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A tale of two baseball cities

11:58 AM, Nov 27, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In one Major League Baseball city, it is the best of times. In another, it is the worst of times.

In Toronto, this promises to be the spring of hope. In Miami, thanks to owner Jeffrey Loria's fire sale, there's no doubt this is the winter of despair.

When Commissioner Bud Selig officially approved the blockbuster deal between the Blue Jays and Marlins last week, it immediately boosted Toronto into contender status and doomed Miami to what will almost unquestionably be a 100- loss season.

Competing for a postseason berth in the American League East has been quite difficult for Toronto, which has had to contend with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox - traditionally the two biggest-payroll teams in the sport. Lately, the Tampa Bay Rays have become a consistent contender, too. Even the Baltimore Orioles took a big step forward and landed a wild-card berth this past season.

It's somewhat hard to believe, but Toronto has not appeared in a postseason game since Joe Carter's 1993 World Series-clinching home run in Game 6 against Philadelphia. To the Blue Jays front office's credit, though, it saw an opening to break through in the AL East next season and decided to go for it.

The Yankees' offense struggled mightily in the playoffs. With a stated goal of paring down its payroll in the next couple of years so that it can finally avoid paying luxury tax, it doesn't seem likely that New York will be able to throw crazy money around to patch its holes.

The Red Sox finished in last place last season. Unless since-fired manager Bobby Valentine was the sole problem, Boston is unlikely to challenge for the AL East title in 2013.

Baltimore and Tampa Bay are still expected to be good, so Toronto is hardly a lock to make its first playoff appearance since 1993. Still, by merely agreeing to take on multiple high-priced players from the Marlins, the Blue Jays have instantly become a formidable team.

Toronto's offense was already pretty good; the 2012 Blue Jays ranked sixth in the majors with 198 home runs and 13th with 716 runs scored. Now, they've added one of the best table-setters in baseball in shortstop Jose Reyes. The 2011 National League batting champion will be an improvement offensively, defensively and on the base paths over last year's starting shortstop - Yunel Escobar, who went to Miami in this trade.

Emilio Bonifacio doesn't have the stature of Reyes, but he's quite a useful player on a 25-man roster. He can play practically any defensive position adequately, hit for average and steal bases. He's the perfect utilityman, but could wind up as the Jays' starting second baseman.

John Buck is an overpaid, declining backup catcher who is owed $6 million in the final season of his contract. Toronto had to accept him in order to complete the deal, but he'll be a decent enough backup if the Jays don't worry too much about the salary figure.

The biggest gain from the trade from Toronto's perspective, however, was the addition of pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle. Last year, the Jays' team earned run average (4.64) ranked 26th among the 30 teams in the majors.

Coming off a shoulder injury from the previous season, Johnson had a subpar 2012 campaign. He finished 8-14 with a 3.81 ERA in 31 starts. He'll only be 29 on Opening Day, however, and he has shown ace qualities in the past. If healthy, it's reasonable to expect Johnson will be the Jays' No. 1 starter and one of the better pitchers in the American League.

Buerhle has pitched more than 200 innings and posted double digits in wins for 12 consecutive seasons. He'll be 34 on Opening Day, but he really hasn't shown any signs of sharp decline. Yes, he'll be moving from a top pitchers' park in Miami to a hitters' park in Toronto, but he's pitched successfully in a bandbox before, having spent 11-plus seasons with the Chicago White Sox.

Adding Johnson and Buerhle to a rotation that also includes Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero should greatly improve Toronto's pitching - perhaps even enough to end the team's long postseason drought.

Meanwhile, the postseason will be the last thing on Miami fans' minds in 2013.

Drawing fans has never been easy for the Marlins, even during their 1997 and 2003 World Series years. The franchise never could capitalize on the momentum that winning the 1997 Series should have established, because virtually all the high-priced players from that team were shipped away by the start of the 1998 campaign.

The same thing is happening now, with one difference: The Marlins aren't coming off a successful season this time around. They finished last in the National League East with a 69-93 record, this after having entered the year with an all-time franchise high $112 million payroll.

