The Marlins are undergoing an almighty transformation. Theyâ€™ve got a new name (Miami Marlins), new logo, new uniform, new colour scheme, new manager (former White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen) and â€“ at the heart of it all â€“ a new ballpark.
For the above to mean anything, particularly in the sense of it being the start of the team capturing a decent-sized loyal fanbase in the way that the Florida Marlins never really did, they need to be able to add â€˜new playersâ€™ to that list.
To add or not to add, that is the not-quite-Shakespearean question we now have to ponder.Â Just as â€˜new playersâ€™ isnâ€™t yet on that list, neither is â€˜new ownersâ€™ and Jeffrey Loriaâ€™s stock of trust and goodwill has gone the way of Greeceâ€™s economy in recent years.Â
The Marlinsâ€™ consistently meagre payroll, despite receiving considerable sums by the way of revenue sharing, resulted in them having to issue an unprecedented joint statement with the Players Union and Major League Baseball in January 2010 in which they committed to increasing their â€œplayer payroll annually as they move toward the opening of their new ballparkâ€.Â
The mention of their new ballpark is central to the whole Marlins story.Â The team has been at or near the bottom of the attendance lists year after year while sharing the Miami Dolphinsâ€™ Sun Life Stadium.Â Loriaâ€™s argument has been that the team couldnâ€™t spend more when they were getting so few bums on seats, and the only way they were going to get more bums on seats was by building a ballpark.Â
The process of getting that ballpark has been a typically undignified exercise â€“ i.e. securing public funds by threatening to relocate elsewhere â€“ but the process is often quickly forgotten once people start to enjoy their new surroundings.
That means there are no more excuses.Â Loria and the Marlins have the ballpark to attract the fans, they now need to consistently field a good enough team to make them want to keep coming back.Â To do that, theyâ€™re going to have to bump up the payroll and make a splash in the free agent market.Â
The early signs are positive for Marlins fans.Â Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Albert Pujols were each given a grand tour of the new ballpark this past week as the Marlins look to reel in a marquee free agent or two to start the Miami Marlins era off with a bang.Â I have my doubts that they will actually sign any of those three â€“ my money would be on Buehrle and Pujols returning to the White Sox and Cardinals respectively, so Reyes might be the most likely â€“ but I would be surprised if they donâ€™t make at least one significant signing.
Prince Fielder might well be that man.Â He always comes across as a very likeable â€“ i.e. marketable â€“ guy and few sights generate excitement quite like a big bopper smashing souvenirs into the stands.Â While the Marlins will be increasing their payroll, they are not suddenly going to be in a position where they can afford to carry large contracts that donâ€™t pay off.Â So there may be some practical arguments against the Marlins taking on such a big contract at this stage, not least the uncertainty on how Fielderâ€™s performance will be affected as he gets older in the non-DH league, but the appeal of bringing him in has got to be very strong.
Other teams will be just as keen on Fielder, as they will on the three players who visited Miami this week, so even having a strong interest and a willingness to spend significant money might not be enough to capture one of their key targets.Â However, it does at least look like the Marlins will be genuine contenders for such talent and thatâ€™s exactly what Marlins fans have been waiting for.
If youâ€™re new to the sport and are looking for a team to support, the re-named and reinvigorated Miami Marlins would be a good choice to consider.
Whoâ€™s next for a new home?
The Marlinsâ€™ new ballpark leaves just two teams desperately needing new homes.Â The Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Aâ€™s were the only two teams to draw less fans than the Marlins in 2011 and the fact that they currently play in the two worst venues (one a horrible dome, the other effectively now an NFL stadium with baseball as an afterthought) isnâ€™t a mere coincidence.
The Rays donâ€™t appear to have a solution on the horizon, something thatâ€™s made all the more frustrating by the fact that they have fielded a strong team over the last four seasons.Â The Aâ€™s are potentially going to move to a new ballpark in San Jose; however MLB has been shuffling their feet for a couple of years on agreeing to the move due to the Giantsâ€™ territorial rights in that area.Â
General Manager Billy Beane has expressed confidence that the Aâ€™s will get a decision this offseason, although Aâ€™s fans like myself are unlikely to see any upturn in our fortunes any time soon either way.Â If the San Jose move is turned down, the Aâ€™s are back to square one.Â If the move is approved, the Aâ€™s are likely to tread water until the new ballpark is open; trading away players of worth and restocking the farm system.Â While the Aâ€™s would love to be in the position the Marlins are right now, getting there is not going to be much fun.
Papelbon to the Phillies
The Philadelphia Phillies donâ€™t have such worries.Â They have been in â€˜win-nowâ€™ mode since the mid-2000s and are sticking to that course.Â
The Phillies were the first team to launch into the free agent market by reportedly agreeing a four-year deal worth $50m (Â£31.1m, or approximately Â£150k per week) with former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon.Â It made for surprising reading over breakfast on Saturday as only a couple of days beforehand the Phillies were reportedly on the verge of bringing back Ryan Madson.
However, this has been the Philliesâ€™ way in recent years.Â They focus on a target or two and then make their move quickly, rather than wait to see how the market develops.Â
Papelbonâ€™s track record is impressive, so the standard caution about signing a relief pitcher to a lucrative multi-year deal is tempered to some extent.Â There are many reasons to believe that he will be an excellent addition and a valuable contributor during the majority of his contract.Â The downside may come at the end of his deal when the Phillies will have to accept the consequences of their approach in the past few years of giving up draft picks and prospects for experienced Major League players.Â
Until then, the Phillies will continue to be a contender and the NL East could become the most competitive division in the Majors with four teams competing for first place and the wild card (it remains to be seen whether the additional wild card, probably being introduced in 2013, will make the division more or less competitive).Â The Braves have a plethora of pitching prospects, while the Nationals and Marlins are clearly on the rise.Â That just leaves the Mets looking in from the outside.
Relief for Ramos
Finally, the kidnapping of Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was clearly the most important story of the week.Â Thankfully his ordeal ended with him being rescued, but it was a stark reminder of the dangers some sportsmen and their families can face.