while
Huizenga didn't get to take home the Stanley Cup last spring
when his third-year, $20 million-payroll Florida Panthers lost
in the NHL finals to the Colorado Avalanche, he got a firsthand
look at it.

Huizenga, who probably has started working on his third billion
dollars, asked Dombrowski in September how much a fun baseball
team, a quality team, would cost in 1997. Maybe $45 million, he
was told. Huizenga, whose Marlins were 80-82 and lost a reported
$18 million last season, said O.K. Even if the Marlins sell all
40,585 seats for their 81 home games next year, they still won't
break even.

"Wayne's fallen in love with the Panthers," Dombrowski says.
"Our goal is to have Wayne fall in love with the Marlins. He's
not a baseball aficionado, he doesn't see the intricacies of the
game, just like he wasn't a hockey aficionado. But I told him
last year I can't wait until he sees the atmosphere of a pennant
race, people hanging on every pitch. I hope we're all around for
that."

The Marlins have never played a significant game in their four
years. In 1997 they have a chance. For $89,075,000, that's all
you can ask.

COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL Florida hopes its holiday splurge (top to bottom: Cook, Alou, Fernandez, Eisenreich, Bonilla and Cangelosi) will result in more wins--and more fans. [Dennis Cook]COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO [See caption above--Moises Alou]COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE [See caption above--Alex Fernandez]COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [See caption above--Jim Eisenreich]COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above--Bobby Bonilla]COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT WACHTER/MLB PHOTOS [See caption above--John Cangelosi]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO With big bats added to the lineup, Sheffield, who walked 142 times in 1996, will see better pitches. [Gary Sheffield]COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON After Leiter (below) and Brown, the Marlins rotation floundered. [Al Leiter]COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Hometown hero Fernandez offers a link to the Hispanic community that the Marlins have needed. [Alex Fernandez and others around domino table]

GONE FISHIN'

The Marlins may have committed nearly $90 million over five
years to sign six free agents since Nov. 22, but as the
following information shows, all six players should help the
team overcome a variety of weaknesses.

Player, Pos.
Moises Alou, LF
Career .314 hitter with runners in scoring position, including
.321 in 1996

The Deal
5 years $25 million

1996 Maladies
Empty Plate
Marlins ranked 13th among 14 National League teams in runs scored

[Player, Pos.]
Bobby Bonilla, 3B
Hit 28 home runs in each of the last two seasons

[The Deal]
4 years $23.3 million

[1996 Maladies]
Cool Corner
Marlins third basemen were last in league in HRs (11) and 13th
in extra-base hits

[Player, Pos.]
Alex Fernandez, RHP
Last year's stats: 16-10, 3.45 ERA, 7.37 innings per start

[The Deal]
5 years $35 million

[1996 Maladies]
Starting Over
Marlins' third, fourth and fifth starters combined: 26-38, 4.91
ERA, 5.54 innings per start

[Player, Pos.]
Dennis Cook, LHP
Last season lefthanded hitters batted .206 against him

[The Deal]
2 years $1.7 million

[1996 Maladies]
No Relief
Lefthanded hitters batted .281 against Marlins' four lefthanded
relievers

[Player, Pos.]
Jim Eisenreich, OF
John Cangelosi, OF
Combined for 191 hits in 600 at bats in '96, a .318 average,
including .324 versus RHPs

[The Deal]
2 years $3 million
2 years $1.1 million

[1996 Maladies]
Benched
Marlins' top two reserve outfielders hit .220; team batted
league-worst .251 versus RHPs

Source: Elias Sports Bureau