Players grow up fast in the Marlins' system. Often they arrive as no-names acquired when a pricey veteran is traded away, then blossom into big leaguers, only to be off-loaded in the franchise's latest fire sale. No one is more aware of this process than Dontrelle Willis. He was one of the throw-ins Florida received when it dumped pitchers Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca on the Cubs in 2002, a deal that worked out well. Willis was the NL Cy Young runner-up last season and, for now, is the lone member of the 2006 rotation with more than 13 major league starts under his belt. He should be untouchable. But, as he told The Palm Beach Post last week, "You never know.... That Beckett trade definitely surprised me. I didn't think he was ever getting traded."
He should have known better. Marlins president David Samson called the swaps that sent righthander Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell to the Red Sox and first baseman Carlos Delgado to the Mets last week a "market correction" aimed at reducing a $65 million payroll. (The team reportedly lost around $20 million last season.) Catcher Paul Lo Duca, centerfielder Juan Pierre and second baseman Luis Castillo are expected to be the next to go.
But the ultimate correction may come in 2007, when the Marlins' lease with Dolphins Stadium expires. Yet another attempt to secure public funding for a ballpark in downtown Miami failed last spring, and owner Jeffrey Loria (above) is considering moving his team--instead of just its stars. "Baseball is no longer assured of staying in [South] Florida," Samson said.
Samson said a handful of cities--Portland, Ore., among them--have recently tried to lure the Marlins. Don't bet on South Floridians rallying against those suitors to keep their team. The Marlins' 1997 and 2003 World Series triumphs aside, baseball's tropical experiment has been an exercise in civic nonsupport. The Marlins' average attendance last season (22,872) ranked 16th in the NL, embarrassingly low for a club that was in the wild-card race until late September. And the $60 million in stadium funding the team asked for earlier this year (the state senate declined to consider the plan after the house had passed it) is a relative pittance compared with what other cities and states have ponied up.
Give the Marlins this--they know how to downsize wisely. Said one rival G.M., "If you're going to cut it back that far, they're doing it the right way. They're getting good prospects." That should thrill the fans in Portland.