- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

MIAMI — There aren’t many people coming to watch the Florida Marlins these days — about 14,000 a game at Pro Player Stadium, the worst attendance in the National League.

But there are people around the country keeping an eye on this team, and not just because of the latest turmoil with the firing of manager Jeff Torborg last Saturday.

Owners, union officials, players and agents alike are watching to see if Florida’s payroll experiment will show some measure of success.

Pay for play.

It’s a concept that has been talked about for years in the face of escalating player salaries but never tried to the extent it is taking place on the Marlins, a team that has just one of its 25 players on the active roster — outfielder Juan Pierre — with a contract that goes beyond this season.

Everyone is playing for next year’s contract. If you believe, as many in sports do, that players perform at their best during contract years, then the Marlins are in front office heaven.

“When you are a team like ours, you cannot afford mistakes,” said club president David Samson. “Mistakes can set a franchise back for years. It is not a blanket policy. We are not against long-term deals. But the onus is on us to be very careful because we can’t afford to be wrong. Flexibility is the number one benefit a team can have.”

The Marlins, with a $42million payroll, are not the only team with only one player under contract beyond next year. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Kansas City Royals and Montreal Expos all have similar roster flexibility. But none of them appear to have adopted this stance as a way to build their rosters or to compete as the Marlins have.

Royals general manager Allard Baird said he believes if teams have the chance, long-term contracts for some of their young talent — like the Royals executed in a five-year, $55million extension for first baseman Mike Sweeney (though the deal has an out clause for Sweeney if the club does not reach .500 by next year) — are still the way to build a team.

“I still think it is important to try to lock up some of your younger players to long-term deals for stability,” Baird said. “But it’s interesting what they are doing there.”

Nobody else has signed a free agent to a one-year, $10million incentive-laden contract as Florida did with catcher Ivan Rodriguez during the winter. It is the Marlins who are seen as carrying the banner for pay for play.

“We have spoken to other teams who realize the benefit of flexibility,” Samson said. “It does not mean that we do not want to win. There is no correlation between long-term contracts and winning.”

Whether there is a correlation between the Marlins’ short-term deal philosophy for this year and winning is still in the experimental stage, and some unpredictable variables may skewer the results. It certainly has not been going well of late.

After a good start, the Marlins have fallen on hard times, with a 19-23 record through Thursday, fourth in the competitive National League East. They have been beset by injuries and controversies. Within two weeks, they lost four pitchers from a young, talented rotation: left-hander Mark Redmond, who was 3-2 with a 2.72 ERA before breaking his left thumb; right-hander A.J. Burnett, 0-2 with a 4.70 ERA, on the disabled list with a season-ending elbow injury (last year, Burnett, 26, was 12-9 with a 3.30 ERA and a major league-leading five shutouts); right-hander Josh Beckett, 2-3, 3.76 ERA, a sprained right elbow; and most recently left-hander Michael Tejera, 0-1, 5.79 ERA, back and leg injuries.

It is the Burnett injury that has caused friction within the organization. The pitcher, who underwent “Tommy John” surgery recently, has charged that the Marlins front office knew about a bone spur in his elbow from medical reports as far back as the spring of 2002, when former Montreal Expos owner Jeffrey Loria took over ownership of the club but withheld the information from the pitcher and Torborg. Burnett’s agent has asked that the team conduct an investigation into the handling of the pitcher’s injury.

General manager Larry Beinfest has vehemently denied that the Marlins withheld any information from the pitcher or the manager, calling it, “One of the most outrageous, ridiculous statements and accusations that I’ve ever heard in this game.”

Torborg told reporters he didn’t believe the pitching injuries led to his firing. But pitching coach Brad Arnsberg also was fired, and that dismissal led to a near-violent confrontation with Loria, according to Beinfest.

If the Marlins, under new manager Jack McKeon, can manage to right themselves and get most of their pitching staff healthy, they could still be a competitive team in the NL East.

They managed to put together an intriguing 2003 team, through a series of trades last year that allowed them to dump high-priced long-term contracts like those of Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson, who went to the Colorado Rockies, along with the $53million remaining on their contracts. That was part of the complicated three-team deal in which the Marlins received Mike Hampton and then traded him to the Atlanta Braves (though the Marlins are responsible for $30million over the next three years of the $121million, eight-year contract that Hampton signed with the Rockies two years ago). The trade resulted in a $23million saving for Florida.

