- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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We all know what happened the last two times the Florida Marlins put together teams like this.
The 1997 World Series champs were calling the moving vans about a half-hour after they'd finished sweeping up the confetti.
And now here the Fish are again, rising up from the rubble to burst to the largest lead -- 5 games, by April 19 -- in the history of the franchise.
Maybe it will lead them to another trip to October. Maybe it won't. But either way, this time it's different.
This time it's all leading somewhere, and by that we don't mean to another everything-must-go sale just over the horizon.
"That," said Marlins president David Samson, "is not something we'll ever have to do again."
This time the future of the franchise is essentially secure, thanks to the 37,000-seat retractable-dome ballpark that has finally, really, no kidding, for sure, been approved for a 2012 opening.
This time it appears legitimately safe to look at a Marlins team and envision the core group growing and playing together for the next five years, as opposed to the next five minutes.
This time what the Marlins are building is something lasting, something stable, something that's actually, well, normal.
They remember all too well what they've had to do in the past. But "I don't see that happening again," Samson pledged. "We've put ourselves in a position, with salaries and the performance we're getting from players at a young age, that we don't have to do that anymore."
At the moment, they still have the best record in baseball (11-4), even after getting swept in Pittsburgh. Amazingly, they also have the lowest payroll in baseball, at just $36.8 million, if you don't count the deferred money they're still paying guys like Carlos Delgado, Al Leiter and even Paul Lo Duca.
The men who run this club are not afraid to admit that, with their new ballpark still three seasons away, they won't be able to keep every member of this juggernaut in teal pinstripes until they get there. Nevertheless, this is a team that's now in a place unlike any place it's ever been before.
"We don't sit here now and say we're building a team to win in 2012," Samson said. "We're built to win in 2009, and we're built to win in 2010. We think we've built a pipeline now where we can keep winning every year."
Nobody wins every year, of course. But thanks to the good-as-it-gets management team assembled by their astute president of baseball operations, Larry Beinfest, the Marlins have such insane depth of young talent that it isn't out of the question.
And behind that group is the No. 2-ranked farm system in baseball, a system that has developed six of the top 100 prospects in the sport (and three of the top 18), according to Baseball America.
So what that means is that the Marlins have the freedom now to make decisions that are about dollars and baseball. Not so long ago, it was only one of the above. So if, down the road, they trade away, say, a Jeremy Hermida to make room for a rising middle-of-the-order thumper like Michael Stanton, it will be because their system allows them to do that, not just because their financial handcuffs compel them to do it.
"We don't want to put ourselves in a position where we're forced to keep the same names," Samson said, "and watch the payroll of the club climb by $20-30 million for no better performance [than they'd get by infusing young players]."
Three years ago, though, they didn't have that freedom. No one seems to recall now that in 2004 and 2005 the Marlins actually pushed the payroll above $60 million two years in a row, in an attempt to give the 2003 nucleus a shot to win again. But when that didn't happen and their ballpark plans kept blowing up, they did what they felt they had to do:
They jettisoned Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Carlos Delgado, Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo and just about every veteran player still leaning against a palm tree. They pushed their payroll to below $15 million. Then they went back to work, putting in place the stadium pieces and roster pieces that would lead them toward this day.
"We did three years early what the country is doing now," Samson said. "We borrowed against our future, hoping it would never catch up with us, and then it did. So instead of slowly slipping off the Band-Aid, we tore it off, and it was very painful. But it was the right move for us."
What will be fascinating to watch now, as they point toward that new park, is which of these players they decide to export and which ones they look to sign for the long haul, or at least the semi-long haul.
They've already locked up Ramirez through 2014. Next, they figure to home in on the rotation, where their top two starters, Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, will both be arbitration-eligible next winter.
Center fielder Cameron Maybin and closer Matt Lindstrom also look like keepers. But with big-time prospects like Stanton, first baseman Logan Morrison and third baseman Matt Dominguez just over the horizon, this team will have tough decisions to make about whether to hang onto (and pay) guys like Hermida and Dan Uggla.
Are there dollar signs complicating all those decisions? Of course. But at least now, their decisions aren't just about dollar signs.
