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MIAMI -- When the oh-so-smart Marlins traded arbitration-eligible players Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham to the competing Nationals in November, it looked like a typical small-revenue club salary dump. But with the Marlins, typical dealings are almost always more than they seem.
Beside the obvious benefit of extricating themselves from two arbitration cases they didn't need or want, the Marlins received three younger players in the deal, including speedy infielder Emilio Bonifacio, whose value was declining fast -- at least in the eyes of others. When Arizona dealt Bonifacio to Washington straight up for set-up man Jon Rauch only last summer, many figured that the Diamondbacks had ripped off the Nats (although Rauch has turned out to be nothing short of a disaster for the Diamondbacks). And this winter most accounts of the Marlins-Nats trade involving Bonifacio portrayed the speedy infielder, who hadn't distinguished himself during his brief tenure with the Nats, as an afterthought or throw-in.
But the Marlins knew better. And now, a week into his Marlins career, Bonifacio, who moves faster on the diamond than anyone in baseball, has moved up in everyone else's eyes. Those outside the Marlins organization once again view the 23-year-old as an exciting young player after watching him ignite the Marlins offense with a .500 batting average, exhibit the best baseball speed since Deion Sanders and lead his club to a 5-1 start.
The Marlins' scouts seem to know things others do not, so they figured it might be worthwhile to give Bonifacio, primarily a second baseman, a look at third base. So far the slap-hitting speed demon has looked like a star at a position normally reserved for power hitters. Bonifacio put together multiple-hit efforts in the Marlins' first five games of the season and produced enough theatrics to excite even the minimal crowds they draw down here. Johan Santana shut him down on Sunday, but his 0-for-4 effort only dropped him to .500 on the season. President of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, while noting that it's still very early, said, "We recognized the bat was still developing. It's not a finished bat."
His legs, not his bat, will make Bonifacio, but if he can make consistent contact he'll be dangerous. Scouts say he's an 80 runner (on their 20-to-80 scale), and viewers could see why during his Opening Day inside-the-park home run against his former Nationals mates, during a triple in Game 2 and then again on an infield hit that caused fellow speedster Jose Reyes, the Mets shortstop, to rush to try to record the out (he couldn't do it).
"It's a different feel for us," Beinfest said. "It's a different way to try to manufacture runs from a year ago, when we relied on the home run." The big game-changing twist came when the Marlins inserted Bonifacio, moved power-hitting Jorge Cantu from third (where he was a liability) to first and removed all-or-nothing first baseman Mike Jacobs.
If Bonifacio's bat has been a revelation, his glovework has been no less so. "Our [scouts] thought he had enough arm for shortstop [when they acquired him], so they thought they'd take a look at third," Beinfest said. But there's a big difference between having the arm and playing the vastly different angles at third, and early in spring there were questions about whether Bonifacio would be able to make a smooth switch from second. (Some Marlins people believe the team would be better off with Bonifacio at second instead of power-hitting star Dan Uggla, though they do need Uggla's pop.)
But Bonifacio looks fine at third, and he has helped make the Marlins a speedier, slightly better-fielding team than a year ago, when they surprised folks by winning 84 games despite ranking 15th in the NL in fielding percentage. Florida also trots out an impressive quintet of under-27 starters this season, beginning with superb talents Josh Johnson (who looks like he's ready to emerge as a true No. 1 after outdueling the Great Santana on Sunday, 2-1), Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad. Nonetheless, Las Vegas odds makers posted the Marlins' over-under number at 76 wins. That's quite a slight considering they won 84 last year when journeyman Mark Hendrickson was their Opening Day starter while Johnson carried out rehab, Nolasco worked out of the bullpen and Volstad pitched in the minors. "We didn't have our pitchers lined up last year," Beinfest said when asked about the 76-win prediction. "We don't talk about rebuilding here. We try to play in October."
That's true, even though, as always, the club made all its changes with the bottom line in mind. Beinfest delicately summed up the trade with Washington by saying, "We needed to reallocate our assets." In addition to Bonifacio the Marlins acquired two low-level minor leaguers in the deal, second baseman Jake Smolinski and pitcher P.J. Dean, two "young guys we like," Beinfest said. So far in Washington, meanwhile, Olsen has been awful and Willingham's an unhappy bench player.
While the Nats deal with those players and their impending arbitration cases, the Marlins continue to maintain a payroll that, while up to $35 million this year from an absurd $24 million last year, is surely well below their revenues. (While Beinfest doesn't complain, their revenue-sharing monies alone should support a greater payroll than $35 million.)
With the Marlins, however, it's never worth looking at the payroll. No matter what they spend, they think they can compete. And by landing players like Bonifacio, they usually do.
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