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Deep Six
Michael Farber
December 23, 1996
In a blockbuster $89.1 million spending spree, the Marlins hauled in half a dozen free agents, led by native Floridian Alex Fernandez
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December 23, 1996

Deep Six

In a blockbuster $89.1 million spending spree, the Marlins hauled in half a dozen free agents, led by native Floridian Alex Fernandez

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GONE FISHIN'

The Marlins may have committed nearly $90 million over five years to sign six free agents since Nov. 22, but as the following information shows, all six players should help the team overcome a variety of weaknesses.

Player, Pos.

The Deal

1996 Maladies

Moises Alou, LF
Career .314 hitter with runners in scoring position, including .321 in 1996

5 years
$25 million

Empty Plate
Marlins ranked 13th among 14 National League teams in runs scored

Bobby Bonilla, 3B
Hit 28 home runs in each of the last two seasons

4 years
$23.3 million

Cool Corner
Marlins third basemen were last in league in HRs (11) and 13th in extra-base hits

Alex Fernandez, RHP
Last year's stats: 16-10, 3.45 ERA, 7.37 innings per start

5 years
$35 million

Starting Over
Marlins' third, fourth and fifth starters combined: 26-38, 4.91 ERA, 5.54 innings per start

Dennis Cook, LHP
Last season lefthanded hitters batted .206 against him

2 years
$1.7 million

No Relief
Lefthanded hitters batted .281 against Marlins 'four lefthanded relievers

Jim Eisenreich, OF
John Cangelosi, OF
Combined for 191 hits in 600 at bats in '96, a .318 average, including .324 versus RHPs

2 years
$3 million
2 years
$1.1 million

Benched
Marlins' top two reserve outfielders hit .220; team batted league-worst .251 versus RHPs

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Dave Dombrowski hunched over the calculator on his desk, punching in numbers as casually as if he were tallying his month's dry-cleaning bills. Let's see, there's 4.5, 5, 5, 5.25, 5.25 for Alou. Bobby Bo's at.... "Excuse me," said Dombrowski, the Florida Marlins' general manager. "I usually don't count it this way. Normally we look at the total payroll for the year." He resumed tapping, leaving off the zeroes.

"O.K.," said Dombrowski, finally tapped out. "Fernandez is $35 million for five years, Cook's $1.7 million for two, Alou's $25 million for five, Eisenreich's $3 million for two, Cangelosi's $1,075 million for two and Bonilla's $23.3 million for four. It's whatever that adds up to."

It adds up to the biggest holiday shopping spree ever. In a three-week binge that began on Nov. 22 and ended last Thursday when the MasterCard people started getting suspicious, the Marlins committed $89,075,000 to those six free agents. For that much money, this Christmas you could have gotten a couple of CDs for Sis, that sweater Dad has been admiring, a lovely brooch for Mom and a big league baseball franchise for yourself.

Say this for the Marlins: They buy retail. They overspent for Bobby Bonilla, who hits plenty but who hasn't found a home either in the field or with a team since leaving the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1991 season. They made journeyman lefthanded reliever Dennis Cook an offer so generous that his former general manager with the Texas Rangers, Doug Melvin, urged him to take it. They paid $4,075 million for two outfielders, Jim Eisenreich and John Cangelosi, who make a lovely pair of bench ornaments. They committed an average of $5 million annually until 2001 for the dynamic but brittle 30-year-old Moises Alou, who has never driven in 100 runs in a season. The only player on the mark-down rack was Miami native Alex Fernandez, the most important and costly of the acquisitions. Fernandez, a 27-year-old righthander who spent the last six seasons with the Chicago White Sox, was offered $40 million for five years by the Cleveland Indians but took $35 million of hometown money—the largest financial commitment to a pitcher in history—though, because Florida has no state income tax, the net difference between the deals was hardly enough to rent a beach cabana.

Gift wrapping—along with the dinner Dombrowski promised Eisenreich at Joe's Stone Crab if he signed—is extra.

You don't sweat the jacked-up prices if you are Wayne Huizenga's Marlins, whose projected 1997 payroll is $48 million, or 55% more than it was in '96. This is a short limo ride from the $51 million threshold for a luxury tax (35% of the salaries over that amount) that will kick in next year for the five teams with the highest payrolls. If the new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to provide a drag on salaries, it seems as ineffectual as the warnings on cigarette packs. Fourteen shop-till-you-drop clubs committed $216,625,000 to 28 free agents last week, including Florida's $61.7 million for Alou, Cook and Fernandez.

"I came from a situation where dollars were tough to come by," says manager Jim Leyland, the former Pittsburgh Pirates skipper who became the first big-name Florida free-agent signee this off-season when he agreed to a five-year, $7.5 million contract on Oct. 4. "To come from there and go to a team where the payroll jumps from $31 million to $48 million—that's a little overwhelming for me. I was talking to [Pittsburgh general manager] Cam Bonifay not long ago about it. Another team would sign a player, and I'd tell Cam, 'Ah, they overpaid for that guy.' I guess I was jealous. The thing I'd always realize is that no matter what they paid, they got the player. Well, some people'll say the Marlins overpaid, but we got those players. When a guy's at the plate, you don't care if he makes six bucks or six million. You want a guy up who has a chance. We feel, with this team, we have a chance."

A chance at what? At succeeding the Atlanta Braves as the National League superpower? Leyland, doing everything but spitting at the suggestion, ticks off the Braves' renowned starting pitchers, applauds their veterans, praises their young talent and notes that the four-year-old Florida franchise has achieved nothing. "Atlanta's not getting too nervous, believe me," he says. "The teams aren't comparable." The Miami Herald couldn't agree more. Last Friday the newspaper ran the projected every-day lineups for Atlanta and Florida in 1997, favoring the Braves at just two positions.

This was no impulse buy, no Steinbrenneresque rush to grab the most baubles and figure out where they go later. During organizational meetings in October, Florida targeted six areas—leftfield, third base, a No. 1-3 starter, lefthanded relief, bullpen set-up and reserve outfielders—and ranked players it thought might be available in each category and got ready to start dialing.

Not everything went according to plan. The Marlins were reportedly willing to spend almost $10 million annually for four years on volatile leftfielder Albert Belle, but they were trumped by the White Sox. This is probably just as well because 1) White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf's five-year, $55 million winning bid for Belle nudged owners into signing the new collective bargaining agreement, which 2) granted Alou and Fernandez the service time they needed to become free agents, which 3) allowed Dombrowski to use the money earmarked for Belle, plus a little more, to sign them both. If these six new Marlins play as expected, they might not win the World Series, but they should be candidates for the No-Belle Peace Prize. Consider:

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