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Payroll Realities Loom for Marlins

Somehow I missed this gem from the Sun-Sentinel last week:

The Marlins don't plan to offer a multiyear contract to Dontrelle Willis during the season, but his camp came away encouraged after a recent meeting with key front office officials...

Teams in a similar position often attempt to "buy out" a key player's remaining arbitration years. In Willis' case, that could mean an offer in the four-year, $20 million range.

Despite Dontrelle's recent woes, I hope the Marlins come through with this. I'd hate to see Dontrelle go through the arbitration process every year. That's just not a good thing for the player or the club.

Still, ponying up the money for Dontrelle (which he's earned over the past three seasons - even if he doesn't live up, dollar for dollar, to the value of the contract that he's rewarded with) will be costly for the Marlins. In 2003, Dontrelle earned the Major League minimum - despite being responsible for a 10,000 person (plus) bump in attendance each time he pitched. In 2004 and 2005 he's earned barely more than the minimum, so even after rough starts like his last three, he's been a highly economical investment for the Marlins.

And if you start to pay Dontrelle, how can you not pay Cabrera (even if Cabrera isn't technically eligible for arbitration and thus a higher salary)? Failing to pay Cabrera what he's due now almost guarantees that he'll be gone as soon as he's eligible for free agency. Sadly, I have not even heard any rumors that the Marlins have discussed anything along the lines of a multi-year deal or even a significant raise for Cabrera for 2006. In all likelihood, he will have his contract renewed by the Marlins for about $400,000. That's not even $100,000 more than the minimum; Alex Rodriguez will earn more than that for just three games next season.

Not only are Willis and Cabrera likely to become (or at least should become) much more expensive next season, there will be a number of other players due for a significant pay raise. Josh Beckett, Juan Pierre, and Guillermo Mota are three arbitration eligible players who could see their salaries balloon from about $9 million this year to nearly double that figure next year.

LoDuca and Delgado's contracts are backloaded, so they both become more expensive next season.

Despite Mike Hampton (finally!) coming off the books next season and the Fish only owing $2 million to Pudge Rodriguez (to be a Tiger), the Marlins are still looking at a $20 million increase in payroll to keep this year's club intact.

Considering that the team is mired in last place (although they're playing above .500 ball), maintaining the status quo might not be the right thing to do. But, even if they wanted to, keeping the key players in Marlins uniforms might not even be possible: A.J. Burnett and Alex Gonzalez are likely to be gone as of the end of this season. The Marlins likely won't be able to afford A.J.'s asking price; the White Sox, led by Ozzie Guillen, are likely to come hard after Gonzalez.

The combined effects of free agency, salary arbitration eligibility, and prospect development mean that we could see youngsters such as Robert Andino or Josh Wilson at shortstop, Jeremy Hermida in the outfield, and Jason Vargas, Scott Olsen, and Jason Johnson on the pitching staff by Opening Day 2006. While that's exciting, it's not necessarily the formula for a World Series run.

(Note: Most of the figures and player comments in this article were supplemented by Mike Berardino's July 20th article in the Sun-Sentinel. However, that article is no longer online (at least not when I've tried to find it), so I didn't link to it or quote directly from it.)