Marlins stock up for run at Phillies

Marlins are hoping fiery manager Ozzie Guillen will appeal to the diverse South Florida community.
Marlins are hoping fiery manager Ozzie Guillen will appeal to the diverse South Florida community. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: January 30, 2012

(First in a series)

The Marlins followed the Phillies' lead, just a year late.

In anticipation of greater revenue from their new ballpark opening in 2004, the Phillies, in 2003, pre-invested in free agents Jim Thome and David Bell, traded for pricey starter Kevin Millwood and extended Pat Burrell's contract, a total commitment of $172 million.

In anticipation of greater revenue from their ballpark opening in April, the now-Miami Marlins invested a total of $203 million in shortstop Jose Reyes, lefthander Mark Buerhle, closer Heath Bell and manager Ozzie Guillen, most of it in back-loaded deals.

Thome's name, complemented by Millwood's pedigree from the Braves organization, bumped the Phils' attendance to ninth best in club history in the last season of Veterans Stadium, then set a club record the first season in the new yard.

Reyes' name, complemented by the pedigree of former shortstop Hanley Ramirez, now at third, the power of Mike Stanton in rightfield and a tantalizingly talented starting rotation, is expected to do the same.

Of course, the Phillies didn't really make noise until after their surprise run to the playoffs in 2007 - in which Thome, Millwood and Bell played no part whatsoever. Attendance never dropped below 2.6 million.

Since their run in the second half of 2007, the Phillies have blown away the attendance record they set in 2004. They also have won five straight division titles. Their payroll ballooned from nearly $94 million in 2004 to $173 million last season.

With a 35,000-seat stadium - about 10,000 fewer than the Bank - don't expect the Marlins to crest above $150 million.

And if they don't draw decently in the next couple of seasons, well, owner Jeffrey Loria might not have to worry about the payroll, since he probably will have to sell the team.

Can these Marlins make a run at five division titles? For that matter, can they make a run at their first ever?

They sure seem loaded.

With all due respect to Albert Pujols, the best hitter of his generation, and to Prince Fielder, perhaps the new best lefty power hitter in the game, Reyes could turn out to be worth more than either.

At 28, in a contract year, Reyes showed just how good he could be if he focuses. He led the league with a .337 average and posted career highs with a .384 on-base percentage and .493 slugging percentage. He is a career .292 hitter, with the range and the arm to win a Gold Glove at his position every season.

Heath Bell, 34, has 132 saves in the past three seasons with San Diego, each of which saw him go to the All-Star Game.

Righthander Carlos Zambrano, 30, acquired via trade for Chris Volstad, will make $18 million this season, but $15 million will be paid by his former employers, the Cubs. He was 125-81 with a 3.60 ERA in 11 seasons in Chicago, but the last two seasons were spotted with fits of rage that got him suspended, sent to anger-management counseling and, finally, fired. Now, he is paired with Guillen, the only other sports figure in Chicago more controversial than he was.

Since 2001, Buehrle's 2,425 1/3 innings pitched lead the majors. He also has 157 wins, four All-Star appearances, a perfect game and a World Series ring. He won that with Guillen, who helped recruit Buerhle. Guillen's talent for attracting attention could be his greatest contribution to this new, legitimate edition of the Marlins - one rife with personnel questions, one burdened with unaccustomed expectations, one with big bills to pay in the near future.

Can Josh Johnson avoid the right-shoulder inflammation that cost him most of 2011, and take the next step to being an ace . . . atop an enigmatic staff? Can Stanton take the next step toward being a lineup anchor and not just a power sideshow?

Is Ricky Nolasco ready to buckle down and realize his potential? Can streaky Anibal Sanchez finally hit the 200-inning mark? Can Buehrle provide the veteran leadership the staff needs?

Can Ramirez and Reyes, longtime rivals and petulant divas, coexist . . . and help each other to even greater heights?

The sometimes glib, sometimes vulgar Guillen guided an ever-fractured White Sox clubhouse to significance for eight seasons. Don't be surprised if free-agent signee Aaron Roward makes the club as the 25th man in the acting-sheriff role. With Rowand meting justice, Guillen might be the perfect man - the only man - able to manage a Reyes/Ramirez/Zambrano combination.

A coach on the 2003 World Series championship team in Florida and a proud Venezuelan, no doubt Guillen will identify with the diverse community in South Florida.

But can he turn the Marlins into a moneymaker?


First at-bat: Marlins

The breakdown:

Last year: 72-90, fifth place, 30 games behind

Manager: Ozzie Guillen, first year

Key additions: Shortstop Jose Reyes, righthanded closer Heath Bell, righthanded starter Carlos Zambrano, lefthanded starter Mark Buehrle, manager Ozzie Guillen.

Key subtractions: Righthander Chris Volstad, righthander Javier Vazquez

The Skipper's Take

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel loves hitting, and when he looks to Miami, he sees lots and lots of hitting. "Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez are proven, and Mike Stanton is the No. 1 power-hitting prospect around," Manuel said, almost giddy at the trio's potential.

Potential doesn't win divisions. Usually, it's pitching, and Miami's ace, unlike the left side of the infield, is unproven.

"Josh Johnson is definitely the key for them,'' Manuel said of the injury-plagued righthander. Johnson's health and production might equal wins, but the presence of bombastic manager Ozzie Guillen might mean money.

"That might be a really good fit for Ozzie, because he could connect with the [Hispanic] community there. It might be the first time a manager attracts fans to them," Manuel said.

Clearly, Manuel is pleased that, for once, a team besides the Mets has put financial pressure on itself: "They've got to be a contender."


About this series:

The countdown to spring training is on, and this week, the Daily News will preview the teams that hope to stop the Phillies from winning their sixth consecutive National League East championship. Each day, we will provide the team's outlook, a list of changes and what Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has to say.

Today: Miami

Tomorrow: Atlanta

Thursday: New York Mets

Friday: Washington

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