"We want to keep winning," Samson said. "We'll never say we're rebuilding. Our owner [Jeffrey Loria] doesn't want us to rebuild. He wants to win every year. So that leaves us in a position to have to make unpopular decisions that we can hopefully turn into popular decisions if we win."
The Marlins have work to do on other fronts, too, obviously. They're 24th in the big leagues in attendance. They drew the fewest fans in the sport just last year. And their season-ticket base (about 5,000 full-season equivalents) is one of the lowest in baseball.
But when that new park opens -- with a charismatic young team inside and a roof overhead that ensures a game every day without mid-game monsoons and 188 percent humidity -- Samson couldn't be more confident that attendance won't be an issue anymore.
"We will draw 2½ million [in the new park]," he said, flatly. "I'm positive of it."
The Marlins are already scheduled to host the WBC finals in 2013. And there are rumors about an All-Star Game some time after that. So this is a team that's suddenly embarking on a journey to the center of the baseball universe.
That's not a journey the Marlins are familiar with. But if they've programmed their GPS correctly, it's a journey they've never been more ready to make.
And if that means you won't find half their roster available next year at overstock.com, that's not just good news in South Florida. That's good news for the entire sport.
Ready to rumble
The Doc is still in: The Blue Jays' hot start is notable for all sorts of reasons. But one of the biggest is the potential impact this season could have on the future of their ace, Roy Halladay.
"We're doing the best we can," GM J.P. Ricciardi told Rumblings, "to show him this is a good situation."
Other clubs continue to speculate about the potential availability of Halladay, a free agent after 2010. But Ricciardi is doing his best to swat away the Halladay trade talk, especially when his club is showing signs it might be one of the surprise teams of 2009.
"I still don't see us doing it," Ricciardi said of dealing his ace. "I know ownership doesn't want to do it. And I don't think, in my gut, that Doc really wants to be anywhere else. I think he wants to be here if this organization is going to win. So I think he's taking a wait-and-see approach. I think he sees we've got a chance to be a really good club next year. And we've got a chance to lay the groundwork for that this year."
If the Blue Jays can just hang in there, by August they could have a whole different look. They expect to have Jesse Litsch (strained forearm) and Casey Janssen (shoulder soreness) healthy by mid-May. They could have Shaun Marcum (Tommy John surgery) back by Labor Day.
They have two real-deal left-handed pitching prospects, Brett Cecil and Brad Mills, just about ready to make an impact. And their two young boppers, Adam Lind and Travis Snider, have totally changed the depth of their lineup.
So as Ricciardi peers into the future, he sees his team "sitting down with Doc at the end of the year" and trying to do an extension, not holding a dump-the-ace-while-they-still-can fire sale.
"If we think we're going to be a good club, and we do, then we're not going to be a good club without Doc," the GM said. "So unless ownership says that because of the economy we've got to have a $50 million payroll, I just don't see it [a trade] happening.
"But I'll tell you this," Ricciardi said, laughing, "if we ever do decide we have to trade him, you can tell teams we'll be coming at them with a bandit mask and a gun. So they'd better be ready to unload."
The man from Vlad: The official prognosis on Vladimir Guerrero's torn pectoral muscle is that he could be back in a month. But Guerrero's mounting physical issues have people around the sport wondering now about his long-term prognosis.
For one thing, said one baseball man, "How's he coming back in a month from a torn pec? When those offensive linemen get that injury in the NFL, they're out for the year."
Meanwhile, a front-office man was asking: "He may come back, but what's he going to be like the rest of the year? That's a tough injury -- especially for a guy who lets it fly the way he does."
Guerrero, 33, was supposed to be one of the biggest names on the 2009-10 free-agent marquee. But add this issue to his offseason knee surgery, and he's making potential bidders very nervous.
"He could be a $1 million player in a year, with $4 million in incentives," said an official of one team. "He's a tough guy to commit to."
The Pedro watch: Pedro Martinez continues to tread water out there, still asking for a $5 million paycheck to come back. It's doubtful the Angels are interested in meeting that price. And clearly, no one else is. So if Pedro sticks to that demand, it's almost enough to make you wonder if there's more to this "holdout" than money.
