Surprising Marlins finding ways to rebuild quickly yet again
ATLANTA--On Wednesday evening, the big TV in the visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field, in all its high-definition glory, was tuned to the Mets-Phillies game. When New York's Carlos Delgado hammered an eighth-inning home run off Philadelphia's Rudy Seanez to tie the score, the Marlins who were gathered around the flat screen erupted in unrestrained glee, screaming and laughing and calling the reeling Phillies a few shockingly awful, ridiculously funny names.
Not all of the Marlins were in on it, of course. Several had left the park already. Some were still in the shower. Many had other things to do. But there were maybe six of them, scattered around the TV after a satisfying win over the Braves, cheering as the second-place Mets piled on runs against Philly reliever Brad Lidge and leapfrogged Philadelphia into first place in the National League East.
It was just what the struggling Marlins needed. A win for them, a loss for the division leaders and another half-game bump toward what they've been fighting for all season long.
"We don't give up," said Hanley Ramirez, the Marlins' sensational young shortstop. "That's about it. We stand together. We play tough. We don't give up."
If there's a title contender as improbably as the Rays or the Twins this year, it is the Marlins, the cheapest good team in the game. The painfully skinflintish Marlins don't have simply the lowest payroll in baseball. Their payroll is less than half that of the Rays, the team in 29th place.
And good? Well, the Marlins are not great by any means. They are just two games over .500 after Thursday's loss to the Braves. They are six games behind the Mets now, on the border of being pushed from the NL East race.
How are the Marlins, a team that lost 91 games last year and then traded their two best players, still here? How does a team with one of the youngest, cheapest rosters in the game stay in contention through most of the season and put the fear of total humiliation into the rest of the division? How do the Marlins manage to rebuild so quickly while other small-market teams languish in their division's basement year after year?
The answer is not as complicated as you might think. The Marlins are contending because the people in charge pick the right players. "We're built on our scouting and development," says Mike Hill, the team's general manager. "That's how we're built. That's how we have to be built."
Every team claims that. But the Marlins seem to scout (whether it's amateurs or pros) and develop talent better, and faster, than most. As fiscally-frustrating as the Marlins are, remember, they have won two of the past 11 World Series, in 1997 and 2003. They are the only team in the wild-card era to win a World Series with a payroll in the bottom-third in baseball. When they won in 2003, the Marlins' payroll of $48.75 million ranked 25th in baseball.
It all starts with the scouting. They find players, develop them, and hurry their homegrown talent to the majors, like starting pitchers Josh Johnson (who threw the first complete game of his career in beating the Braves on Wednesday), Scott Olsen and Chris Volstad on the current roster.
They use their homegrown talent -- often just as it starts to get too expensive -- to trade for other good players. Two quick examples: Josh Beckett, a Marlins pick in 1999 who helped win the '03 World Series for them, was traded for Ramirez back in '05, a move that also brought starter Anibal Sanchez to Florida. And Miguel Cabrera (1999) was traded last winter (along with Dontrelle Willis) to get several young players that could play a part in the team's very near future, including outfielder Cameron Maybin and pitcher Andrew Miller.
They are also able to find big talent, in unusual places, as they did with All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla, a former Rule 5 pick.
They sign an occasional free agent as a fill-in. And no one -- this is important -- is off limits if the team's brain trust thinks a trade will help the team. In January 2005, the Marlins signed Delgado to a four-year, $52 million deal, the richest in team history. That winter, after one season of Delgado, the Marlins traded him to the Mets for three players, including their current first baseman, Mike Jacobs. The Cabrera-Willis trade with Detroit -- both players had helped win the '03 World Series -- was the blockbuster of last winter.
The key, always, is not just making moves. "It's bringing the right talent through the door," Hill says.
Hill, president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, Jim Fleming (the team's vice president for player development and scouting) and Dan Jennings (VP for player personnel) all have been with the front office for several years, and when it comes to finding talented players, they've hit on way more than they've missed. They concentrate, like most teams, on finding pitching. And that's how the Marlins find themselves in the position they are this season.
The Marlins led the NL East by a half-game at the start of June, but as the lineup started to sputter, they fell back in the race. Despite a miserable August that includes a 10-15 record and no back-to-back wins, they are still just six games out and banking on a strong finish. With Johnson (4-0, 3.12 ERA over his nine starts) and Sanchez, now back in the rotation after rehabbing from injuries, joined by the rookie Volstad and the two mainstays, Olsen and emerging ace Ricky Nolasco (8-3 in his last 15 starts, with a 2.73 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 105 2/3 innings), they have what every team wants in September: healthy, stout starting pitching. "We do have them," pitching coach Mark Wiley says of his rotation, "and that makes every game a game we think we can win."
As they enter the homestretch, they may have to do just that to pull off a stunning division title. Florida has six more games against the Mets, the Phillies and the division doormat Nationals. "I think the National League East is up for grabs, I really do," manager Fredi Gonzalez said Wednesday. "For me, it's going to be fun. Let's go for it."