Miami seemed intent on competing. It looked like a show of good faith from the organization, after taxpayers had been saddled with about 80 percent of the $634 million price tag on the Marlins' new stadium. When things didn't go so well in the first half of last season, though, Miami dealt Hanley Ramirez and Annibal Sanchez at the trade deadline.

Including the blockbuster deal with Toronto, Miami has already traded six of the eight position players in its 2012 Opening Day lineup. Only Giancarlo Stanton - one of the league's top 10 offensive players, but one who will probably only lead the league in intentional walks in 2013 - and Logan Morrison remain. And there's actually been some talk that Morrison could be headed out of town.

Three-fifths of the Marlins' April 2012 starting rotation is gone, as well as three relievers from the Opening Day roster.

The trades have saved the Marlins $163.75 million in guaranteed salaries through the 2018 season, more than half of which would have gone to Reyes. The Marlins' payroll currently projects to be in the $36 million range for 2013, which is less than one-third the team's 2012 Opening Day payroll and about $23 million less than that of the 2012 Oakland Athletics, who had the lowest MLB payroll last year.

So, what do the Marlins have to show for the trade? They got Escobar, s shortstop who batted .253 with a disappointing .644 OPS last season. They got another infielder, Adeiny Hechavarria, who has split time between shortstop and third base. Hechavarria projects to be a solid defender and a mediocre hitter.

They also picked up veteran catcher Jeff Mathis, who will probably produce similar numbers to Buck in a backup role but make one-quarter of Buck's salary.

Outfielder Jake Marisnick, 21, has the tools to be a solid offensive contributor someday. He struggled when promoted to Double-A New Hampshire last summer, but he was young for that level. He could eventually prove to be the best Miami acquisition of the seven-player package.

The Marlins also added three pitchers, including one-time highly regarded prospect Henderson Alvarez, who was 9-14 with a 4.85 ERA for the Jays last year. The move to a pitchers' park and to the National League should help him, but he's unlikely to make Marlins fans forget Josh Johnson.

The other two pitchers Miami acquired - Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani - provide promise, especially Nicolino, given that he's just 21 years old and is coming off a strong season at Class A Lansing (10-4, 2.46 ERA). DeSclafani was solid at Lansing, too. The 22-year-old righty had an 11-3 record and 3.37 ERA.

The young players Miami obtained all have a chance to be major-league contributors one day. If so, trade analysts will probably be more kind to the Marlins five or so years from now.

Even if all seven new Marlins reach their ceiling, there are just a couple of things impossible to overlook in Miami right now:

First, how will this team of Stanton and a bunch of no-names draw any fans to the ballpark? Opening a new state-of-the-art park last season with a team expected to contend for a playoff berth, Miami still ranked just 12th out of 16 NL teams in attendance.

The novelty of the new stadium is gone, and so is any hope for contention. Expect more than a few four-digit attendance figures in 2013. Additionally, when the team eventually becomes good again, will there be enough fans around who care?

Case in point: The Montreal Expos had the best record in baseball when a players' strike wiped out the 1994 postseason. Disappointed fans never again adequately filled the seats in Montreal, and the team eventually moved to Washington. (Loria, for the record, owned the Expos from 1999-2002. He sold them after striking out in efforts to get public funding for a new stadium).

Second, when the Marlins are ready to contend again, how will they be able to attract free agents? Last offseason, the Marlins signed Reyes to a six-year deal and Buerhle to a four-year pact. Both were traded away to Toronto after just one season, and that's possibly a location they would never have chosen in free agency.

Sure, South Florida has some fine selling points, but will future free agents be ready to look past the cases of Reyes and Buerhle when deciding where to sign?

Third, how will this affect other teams' ability to get largely taxpayer- funded stadiums built? Right now, it sure looks like Loria played Miami taxpayers for fools. You'd better believe that other cities will use the Marlins' situation as evidence of how bad some investments like this can be.

It worked out OK for Loria, though. By saving over $163 million in guaranteed salaries with the Toronto trade, he can easily pay in full his share of debt for the ballpark. Too bad that Miami will still be paying off its debt - and watching bad baseball - for years.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.

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