When the Florida Marlins signed all-star catcher Ivan Rodriguez out from under the Baltimore Orioles in January with a one-year, $10 million deal, many rival executives were left puzzled as to why a struggling small-market team with little hopes of contending in a brutally tough division would shell out so much money for what amounts to a one-year rental.
The signing makes much more sense, however, when viewed in the context of the Marlins' unique organizational philosophy: keeping almost all of their players on one-year deals in order to keep them "hungry" and move closer to a pay-for-performance concept, which has never really existed in baseball because of the guaranteed nature of its contracts.
"We believe in paying for performance," said Marlins General Manager Larry Beinfest. "You can't afford underperformance in multiyear contracts when running a reasonable payroll. Your margin for error is very small."
To that end, the Marlins purged themselves this winter of the long-term contracts of Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson -- who are owed a combined $52.5 million over the next three seasons -- and gave one-year deals to Rodriguez, Todd Hollandsworth and Mark Redman.
Now, only one player on the roster is signed beyond this season -- outfielder Juan Pierre, who came to the Marlins from the Colorado Rockies in the same deal that sent Johnson and Wilson to Denver. Pierre is signed through 2005.
The strategy has its risks and rewards. Although the Marlins aren't stuck with any long-term contracts that might be impossible to move if the players stop producing, they almost certainly will be forced to turn over a large part of their roster each year, as young players reach arbitration-eligible status and free agency and become eligible for big paydays.
"Business-wise, I think it's actually smart," said Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee. "But you get all these guys hitting arbitration and free agency at the same time, and you're not going to be able to pay everybody. It's really just a form of pay for performance."
The Marlins also risk alienating their core players, who see other teams giving long-term deals to comparable players. This winter, pitcher A.J. Burnett was especially critical of the Marlins' lack of interest in signing him to a long-term deal.
It is too early to say whether the Marlins' example may become a league-wide trend. However, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have only two players signed beyond this season, and the Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos have only three each. All of them, of course, are low- to mid-market teams.
"I think there are appropriate multiyear contracts," said Baltimore Orioles Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie. "Such as players who are motivated and can stay focused regardless of what they're going through contractually, as well as your core players. But I don't think you want the majority of your players on multiyear contracts."
Marlins officials use buzzwords such as "payroll flexibility" in describing their one-year-contract strategy. In practice, this is what that may mean:
Should the Marlins have another losing season and another terrible year at the gate, it would be very easy for them to let all their expensive players walk away and field a bare-bones squad in 2004.
Sosa's Exercise Threat
Perhaps Sammy Sosa wasn't paying attention this winter as the free agent market crashed. Sosa recently threatened to exercise an out clause in his four-year, $70.5 million contract after this season.
Player options for 2004 and 2005 would pay Sosa $16 million and $17 million, respectively, but Sosa said he won't decide until after the season whether to exercise the first one or walk away as a free agent.
"I can't answer that right now," Sosa told the Chicago Tribune. "I will be able to answer that after the season. I'm hoping we have a great season and that I will finish my career here. But I am not just a baseball player. I am a businessman who has to take care of business."
Business sense might tell Sosa to stay put, given the market's precipitous drop this winter. . . .
The Arizona Diamondbacks are believed to be close to signing five-time Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson to a two-year contract extension that would keep him with the team through 2005.
Johnson, who will turn 40 in September, will earn $15 million this season, the final year of his current deal. . . .
With veteran right-handers Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort appearing healthy this spring in their twin comebacks from arm injuries, the Los Angeles Dodgers may find themselves with a logjam of starting pitchers.
In addition to Brown and Dreifort, the Dodgers have left-handers Odalis Perez and Kazuhisa Ishii and right-handers Andy Ashby and Hideo Nomo in camp. The best bet as odd-man-out is Ashby, who needs to pitch 1681/3 innings this season for a $8.5 million option for 2004 to kick in. . . .
Looks as if 21-year-old phenom Rocco Baldelli will make the Devil Rays' roster as the starting center fielder. Baldelli ascended from Class A to Class AAA last year and was named Baseball America's minor league player of the year. . . .
St. Louis Cardinals left-hander Rick Ankiel is trying to resurrect his career as a reliever. Ankiel won 11 games as a rookie in 2000 before acute control problems in 2001 and a sore elbow in 2002 nearly derailed his career. . . .
The Montreal Expos sold more than 7,400 individual-game tickets in Montreal on the first day tickets became available, the team's highest such total in 10 years. The Expos don't play their first game in Montreal until April 22, since their first 10 "home" games will be in San Juan, Puerto Rico.