"I'm not sure the guy really believes he can pitch all year," said an executive of one club. "Does the guy want to pitch for a good team? Does he want to pitch in October? Absolutely. But does he want to pitch now? I'm not so sure.
"Look at his innings pitched the last three years. He hasn't even pitched 300 innings, right? [Right. He's actually at 269 1/3.] So if he signs now, what are the chances of him being healthy in June and July and August so he can even get to September? If you look at the track record lately, I think the odds are against it."
As we've written before, Pedro's six shutout innings, spread over two WBC appearances against the Netherlands, didn't convince his suitors that he could make it through a big league lineup three times, which he'd have to do as a starter. And they certainly didn't prove he could do it for 25 or 30 starts. All they did, said an official of one club, was "give you the idea that if you need pitching, you should still think about him."
So there are teams out there still thinking (Angels, Dodgers, Indians, possibly the Mets later in the year). What's unclear is how much Pedro is thinking seriously about them.
Crouching Tigers: Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski couldn't have been more emphatic this week in blowing up any Miguel Cabrera trade speculation. But we hear Cabrera wasn't the Tigers hitter teams were eyeing anyway.
"The guy I could see them moving, if they're out of it," said one GM, "is Magglio [Ordonez]."
But here's what could make dealing for Ordonez so complicated: Are you trading for a two-month rental or a guy you'd have through 2011?
In one of those typically complicated Scott Boras contracts, the guaranteed portion of Ordonez's contract runs only through this year (at $18 million). But he has vesting options for both 2010 and 2011.
That $18 million 2010 option turns into a guaranteed deal with another 394 plate appearances, or 121 games started, this year. And the $15 million 2011 option has similar vesting triggers. So any team dealing for Ordonez would have to be prepared to assume somewhere around $40 million. And it will be tough to find takers at those dollars.
Hello, Houston: Cecil Cooper's surprising contract extension last weekend was presented by Astros management as a fait accompli that they'd just never gotten around to finishing off. But that isn't the story Astros players have been telling their friends.
As Fox's Ken Rosenthal reported last week, those players haven't been admirers of Cooper's leadership style. And we hear they actually reported those complaints to owner Drayton McLane himself during spring training.
But McLane was the driving force behind the hiring of Cooper in August 2007. So that fire-the-manager button was one the owner wasn't ready to push. And Cooper, whose team had the best record in the NL (42-22) after the All-Star break last year, clearly wouldn't have deserved to get canned this early.
Nevertheless, McLane isn't happy with his team's 6-9 start. So this is a situation worth monitoring if this pitching-challenged outfit doesn't turn it around.
The end isn't near: Tom Glavine's agent, Gregg Clifton, tells Rumblings that reports of the imminent end of Glavine's career are premature.
Clifton said Glavine's shoulder is "feeling better every day. And if something was really bad in there, he wouldn't be getting better every day." Glavine also was told by Dr. James Andrews that, other than some minor inflammation, his shoulder "looks no different" than it did before, Clifton said.
After aborting his rehab start for Double-A Mississippi last week, Glavine was worried he might have to shut his comeback down until midseason. And he was in no mood for that. But if this is only a two- or three-week detour, you can forget that retirement talk.
"He wants to play," Clifton said. "He's just reached the point where he doesn't want to keep rehabbing. He's 43 years old. So if it's the end, it's the end, and he's fine with that. But he still wants to play."
The Mulder watch: Clifton also reports that another of his rehabbing clients, Mark Mulder, feels healthier than he has in years. But the reason Mulder hasn't shown off his newfound health for his half-dozen suitors is that he lost his delivery during 4½ years filled with pain, strains and three different shoulder surgeries.
So he's working to put that delivery back together, and "He says, 'I don't want to sign until I know I'm ready,'" Clifton said. "But at this point, we're talking about very minor, adjustable mechanical issues, whereas six months ago this was a guy trying to throw a baseball like a shot put."
