Reyes, new-look Marlins showing signs of life after rough patch
Miami opened a new ballpark this season and signed three big free-agents
Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell struggled for much of the first half
Reyes may have turned his year around and Miami is still in the playoff chase
Even as the newly rechristened Miami Marlins reported to spring training in mid-February, some 50,000 items remained on the construction punch list for Marlins Park, the club's sleek, modern new home in Little Havana which was due to open in a month and a half. There were walls to be painted. There were divots in freshly poured concrete to be filled. There were two empty 450-gallon saltwater aquariums, built into the backstop, to be stocked with marine life.
One thing that seemed to be ready to go was the ballpark's expanse of grass. Workmen on ladders and scaffolding surrounded the playing field, racing against time to prepare the park for Opening Day, but the field itself looked pristine, lush and springy. The Marlins had tested three different types of grass to see which would best hold up in the local humidity and under their new retractable roof. They had commissioned a shade study to make sure that each square foot of sod would receive enough precious sunlight during the hours the roof was open. They had settled on a strain of Bermudagrass called Celebration, and well before a pitch had ever been thrown in Marlins Park, it seemed certain that they had chosen wisely.
On Wednesday, the Marlins reached the midway point of a season that was supposed to be the first of a new era of success -- not only because of the new ballpark, but because of the $194 million committed to free agents including Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes, and because of an energetic new manager, Ozzie Guillen -- for a franchise that had endured eight years without a playoff appearance, and as many of irrelevance.
If you are looking for a metaphor for how the Marlins' effort has gone, look no further than that carefully chosen and installed grass. What was once thick and uniformly green is now riddled with splotches of brown, particularly in between the pitcher's mound and home plate, where the team had hoped to maintain it at a length of three-quarters of an inch in order to allow its speedy lineup to leg out infield hits. The shade study, it turned out, had not been entirely accurate, and that error was compounded by an unusually rainy April that forced to club to keep the ballpark's roof closed far more than it had anticipated.
The lesson: When you are attempting to remake a ballclub all at once, not much will go exactly as you have planned, no matter how meticulously you've prepared and how much you've invested.
Aside from its sod, little about Marlins Park has been a disappointment. The Marlins, formerly tenants in the Dolphins' charmless and roofless football stadium, finished dead last in the National League in attendance in each of the last six seasons, but average attendance at their 44 home games so far has jumped by nearly 10,000 fans from last season, to 28,392. Still, that figure ranks just 18th in the majors, and the ballpark's seats have on average been just three-quarters full.
The Marlins knew all along that in order to convert the attitudes about baseball among South Floridians from apathy to enthusiasm, they would need to give them a stadium that was home to not just the latest amenities, but a winning team. The latter part of the equation has, so far, been something of a problem.
Through 81 games last season, the Marlins, with a payroll of $56.9 million, were 36-45. Through 81 games this season, the Marlins, with a payroll of $118.1 million, are 39-42. They lost their home opener en route to an 8-14 April, rebounded to go 21-8 in May to get within a half-game of first place in the NL East but then endured a dispiriting 8-18 June. Three extra wins to date over the same point last year does not constitute the return on investment for which the Marlins' front office might have hoped.
The club's on-field problems have only begun with their trio of prized off-season acquisitions. Buehrle, signed to a four-year, $58 million deal, has been nothing less than the solid, middle-of-the-rotation arm that he was during most of his 12 years with the White Sox, but he has also been nothing more. He is 7-8, with an ERA of 3.48.
Reyes, the traditionally injury-plagued 29-year-old shortstop whom the Marlins lured away from the Mets with a six-year, $106 million offer, has been healthy, but mediocre: Last year's NL batting champion is hitting .268, and is on pace to steal just 38 bases (he swiped 39 in 126 games last season) with an OPS of .739, his lowest since 2005.
Bell has been even more disappointing. He racked up 132 saves in this three years as the Padres' full-time closer, while failing to convert just 14 opportunities, but this season he has blown an NL-high five of his 23 chances, to go with a ghastly 6.19 ERA and 1.72 WHIP. Bell's latest meltdown came on Tuesday, when the Marlins erased a 9-2 deficit to the Brewers to take a 10-9 lead in the top of the 10th, only to have their closer allow a game-winning two-run home run to Aramis Ramirez.
Perhaps more disconcerting have been the performances of some of the Marlins' incumbent stars, whom the club had, like its grass, carefully cultivated to be at their best this season. Many had expected the temperamental Hanley Ramirez, the three-time All-Star, to chafe at the team's moving of him from shortstop to third base to make room for Reyes, his good friend. Thanks in part to Guillen's nuanced handling of him, Ramirez, 28, has been a model citizen, but he has also played like a shell of his former self: The '09 batting champion is hitting .259, with an OPS of .779.
Much, too, was made of the necessity of keeping staff ace Josh Johnson -- who made just nine starts last season due to a shoulder condition called scapular dyskinesis -- healthy. Johnson hasn't missed a start, but he is just 5-5, with an ERA (4.09) and WHIP (1.39) that would be his highest since 2007. Worse have been first baseman Gaby Sanchez and leftfielder Logan Morrison. The pair last season combined to slug 42 homers and drive in 150 runs, but this season they have combined for just 11 and 46, and are together batting .220.
Still, says team president David Samson, "There's not an individual player I'd point to and say, 'Underperforming.' It's just all new. You put them together, you wait for it to jell, and you want it to come sooner rather than later. They know they can do better, Ozzie knows they can do better. Once we got through May we really thought we were going to start rolling, and then June hit us very hard. Things start to snowball. We just want to win some series, get back to .500 and go from there. We still are quite confident that at the end of the year, we'll be where we thought we'd be."
There are, to be sure, certain signs that the Marlins are rounding into form, signs that portend a second half to the season that could be far brighter than the first. Bell -- despite his rough Tuesday, after which Guillen launched into his first real public tirade of the season ("Bell gave up two runs. How about the rest of the [expletive] 10 or 12 runs they scored?" the obscenity-loving manager said) -- has allowed runs in just two of his last 16 appearances. Before he gave up five earned runs in an eventual win against the Brewers on Wednesday, Johnson had gone five straight starts in which he permitted only one or two. Reyes just completed a June in which he posted an OPS of .822, and Giancarlo Stanton, the 22-year-old slugger, has continued his assault on bleacher dwellers, as he ranks third in the NL in home runs (19) and 11th in RBIs (50). Further, the team on Wednesday acquired Carlos Lee, the 36-year-old former Astro, for two minor leaguers, in the hope that he can provide for them at first base what Sanchez has not.
Better news might also soon arrive on the attendance front, as the distraction of the Heat's run to the NBA championship fades into the distance and the Marlins receive a profile boost thanks to their starring role in The Franchise, the eight-episode Showtime documentary series that is due to premiere next Wednesday ("In the beginning you sort of felt like the Kardashians, because there are cameras everywhere," reports Samson).
In February, just before he was to commence his first spring training with his new team, Guillen, as only Guillen can, spoke of the many reasons he felt optimistic about this year's Marlins, and why that optimism wouldn't flag even if they got off to a disappointing start. "I'd rather lose with a good team than [expletive] lose with a bad team," he said then. "At least I get to go to the field every day knowing I have a chance. I'm going to have a chance to win every day with this team."
Guillen and his Marlins have so far experienced their losses -- more of them, perhaps, than any of them could have expected. They remain, however, a good team, one that, as the season's second half begins, stands just five games out of a Wild Card spot. Thanks in part to the fortuitous timing of the advent of Bud Selig's expanded playoff system, they have a chance. Even so, they are, like the grass on which they play, a work in progress.