- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
The Marlins are working from a well-worn playbook as they prepare to open a new ballpark. The theory is that if they invest in big names, fans will be inspired to fill the place. Build it and they will come -- if you fill it with stars. Albert Pujols is a star, and so is Jose Reyes, and Mark Buehrle would be an excellent complement to Josh Johnson.
We don't yet know the substance of the offers made to the trio of players, and whether the proposals are designed for a nice public-relations show and timed as a corollary to the unveiling of the club's new name. A new ballpark, a new team, a new payroll, a new bank account. The Miami Marlins: They're not your dad's Florida Marlins.
But if the offers are substantial enough to actually entice the players to South Florida, and Pujols decides he wants to co-own the city with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Marlins' great experiment would tell us, once and for all, whether the area can support baseball. Barry Bonds signed with the Giants and soon thereafter San Francisco unveiled a new park, where baseball thrives. The Tigers traded for Juan Gonzalez in the hope of making him the face of Comerica Park, and he rejected an offer of almost $150 million -- and as it turned out, he didn't help the team or attendance much, and Detroit was lucky he didn't sign.
The Diamondbacks mortgaged future payrolls by immediately loading up their roster, signing Randy Johnson and trading for Curt Schilling, and they won the World Series in their fourth year of existence -- but the debt for the initial rush forced major cost-cutting, and attendance collapsed. The Pirates took half-measures, signing the likes of shortstop Pat Meares, and with the team losing 100 games in the first season of PNC Park, attendance dropped from about 2.5 million in the first year to about 1.8 million in the second year -- an opportunity missed, clearly.
Over the last year, I asked about a dozen folks with past ties to the Marlins and to Miami about the chances that the new ballpark, on a new site, will change the way the franchise is perceived, and it would be charitable to say that there is enormous skepticism. Quite simply, there is doubt about whether South Florida will embrace baseball.
Assuming the offer for Pujols is enough to make him think about leaving St. Louis to sign with the Marlins, Jeffrey Loria deserves credit for trying to make it work for his franchise, for attempting to alter perception of his club and excite a fan base that has been disinterested to this point. The worry in all this, however, is that the quick splash doesn't work. If the Marlins were to sign the likes of Pujols, Reyes and Buehrle and then the team didn't win, then the next step, inevitably, would be for Loria to follow the trail once taken by Wayne Huizenga.
You remember the 1997 Florida Marlins, one of the great comets in baseball history. In the first four years after the franchise opened for business, they saw attendance sink from about 38,000 per game in the first year to about 22,000 per game in the fourth year. The Marlins spent aggressively on stars before the 1997 season, hiring Jim Leyland, adding Moises Alou and Bobby Bonilla, trading for Cliff Floyd. Florida won the wild card, knocked off the Braves in the National League Championship Series and outlasted the Indians in the World Series -- but not with the kind of box-office support that Huizenga envisioned.
The quick fix didn't happen as the owner hoped. So the stars were traded off, Huizenga dumped the team, and much goodwill with the fan base was lost.
This is the risk that would come along with a Pujols, a Reyes, a Buehrle. If the Marlins signed those players, writes Clark Spencer, it could put their payroll in the $130 million range.
This could either change the future of baseball in south Florida, or it could be the baseball version of "Waterworld."
Meet the Miami Marlins, writes Greg Cote. The dream of Marlins fans has finally come true, says Loria. He says he won't discuss the new offers. The Marlins are hoping to unveil a dream team, writes Joe Capozzi.
I asked an executive the other day if there is anything his team could do about the risk for his organization's players in Venezuela, and he sighed. "You can't make the country safer," he said, before explaining that the players would have to weigh for themselves the decision of where to live.
• The Phillies invested their money in the experience of Jonathan Papelbon, and landed one of the best -- maybe the best -- closers on the market. The Phillies have bolstered their chances for winning in the near future, and have again backloaded the cost, in age and in the resulting damage to the farm system.
From ESPN Stats & Info: The Phillies and Papelbon have agreed to a deal, pending a physical, at four years, $50 million with a vesting option that could make the total package worth over $60 million. Papelbon's four-year, $50-million deal, if finalized, would be the largest total package ever signed by a relief pitcher. The previous high was the five-year, $47 million contract signed by B.J. Ryan with Toronto in December 2005.
Next level: Papelbon became the Red Sox closer in 2006. According to wins above replacement, Papelbon was the most valuable reliever from that point until the close of the 2011 season, with 14.7 (Mariano Rivera was second with 13.9).
Papelbon's 219 saves are the second-most for a pitcher in his first seven seasons in the MLB, behind Trevor Hoffman (228).
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Cardinals could be just one of several suitors for Albert Pujols, writes Rick Hummel.
2. The Rangers are not likely to pursue Pujols or Fielder, says Nolan Ryan.
3. The Twins are about to sign a shortstop, writes La Velle Neal.
6. It doesn't appear as if the Angels will be big spenders this offseason, writes Mike DiGiovanna. Some baseball people who have been in conversation with the Angels believe this: (A) they will not be among the bidders for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, and (B) new GM Jerry DiPoto is in full control of the decisions, and Mike Scioscia is wholly focused on managing the team, rather than player personnel choices.
9. The Reds are not going to be big players in the free-agent market, writes John Fay.
10. Sandy Alomar Jr. is now playing a waiting game, writes Paul Hoynes.
11. Theo Epstein and his staff interviewed a fourth candidate for manager.
12. The sale of the Astros could be completed next week.
13. Bolstering the rotation is key for the Yankees, says Joe Girardi.
• There is sad news about a former Tiger.
• Vanderbilt won its opener in hoops.
• If you are in New England or upstate New York this evening, we'll be holding a baseball roundtable with Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, Yankees GM Brian Cashman, Cubs president Theo Epstein and Red Sox scout (and Vermonter) Galen Carr, at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, Vt. We'll start seating folks at about 5:30, and the roundtable starts at 6:30.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney writes that the Marlins could make some big moves this offseason to excite their fan base. If they do spend big money and the fans don't respond, however, a repeat of the dismantling of the Marlins' 1997 World Series team could take place.