Once that delivery gets smoothed out, Mulder is expected to throw for at least a half-dozen teams, a delegation that almost certainly will include the Dodgers, Nationals and Brewers. He also paid a recent visit to the Oakland Coliseum, where he had a conversation with Billy Beane. So while the A's haven't expressed much interest 'til now, it wouldn't be a surprise if Mulder personally invites them to come watch him throw.
Padre power: How did those pesky Padres turn themselves into the surprise team of 2009? Three reasons:
1. GM Kevin Towers hauled out his Penn and Teller magic act and pulled a whole new bullpen out of his hat in the last week of spring training. "With a couple of weeks to go, my wife asked me if it was going to be tough to get down to 25," Towers said. "I said, 'Down to 25? I'm trying to get up to 25.'" Three trades, a waiver claim and two signings of released pitchers later, he had himself a whole new set-up crew and a fifth starter (Shawn Hill). So naturally, the Padres were fifth in the league in bullpen ERA through Tuesday. Incredible.
2. David Eckstein has been the tone-setter for all that peskiness: talking and breathing baseball all day, grinding at-bats, moving runners, keeping that dirt flying 24/7. "He's helped our whole lineup," Towers said. "When we played the Dodgers, he saw 26 pitches in his first two plate appearances against [Clayton] Kershaw. That's a quarter of the pitch count that guy is going to have for the whole game in two at-bats. Just that intensity he brings every day -- that's something we didn't have before."
3. Then there's hitting coach Jim Lefebvre, the guy Eckstein credits for the Padres' offensive grittiness. "We've got a hitting coach who put a plan in place," Eckstein said. And what's that plan? "Battle," Eckstein said. "Put the ball in play." It's early, but through 15 games the Padres were averaging 4.5 runs per game (up from 3.9 last year) and seeing 3.90 pitches per plate appearance (up from 3.81 last year).
The Rumblings and Grumblings Scouting Bureau
Scouts give their take on players they've seen recently:
Brandon Inge (1.093 OPS, 5 HRs): "New approach, new trigger. We will see after pitchers find the hole inside near his hands."
Ryan Theriot (.375 BA, .436 OBP): "It looks like he has done some things to help him handle the inside pitch, so it wouldn't surprise me to see a big season -- but not this big."
Bartolo Colon (1-0, 3.86 ERA, .205 BAA): "Throwing a lot of fastballs, a lot of sinkerballs. I had him for one slider in six innings and just a few changeups. So it was almost all fastballs. But he had enough late life to make it work. He's OK as an end-of-the-rotation guy. But I don't know if his body will do him in. I do know he can't bend at all, he's so big."
Jose Arredondo (6.43 ERA, 1 BS): "He's way off what he was. He started off the year throwing 92-94, which is close to what he was last year. But after that I had him at 89-91, so his velocity is off considerably. He's a little guy with a max-effort delivery. So it makes you wonder."
Adam Lind (.349 BA, 3 HRs, 14 RBIs): "He's the real deal. I love that guy. I said in spring training I think this guy will have a big year, that he'd hit 30 homers and hit .300, and I haven't changed my mind. I love the way he carries himself. He just looks like he thinks he's arrived, like: `I'm ready. Let's go.'"
Goofy stat of the week
Is there a Curse of A-Rod? Well, there's something bizarre going on, because, as ESPN research genius Paul Kinney reports, every player in the big leagues with an "Alex" in his name is having a rough, rough year. Take a look:
Don't call me Alex!
Laugh track of the week
Quote of the week: From Diane Sawyer of "Good Morning America" on the new Yankee Stadium: "They're talking about a bumper sticker in New York that says 'Honk if you haven't hit a home run at Yankee Stadium.'"
Late-nighter of the week: No. 3 on David Letterman's list of Top Ten Questions To Ask Yourself Before Becoming A Somali Pirate: "Will I get along with Ross Ohlendorf? Oh, wait. Sorry. That's a question to ask yourself before becoming a PITTSBURGH Pirate."
Headliner of the week: Finally, this just in from theonion.com:
MR. MET HAVING TROUBLE SLEEPING IN NEW HOME
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
With a new ballpark on the horizon and loads of young talent in the system, the future of the Florida Marlins is essentially secure.