Five Questions: Florida Marlins

It’s difficult being a Marlins fan. Yankees fans demand a championship each season; most Marlins fans would likely settle for a string of .500 or slightly better seasons with some occasional participation in a late-season race for the postseason. Of course, that won’t happen when the team insists on trading away talented players as soon as they start making any money.

The damage this offseason was especially tough, as the ownership traded away the two young players who provided the necessary sparks for the 2003 World Championship team. By December, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis had been traded to Detroit for six young players. Those two, who had been the faces of the franchise for the past few years, were going to make too much money for the bargain-basement 2008 Marlins.

What’s happening with the stadium?

I feel like this whole relocation business has been going on forever. Thankfully, that’s all over, since the team signed a deal with the city and the county to build a 37,000-seat retractable roof stadium on the site of the soon-to-be-razed Orange Bowl. The county will own the stadium and contribute $347 million, while the city will provide $13 million plus the cost of the demolition and a 6,000-spot parking garage. As part of the deal, the team will be re-named the Miami Marlins.

I won’t get into the whole public financing aspect; suffice it to say that I don’t think we should be spending this much money on a bunch of millionaires, especially in the current financial climate. But I will get into the choice of location, which has one glaring problem: there is no reliable public transit anywhere near the stadium, which is in a fairly dense urban neighborhood. Rush hour traffic is already nightmarish; add a weekday 7 p.m. game into the mix, and it could be enough to turn people off. (Which, if you noticed the number of empty orange seats at Marlins games last year, you’d know that’s something the team cannot afford to do.) The local government keeps promising an east-west Metrorail expansion that will include an Orange Bowl stop, but the earliest estimate for completion is 2014 (the Marlins’ stadium should open in 2011), which is very, very optimistic.

But, in the end, the important thing is that the team is staying in town and getting a stadium that, in theory, should provide a revenue stream that will allow for things like higher salaries and multi-year contracts.

Who’s going to replace Miguel Cabrera at third base?

Cabrera has left some huge shoes to fill, at least offensively. When spring training started, the position was up for grabs; the leading candidates were Jose Castillo, Dallas McPherson and Jorge Cantu. It’s become a two-man race since McPherson, who missed last season because of back surgery, has been out with a groin injury. He’ll likely start the season in the minors to rehab. Cantu has a better bat (career .273/.312/.450, and he’s been tearing it up this spring with a .457 batting average), but Castillo (a career .279 hitter with a tendency to strike out often) has a better glove. Right now, it’s looking like a platoon situation, one that is certainly not going to be earning 30 Win Shares for the Marlins, as Cabrera did last year.

What about the rotation?

No one’s quite sure yet. Reliable innings-eater (and clubhouse leader) Dontrelle Willis is gone. Sergio Mitre has a forearm strain and can’t throw for another four to six weeks. Scott Olsen has been battling shoulder tendinitis this spring; he’s scheduled to make his first start today.

Mark Hendrickson has made a great case for himself this spring—he has a 1.69 ERA in four starts—and there’s a good chance he’ll be the opening day starter. Chris Volstad had a 3.16 ERA/1.20 WHIP last year with the Double-A Carolina Mudcats. He’s done very well this spring, and given the injuries, he might just make it into the rotation even though he really should spend some more time in the minors. Ricky Nolasco was sidelined by injuries last season; his velocity is back, but he’s been inconsistent. Still, he’ll likely be starting too.

Andrew Miller, who also came over in the December trade, has had some command issues this spring, but if he can work those out, he’ll almost certainly be in the rotation. Rick VandenHurk improved steadily in the 17 games he started for the Marlins last year, and he’s also pitched well this spring. Like Volstad and Miller, he’d probably be better off starting the season in the minors, but the Marlins are really pushing the trial-by-fire strategy this year in the pitching department.

Who should you watch?

The Marlins are chock-full of young, exciting players with lots of upside. All eyes will be on Hanley Ramirez to see if he can continue his pace from last year’s sophomore season (.332/.386/.562). We all keep waiting for Jeremy Hermida to ascend to superstar status, but injury trouble has held him back in the past. He was healthy for the second half of 2007, and it showed—he hit .340 after the All-Star break. He’s currently out with a tight left hamstring, which hopefully will be taken care of by opening day.

Cameron Maybin was the Tigers’ top prospect before he was sent to Florida in the Cabrera/Willis trade. He spent most of 2007 with the High-A Lakeland Flying Tigers, and after a brief stint in Double-A, he moved right on up to the majors in August, where he struggled in 24 games with the Tigers. He may or may not be ready for the majors, but the Marlins are going to drop him into center field anyway and see how he does. And hey, it could work out.

How low can you go?

After the dust settled from the Cabrera/Willis trade, conversation turned to whether or not the Marlins’ team salary would break the $10 million mark. So I did a little math, using the numbers at Cot’s Baseball Contracts. According to the site, the team has $4 million of payroll obligations for players who are no longer with the team (or, in the case of Al Leiter, with any team), but I’ll exclude that figure for now since it has little to do with on-field talent. Kevin Gregg, who was signed to a one-year contract, will be the highest-paid player this year at $2.5 million. Here are the other players who will be making more than the league minimum ($390,000 for 2008):

Luis Gonzalez: $2 million
Mark Hendrickson: $1.5 million
Andrew Miller: $1.325 million
Sergio Mitre: $1.2 million
Alfredo Amezaga: $945,000
Justin Miller: $750,000
Matt Treanor: $705,000
Jose Castillo: $650,000
Hanley Ramirez: $439,000
Dallas McPherson: $425,000
Dan Uggla: $417,000

That’s $12.856 million. Add 13 more players at league minimum ($5.07 million), and you get a grand total of $17,926,000. There are a number of ways to look at this figure: It’s $9 million less than what A-Rod alone will earn this season. It’ll likely be about half of what the Marlins will receive in revenue-sharing money this year. It’s also about $250,000 less than the Marlins’ salary in 1993.

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