Commentary

A different kettle of Fish

Free-agent slugger Albert Pujols just another piece of the Marlins' master plan

Updated: December 6, 2011, 11:02 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- These are not Wayne Huizenga's Marlins. Heck, they're not even Jack McKeon's Marlins.

"I keep asking these guys," McKeon quipped Monday, "'how come as soon as I leave, you start bringing in all these players?'"

So what does Trader Jack mean by "all these players"? Hey, it ain't too complicated. Let's recap the week so far for those Miami Marlins:

On Sunday, they wrapped up negotiations with Jose Reyes. On Monday, they marched their new closer, Heath Bell, up to the podium to introduce him to the masses.

So at this rate, by the end of these winter meetings, they'll have Albert Pujols signed, they'll have traded for Justin Verlander, and Yoenis Cespedes will have announced he wants to be adopted by Ozzie Guillen.

[+] EnlargeHeath Bell
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireThe Marlins signed Heath Bell to be their closer for three years and $27 million.

OK, so most of that last sentence was written for comedic purposes. But one out of three ain't bad, especially if the one in question starts with "Albert" and ends with "Pujols." And the more energy the Marlins expend honing in on the biggest free-agent fish of them all, the less laughable this all becomes for the rest of the NL East.

We know they met with Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, on Monday afternoon. We know they planned to meet again later Monday night. And they've clearly been pushing to get Pujols signed quickly, much as they did with Reyes over the weekend.

So with every step they take, every move they make, every big name they chase, this picture comes into brighter focus:

These Miami Marlins aren't messing around.

This is no smokescreen. This is no publicity stunt. This is not just the baseball equivalent of the janitor who hits the Mega Millions, then takes his money, walks into the Rolls-Royce dealer and buys every car in the showroom, just because he can.

"The vision here," said Larry Beinfest, their president of baseball operations, "is: Win the World Series."

The Marlins have, in fact, won the World Series before, you know. Twice. (This is where we pause to allow Cubs fans everywhere to regain consciousness.) But when the Fish talk about winning this time, they're not talking about it in a Huizenga-esque kind of way.

The goal this time around is not to win once, then auction off the championship parts at a closeout sale when they wake up the next morning. The goal is to build something that's lasting, meaningful, sustainable. Finally.

What we're about to find out -- what they're about to find out, for that matter -- is whether that's possible.

For as long as anybody can remember, the Marlins' payroll has been on a "yo-yo," says Beinfest, bouncing upward one year, spinning downward the next, faster than they could say "Miguel Cabrera for Cameron Maybin."

But now, their new ballpark has risen from the rubble where the Orange Bowl once stood. Now, there is actual cash money flowing into their actual checking account, as actual human beings buy actual tickets to sit in actual seats under an actual retractable roof just a few months into their future.

So now, Beinfest can utter words no Marlins honcho has ever been able to utter before: "We want to be good EVERY year," he said Monday. "And hopefully, we now have the facilities and the resources to do that."

People keep asking him: Where's the money coming from? Well, pay attention, folks. You don't need to be Alan Greenspan to figure this out.

For the entire life of the franchise, they've been stuck playing baseball in a football stadium that changed names every 45 minutes, where they had the worst lease deal in baseball. Now, thanks to the new ballpark, their revenues are about to explode. And they're still on the revenue-sharing handout line, for another year anyway.

Meanwhile, their roster is stuffed with young guys who work cheap. And before this week, only one player on the whole team (Hanley Ramirez) was signed beyond 2013.

So think about this. This team is perfectly positioned to double the payroll next year because that payroll was so low in the first place. Then it's just as well-positioned to spread out its investment in a Reyes here and a Pujols there because it has so few other long-term commitments.

It's the perfect storm.

Unless it turns out to be not so perfect.

That's because what they don't know -- what nobody knows -- is whether this is going to work, on the field or off the field, as bright as the future may suddenly look.

Now on paper, it's easy to see that the team they put on the field next April could look pretty darned scary:

Reyes, Ramirez, Pujols, Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, John Buck, Omar Infante, Emilio Bonifacio or Chris Coghlan.

"But it all depends how it fits together," one NL East exec said Monday. "Is Hanley going to buy in or not? Does he want to play third base or not? Because if he doesn't, he could mess up the whole thing."

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesBy all indications, the Miami Marlins are serious about their pursuit of Albert Pujols.

The Marlins' brass continues to scoff at any and all suggestions that the signing of Reyes will turn their former face of the franchise, Hanley, into a ticking bundle of TNT. They've divulged zero details of their conversations with their soon-to-be-ex-shortstop about his impending move to third base. But they insist Ramirez is on board with whatever the heck this means for him.

"Hanley is a super-professional," owner Jeffrey Loria said Monday. "That's all I will say. We will work with him to make him as comfortable as possible."

But regardless of what happens with him, and no matter how many nine-figure contracts the Fish hand out this offseason, the most important player on their team might not be any of the above. No matter who's in the lineup, their short-term future could revolve around a guy who didn't show up in a single box score this year after May 16 -- their favorite ace, Josh Johnson.

"If Josh Johnson isn't healthy enough to pitch," the same NL East exec said, "they're done. Without Josh Johnson, they're not winning anything. I don't care who else they sign."

The good news is, Johnson's shoulder inflammation isn't considered serious. The bad news is, it wasn't considered serious last year, either. And he still joined the witness-protection program for the last 4½ months of the season.

So whether the Marlins sign Pujols or not, and whether they can make Ramirez happy or not, they still have other worries, other moves to make, other needs to address, before we'd recommend you start wagering heavily on them at Caesars Palace.

But the pieces they've put in place aren't just designed to make a dent in the standings. They're part of Loria's grand business strategy, to build a buzz around the opening of the ballpark that's impossible for their masses to ignore.

"I saw years ago," the owner said Monday, "that if we were able to get a new stadium, spectacular things could happen. And we're working toward that goal now."

He keeps using the words "The Plan," as if they appeared before him years ago in a lightning bolt from the sky. The Plan was always to build this crescendo as they headed toward the stadium. And now, every day, that crescendo gets a little louder.

Guillen -- charismatic, energetic, ever-chattering -- has long been part of The Plan. And Reyes -- another magnetic energizer sort of attraction -- is also a major building block in The Plan. Next, against all odds, could be Pujols, as their LeBron. And then we'll find out, once and for all, whether Miami is a big-time baseball town.

Quietly, the Marlins are projecting an average attendance of 30,000 a game next season. Privately, they haven't ruled out pushing the payroll close to $100 million. This is shocking stuff for a team that averaged 19,000 customers a game last season and has never inflated its payroll beyond $60 million -- ever.

But is The Plan to launch that payroll into the stratosphere and then maintain it at that level? That depends, Loria said, on whether the population embraces the franchise the way they expect.

"It's going to take its course," he said. "We'll see where we are. … It will all depend on what happens, as the fans respond and the market grows. And I can tell you that the energy that I've seen in Miami, because I've been there a lot -- everybody would like to get started [with the season] before Christmas."

Well, that won't be possible, obviously. But it now does seem possible that Pujols could come sliding down the chimney, bearing all the Marlins hats and T-shirts you can stuff in your stockings. And that's a potentially franchise-changing development.

But it will take more than money, more than juicy names, more than a quote-a-holic manager, more than a spectacular new stadium, to forever alter the life of this team.

Only winning can do that. And lots of it.

"So I sort of wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and think about what we need to make it happen," Loria said. "And so far, we're on that trail right now."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com