Marlins Getting Most Bang for Their Buck

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

MIAMI -- There is perhaps no sadder sight in baseball than that of Your Name Here Stadium (apparently it is going by "Land Shark Stadium" these days) at just past 5 p.m. on another muggy, damp, sure-to-rain evening in the dead of summer in South Florida. The gates to the park have just opened, but the tarp is on the infield, there's no batting practice to watch, and the handful of Florida Marlins fans who trickled in early are standing around in a daze, sweating through their shirts, waiting for . . . something.

Though they may not even realize it, what they are waiting for is occurring a half-hour drive's south, where bulldozers and excavators churn over the land that once sat below the old Orange Bowl. What they are waiting for arrives in a little less than three years.

When the Marlins' new $634 million stadium is completed -- with its retractable roof and glorious air conditioning -- everything about the best dollar-for-dollar franchise in baseball will change dramatically. Unless, of course, it doesn't.

To play for, work for or root for the Marlins is to understand such paradoxes. It is a franchise that is both one of baseball's biggest successes -- with two World Series titles in its 17-year history and an ability to field contenders seemingly every year on minimal payrolls -- and one of its biggest eyesores, annually bringing up the rear in paid attendance and frequently trading away its top veterans for younger players to save money.

As the Marlins prepare to visit Nationals Park this week for a three-game series beginning Tuesday, it is again so. Though they entered the week at 55-50, just five games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East and three back in the wild card, they are last in the NL in attendance (18,110 average) and are fielding another overachieving roster of cheap, inexperienced youngsters and cheap, over-experienced scrap-heap pickups.

"I never look at payroll," said Marlins Manager Fredi González, repeating a sentiment Marlins managers have been saying for years. "I just look at baseball players. You never play the game with a payroll in your back pocket."

Well, David Samson certainly does. The Marlins' team president, Samson understands perhaps better than anyone that two sets of numbers -- stats and earning potential -- teeter perilously on each side of the equation when it comes time for the front office to evaluate each of its players.

In the past five years, the Marlins have traded an all-star team's worth of talent: Carlos Delgado, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Luis Castillo, Brad Penny and Juan Pierre. In November, they sent two players eligible for arbitration -- outfielder Josh Willingham and lefty Scott Olsen -- to the Nationals for young infielder Emilio Bonifacio. Total savings from that deal: a little more than $5 million.

"Our payroll this year went from about 20-something [million] to about 40 [million]," Samson said. "If we had kept all 25 of the same guys, it would have gone from 20 to 70 [million]. The roster matured at the same time. So you have to make choices."

Their choices are usually spot-on, making the Marlins a model of efficiency. Based on opening day payroll figures, the Marlins (at $35.8 million) are shelling out about 42 percent less in payroll than the Nationals ($62 million), but have gotten 40 percent more wins this year. And when the teams made another trade last week, with the Nationals sending first baseman Nick Johnson to Florida for Class AA lefty Aaron Thompson, the Nationals picked up the remaining $1.8 million of Johnson's salary.

With the exception of 2005, when they signed Delgado as a free agent in an uncharacteristic spending spree, the Marlins have ranked in the bottom three of payrolls in every season since Samson's boss and stepfather, owner Jeffrey Loria, bought the team in 2002. It makes it all the more remarkable that the franchise is an aggregate seven games over .500 in that span.

"We haven't sacrificed wins," Samson said.

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