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Florida Marlins

Scouting Report    By the Numbers | Players To Watch | Projected Roster

  BBMARLINS02.jpg Despite all their salary dumping, the Marlins still have some big-time talents, like defensive whiz Johnson.    (Jim Cole/AP)
During a Marlins exhibition game, a little plane circled above their ballpark in Melbourne, Fla., pulling a banner that read, WAYN'S A CHUMP. Incorrect. Wayne is not a chump. He's a swami. H. Wayne Huizenga said last June that his team would make no money even if it won the World Series. All that came to pass. The team won the Series. The team lost $34 million, by the owner's reckoning. Maybe you're skeptical about his numbers. Well, if owning the Marlins is such a terrific business venture, how come it's taken so long to find somebody willing to buy them?

It looks as if the long wait may be over. Last Saturday club president Don Smiley said he finally has assembled a group of 10 to 15 investors who will buy the club for just over $150 million, a deal he hopes will be approved by the other major league owners in June. The key to the sale was a major cost-cutting initiative, as Dilbert might put it. After the Series, Huizenga—who may stay on as a minority partner—ordered the team's $52 million payroll halved. As a result, 12 players from the championship roster are not on this year's team. Only one pitcher from last year's rotation survived the El Niño winter, Livan Hernandez. The four new starters would make a superb Triple A rotation.

Is the dumping over? Probably not. The next step could be to unload rightfielder Gary Sheffield and his gaudy six-year, $61 million contract. Other teams are not convinced of his value just yet. The Mets, for instance, earnestly trying to win the wild card, could have put Sheffield to good use. But they wanted Florida to pay a third of Sheffield's salary. Those talks went nowhere.

There's only one piece of evidence that suggests the Marlins maintain a modest interest in winning baseball games. They held on to their expert manager, Jim Leyland, who will earn $1.5 million this year. Clearly, Leyland is underpaid.

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The oddest relationship in baseball (platonic division) must be the one between Leyland and Huizenga. Huizenga bought a house that Leyland can use for free as long as he is manager of the Marlins, allowed Leyland to use his personal jet and his private golf course, and gave him stock options in Republic Industries, Huizenga's holding company. Even after the off-season purge, Leyland has had nothing critical to say about Huizenga. Still, the two are very different: Leyland's consuming interest is winning baseball games, Huizenga's is making money. How they coexist under one roof is a mystery.

Actually, a roof is the key to Florida's future. Huizenga and Leyland believe the Marlins will never have a viable fan base until they get a new stadium with a retractable roof, to counter the storms and oppressive heat that make summer baseball in Miami unappealing to the suit-and-briefcase set. But such a stadium would cost $350 million. The only group rich enough to finance such a thing is the voting public, and Florida taxpayers were in no mood to buy Huizenga anything. Well, now that it appears Smiley will soon be in charge—Huizenga retaining just a small, insignificant piece of the team—maybe they'll consider it.

Given the off-season filleting, it is surprising to report that the 1998 Marlins are not awful. There's still a core of excellence up the middle. Charles Johnson, the best defensive catcher in baseball, hits for power. Shortstop Edgar Renteria has incredible range and is a good clutch hitter. Rookie Mark Kotsay, who will play centerfield, is one of the most touted prospects in the game. The combined age of those three is 70. There's newly imported young talent, too. But a bunch of kids cannot replace Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Jeff Conine, Dennis Cook, Robb Nen and Devon White, not in the short term. Of course, the newcomers don't cost $21 million, either.

A few years from now, if the new owners' pockets are even half as deep as Huizenga's and if the farm system produces big league talent, the Marlins could be a force again. If the team does anything this year, it will be largely because of Leyland's resolve. During one three-year stretch in Pittsburgh, Leyland showed he could nurture talent, that he could make a little seem like a lot. The Marlins are not the defending champions this year, not really. They're underdogs, and Leyland will make the most of that. If he's not happy at the end of the year, he can always quit—and pick up a $500,000 exit bonus on his way out the door. Don't act so surprised. You knew there had to be a money angle in there somewhere.

—by Mark Bechtel

Scouting Report | By the Numbers | Players To Watch | Projected Roster



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