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August 23, 2001

The Imbalance Sheet

Florida Fraud

by Keith Law

The Great Imbalancer went away, conducting some major business transactions of his own, but he's back because he's needed. The lies and filth of MLB ownership are starting to build like dot-com resumes in a recruiter's inbox.

The latest is a real classic: John Henry, new owner of the Florida Marlins and perhaps holder of the world record for the fastest case of buyer's remorse, is now threatening another fire sale of the team's best players because his team is losing money. Here's an excerpt from the AP article:

Henry said he will lose as much as $20 million this year. "We're projected to have a $50-million payroll next season. That makes an impossible situation absurd. I'm not willing to lose $25 million a year and not have a ballpark."

Note the last phrase: He'll gladly lose $25 million a year if he gets his bright shiny new toy. Maybe someone should tell him to hold his breath and then dump him into the Intracoastal Waterway.

The Marlins have several fundamental problems as a business. Perhaps the biggest is John Henry's big mouth. Few fans will develop any loyalty to a team whose owner is regularly threatening to sell off the team's big names, particularly when the team is having its first good season since the post-1997 fiasco. If Henry was serious about wanting to make money under the current scenario, he'd shut his trap.

Another problem is that the Fish are laboring under the weight of past mistakes, and have continued making such mistakes this year. The Marlins' Opening Day payroll this year was about $35.5 million, but more than a third of that money will end up in the hands of players who are either not playing or whose salaries far outweigh their contributions:

  • Alex Fernandez will earn $7 million to not pitch this year. His arm and career are in tatters from the abuse to which Jim Leyland subjected him in 1997.

  • Dan Miceli, a once-good but fully replaceable middle reliever, will earn $2 million this year from the Marlins while he pitches for the Rockies.

  • Eric Owens posted a 729 OPS as a corner outfielder last year, so the Padres re-signed him for $1.17 million. He was traded to the Marlins in spring training, his OPS sank to 645 this year and he lost his job.

  • Ricky Bones, a mediocre middle reliever obtained as a minor-league free agent, will earn $800,000 this year--even though equivalent minor-leaguers who will work for a quarter of that are available.

  • Antonio Alfonseca will earn $2.45 million this year to be an ordinary reliever. The money pays for his closer aura, which, as has been demonstrated in about a dozen cities this year, is highly interchangeable. Indeed, Braden Looper ($400,000) and Vladimir Nunez ($264,000) are both having significantly better seasons in the Marlins' pen, and that's without getting Chris Kahrl started on Johnny Ruffin (who would earn $200,000 pro rata on a split contract).

But the Marlins haven't learned a thing. Earlier this year they signed Preston Wilson to an inane $9MM/year contract that locks him up for his arbitration years, even though his OPS last year was 820 and this year is just 758, and he's not likely to get significantly better unless he learns the strike zone, de-ages five years, or rubs Viagra on his bat. Add Wilson to Fernandez and Alfonseca and you have $18 million that the Marlins will spend next year that didn't have to be wasted.

The Marlins aren't losing money because they don't have a $385-million boondoggle in downtown Miami. They're losing because their owner is the mini-Selig, with a short circuit between his brain and his mouth; and because they continue to spend their meager payroll unwisely. Spending public money to build a stadium for a private baseball team is bad enough, but rewarding self-immolative behavior is even worse.

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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