Senior Baseball Columnist

In stunning transformation, Marlins become the talk of winter meetings


What happened to the penny-pinching Marlins executives we used to know and deride? (US Presswire)  
What happened to the penny-pinching Marlins executives we used to know and deride? (US Presswire)  

DALLAS -- Here is how the winter meetings look: Marlins. Marlins, Marlins, Marlins. Marlins, Marlins, Marlins, Marlins. Oh, and a Christmas tree in the middle of the lobby. Then Marlins and more Marlins.

There are not enough ooohs and aaahs in the state of Texas for what they're doing. There are not enough Christmas carols written for the way they are turning these winter meetings into their own personal Winter Wonderland.

"If it weren't for the Marlins, there would be no winter meetings at all," Cubs president Theo Epstein quipped late Wednesday afternoon after Miami had poached free-agent pitcher Mark Buehrle from the White Sox (four years, $58 million), formally introduced new shortstop Jose Reyes (six years, $106 million) and insisted that All-Star Hanley Ramirez will happily play third base and not be traded.

That, by the way, was all on one day.

Then they were informed by Albert Pujols' camp that they were out on him, so they doubled down on free-agent pitcher C.J. Wilson.

"I just told Jeffrey [Loria], 'You're having a lot of fun. You're having a lot of fun this week. How's it feel?'" White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said after the Buehrle camp had phoned and offered Chicago one final chance to match.

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"They came and told us what was in front of them and we said, 'Congratulations,'" Williams continued. "We wished him well.

"He will forever be in our hearts."

Like the Grinch's heart, the Marlins' budget grew several sizes on this day.

In Reyes, Buehrle and Heath Bell, the Marlins this week have committed $191 million. A team whose payroll was a paltry $57 million last year will inflate it to the $100 million range for 2012.

"They're spending years' worth of revenue-sharing money, all at once," marveled one veteran scout.

"Three years ago, looking ahead to this free-agent class, to our new ballpark, we made a decision not to wait for the excitement, but to bring the excitement to our fans," Marlins president David Samson said. "It was a perfect storm with our philosophy."

That the Marlins' philosophy would eventually include rounding up Reyes, Buehrle and Bell, that they would dare to dream of Pujols, once would have been less believable than Santa Claus in your chimney. Odds were you would have seen elves in your living room and reindeer on your roof before you would have seen free agents flooding to South Florida on I-95.

This could not be more crazy. The embarrassment of riches suddenly is so deep, so prevalent, that between meetings with Buehrle, Pujols and Wilson on Wednesday, the Marlins took time to lob several verbal bouquets in the general direction of Ramirez, who repeatedly has been said to be upset at being shoved over to third base to make room for Reyes.

"I don't care what people say," new manager Ozzie Guillen said. "I don't care who's talking and who's tweeting. I don't care who's coming in [as new Marlins], Hanley will be here.

"This guy's a Marlin. Everybody is coming here to help him win. I'm not talking for PR or for marketing. I'm talking as a manager. I'm very comfortable with him. I expect everything to be fine with him."

This is exactly why the Marlins poached Guillen from the White Sox before they pried Buehrle from Chicago's South Side, to manage players and massage egos. The Marlins are not trading Hanley Ramirez. It is Guillen's job to make this work, and he will. This is where managing goes beyond strategy, beyond bringing in the left-hander to face the right-hander.

More or less, any qualified manager can do that. Where the good managers separate themselves is in handling players and, more important, players' egos.

"I understand his feelings," Guillen said. "It's all about talking. It's about letting go for a little while.

"I only care what Hanley says on Feb. 20 when we start spring training. I expect his mood to be good."

Reyes said he has not spoken with Ramirez but does not foresee issues.

"I'm looking forward to playing with Hanley because Hanley is one of the best players in the game," Reyes said. "I'm looking forward to it. I think we can be very good fielders.

"I'm going to be there for him, and I think he's going to be there for me, too."

Reyes by far was the top target on the Marlins' list -- ahead of Pujols -- as they approached this winter with an open wallet and vivid imagination. Loria and a contingent of executives set up a meeting last month with Reyes at 12:01 a.m. on the first day rival clubs could talk with free agents.

Samson described an elaborate midnight meeting on a freezing New York night when Loria stepped into the bar with a long, heavy coat ... and dramatically opened it in front of wildly curious socialites ... to reveal he was wearing a newly designed Marlins jersey with Reyes' name and number on the back.

They thought about ordering drinks but quickly decided "we definitely should have caffeine because it was going to be a late night," Samson said.

Judging by their subsequent actions, they soaked up a winter's worth of caffeine in that one evening.

"It's not about making a splash," Loria said. "It's about making this team good and better.

"We have a glorious new ballpark. We want to make the team good and better, and we want to win."

Samson said that Loria phoned Ramirez within one minute of Reyes agreeing to terms with the Marlins over the weekend to give him the news.

"It's all about information," Loria said. "I'm a big believer in communication, and Hanley is an important part of our team and I wanted to let him know what we had just done. ...

"He wants to win. We want to win. And he will do what's best for the team because it would be shocking for a player not to do that."

Guillen and the Marlins insist that Ramirez will. Sources close to the team insist he will not be traded.

Even if he's cranky now, give him several weeks to digest this dizzying new Marlins world and put him in their clubhouse on the opening day of spring training, and it's hard to believe he won't be swept up in a team that will be serious players in the NL East.

Since 2009, nobody has more than Bell's 132 saves.

Reyes has MVP skills and a five-tool smile.

Buehrle, 32, has thrown more than 200 innings for 11 consecutive seasons and was 13-9 with a 3.59 ERA for the White Sox last season.

"I think people are going to be just as unhappy as I am," Williams said of his Chicago constituents. "Listen, given my druthers, I'd rather have him here.

"Two words probably sum it up best: It sucks."

For once in their Bleak House little lives, the Marlins are not on the wrong end of that phrase. And as disappointed as he was to lose Buehrle, even Williams has a hard time begrudging the Marlins their week in the limelight.

"Well, hell, they've had enough years where they've had to scrape it together," he said. "If they've got it and that's the way they want to conduct business and put their stamp on South Florida, more power to them."

As Williams said, you think the Marlins aren't having fun? Loria and Samson looked like a couple of kids with full glasses of egg nog.

How does this feel?

Samson paused.

"Nerve-wracking," he said. "We need to be right."


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