The Miami Marlins have a new shortstop, stadium, manager, reliever, uniform and name. Missing is a guaranteed way to pay for all those upgrades.
Still showing one of Major League Baseball’s smallest payrolls, the team that has finished last in National League attendance for seven straight seasons as the Florida Marlins announced its biggest on-field splurge this week at the sport’s Winter Meetings in Dallas.
The Marlins, who have spent an average of less than $41 million on player salaries the past five seasons, committed almost $18 million annually to former New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and $9 million to reliever Heath Bell. They also have agreed to a free-agent deal with pitcher Mark Buehrle worth $14.5 million annually, Fox Sports reported yesterday.
That’s in addition to the more than $20 million a year over the next decade that ESPN said they had offered to first baseman Albert Pujols, a three-time NL Most Valuable Player.
“This is smoke and mirrors,” Wayne McDonnell, an associate professor of sports management at New York University, said from the meetings. “What we saw with the Marlins this past week is a gross misappropriation of funds on ballplayers whose return on investment could possibly be a negative in the years to come.”
Team owner Jeffrey Loria said a new 37,000-seat ballpark in downtown Miami with a retractable roof will almost double attendance and fund the team’s resurgence.
The Marlins drew 1.5 million fans in 2011 at Sun Life Stadium in suburban Miami Gardens that it shared with the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins. At one late August game, a fan counted 347 people in the stands for the first pitch.
Loria told reporters at the Winter Meetings that he expects attendance of 2.8 million this season.
“You have no idea how difficult it is every single day watching the rain come,” said Loria, who bought the team in 2002. “We don’t have that issue any more. You have an air- conditioned stadium with a roof.”
Shrinking the size of the potential sellout crowd also drives demand, the owner said.
“When you have a ballpark that has 78,000 seats, there’s no great demand, in the middle of nowhere in a football- configured stadium,” Loria said. “But with a ballpark half that size, a baseball-only ballpark, we can create a different type of experience and we’ve seen it in our sales already.”
The Marlins say they expect to sell out every game at the new ballpark, giving them the ability to rebuild a team that went 72-90 and finished last in the NL East in 2011. They’re already spending that anticipated windfall.
“Instead of waiting for it to sell out and then signing players, the decision was made to improve the team and win on a consistent basis and show fans that not only do we have a new ballpark, but we’ve got a team that we expect to be competitive and make the playoffs,” team President David Samson told reporters.
The Marlins have been last in the major leagues in player payroll in two of the past four seasons, with a low of $21.8 million in 2008. Their average payroll of $40.6 million the last five seasons contrasts with the NL East-rival Mets’ average of more than $131 million and the New York Yankees’ average of more than $200 million.
In recent years, the Marlins have come to the Winter Meetings to sell off players. Established as an expansion team in 1993, the Marlins won World Series titles in 1997 and 2003 -- and then gutted the payroll each time.
In 1998, Florida went 54-108, the first team in major league history to lose 100 games the season after winning the World Series. After defeating the Yankees for their second championship in 2003, the Marlins traded away pitcher Josh Beckett and first baseman Carlos Delgado for younger, less expensive players.
This year, the Marlins have been the biggest buyers at the Winter Meetings, which end today.
“Now we’re able to explore some things we haven’t been able to explore in the past,” said Larry Beinfest, Miami’s president for baseball operations. “There’s no question the payroll is going up, we have been revenue-challenged in the past.”
McDonell, who created “The Business of Baseball” course at NYU, said the Marlins needed to sign All-Stars “to appease a fan base that has been alienated and disgruntled with how the team has been run.”
The city and county sold a combined $511.9 million in revenue bonds in 2009 and 2010 to pay for the Marlins’ new stadium and parking garages. The bonds, which are backed primarily by tourism taxes, mature through 2049. A Miami-Dade County stadium bond maturing in 2028 traded on Dec. 5 at an average price of 105.03 cents on the dollar for an average yield of 4.6 percent. That’s down from an average price of 108.9 cents on the dollar on Nov. 17.
The Marlins haven’t announced a naming-rights deal for the stadium, which is the subject of a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. The SEC has given the city and county until Jan. 6 to provide financial information on the bond sales and records of campaign contributions from the Marlins to local and state officials.
Loria said he isn’t concerned about the SEC probe.
“We will work with the SEC and help them in any way possible,” he told reporters.
Reyes, 28, who last season became the first Mets player to win a batting title, is the second free-agent All-Star to join Miami this week. Bell, 34, saved 132 games for the San Diego Padres the last three seasons.
Guillen New Manager
“Of the top five guys out there, we signed Bell, (it’s reported) we signed Buehrle, we signed Reyes,” Guillen told reporters yesterday. “Now everybody out there knows we are for real.”
McDonnell said the Marlins may be back to selling players at the Winter Meetings -- perhaps including Reyes and Bell -- in the next few years if things don’t go well.
“It’s all about cost certainty, accountability and responsibility,” he said. “They can’t sustain that business model if they lose those fans as quickly as they win them back. I think they’re being overtly aggressive, but it’s going to come back and bite them in the end.”
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