In return, the Marlins received Pierre, a young (25) and fast outfielder (.287 average and 47 stolen bases last year, second only to Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo who stole 48), and the only player on the roster with a contract that extends beyond this year, with $5.7million due both next year and the year after.

The Marlins lineup does not have any big bats, but it does have a group of quality hitters led by Rodriguez, coming off an injury-plagued down year in his final season with Texas (19 home runs, 60 RBI and a .314 average). Derrick Lee, at first base, hit 27 home runs and drove in 86 runs in 2002, with a .270 average; Castillo, at second, batted. 305 with 185 hits; Alex Gonzalez at short, struggled with a .225 average last year, playing in 42 games because of a dislocated shoulder (he appears to be fully recovered, batting .336 with eight home runs and 24 RBI in 29 games so far this year); and All-Star Mike Lowell, who hit .276 with 24 home runs and 92 RBI, at third base. The outfield consists of Pierre, Juan Encarcion (24 home runs, 85 RBI in 2002) and free agents Todd Hollandsworth (16 home runs, 67 RBI in 2002) and journeymen Gerald Williams and Brian Banks.

Before the injuries, Florida’s starting rotation was considered the backbone of the club with Burnett, 29-year-old Redman (8-15, 4.21 ERA with Detroit last year), Beckett (6-7, 4.10 ERA last year), 24-year-old Brad Penny (8-7, 4.66 ERA in 2002) and Carl Pavano, 27, who went 3-2 with a 3.79 ERA with the Marlins last year after being traded from Montreal in August in a controversial deal that sent popular Marlins player Cliff Floyd to the Expos.

Of the 25 players on the roster, 21 were not yet eligible for free agency. However, 12 were eligible for arbitration, a potentially expensive process for clubs that often leads them to trade young players or decline to offer them arbitration, thereby releasing them. But the Marlins kept nearly all of them, reaching agreements with nine and letting three others go to arbitration, with the club winning each hearing. One arbitration-eligible player — outfielder Eric Owens — was released after the Marlins refused to even consider paying his $2.5million contract this year; he signed a $900,00 free agent deal with the Anaheim Angels.

The play for pay plan has not been a source of irritation in the Marlins clubhouse, according to pitcher and union representative Braden Looper.

“We don’t have control over it, and we can’t worry about it,” he said. “I haven’t seen any resentment over it. They have the right to do what they want. Obviously it would be nice as a player to have multi-year deal, but that’s the way they want to do it.”

The rest of the roster was filled out by four free agents on one-year deals, the highest profile belonging to Rodriguez, who spurned a three-year, $18million offer from the Baltimore Orioles to take the Marlins offer that has a $3million base with incentives that add up to $10million.

“It wasn’t in the plan to sign Pudge,” Beinfest said. “We had a plan to go with speed, pitching and defense and fortify the areas where we were already strong, and work within this payroll. We were basically there by mid-January, and then there was the realization that Pudge Rodriguez was still a free agent; it made sense for us to do something like that, performance-wise and in this market. The talks between Jeff Moorad and us centered around a one-year deal. It made sense to us.”

It didn’t make sense to many others, as the Marlins were ridiculed for the deal. But it may have turned out to have been a smart contract for Florida. Rodriguez, who is batting .256 with six home runs and 23 RBI, took the deal because the free agency market this winter was weak and did not result in the contract offers he had hoped for. But now Rodriguez is talking about staying in Florida and how much he likes it there, telling the Miami Herald that he is feeling at home with the Marlins.

“There were people who thought I would probably sign for two or three or four years, but free agency was very tough this year, but I got a nice one-year contract,” Rodriguez said. “I’m on a good team with a group of good young players. I look forward to having a good year and helping them win.”

Win or not, the Marlins are in an enviable position, at least payroll-wise. If they do manage to compete in the NL East, the scenario is that attendance will rise, resulting in more revenue to perhaps sign some of their younger players to longer contracts.

“It’s not something that we wouldn’t consider for the future,” Beinfest said. “It’s not a hard and fast philosophy that we won’t do longterm deals.”

If the Marlins still fail to draw, they won’t suffer the major losses that would come from having to pay long-term expensive contracts while revenues are down — though cynics would say that the Marlins and the Loria ownership, who are still intent on getting a ballpark built despite the failed attempts of previous owner John Henry to get government backing for a new facility, are simply biding their time until they can move the team or be paid off when contraction returns in 2006.

Meanwhile, in Florida, baseball watches as players actually earn their money — a novel concept.

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