Marlins' 2nd big sell-off could put minimum payroll back on table



FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

--In slashing their payroll by nearly 75 percent this winter, the Florida Marlins haven't just set themselves up for a last-place finish and an estimated single-season profit of at least $30 million.

They haven't just taken a page from the playbook of Bialystock and Bloom in becoming baseball's version of The Producers.

They also most likely put the issue of a minimum payroll back on the table for owners and players as they hash out a new collective bargaining agreement this summer.

Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, recently said a minimum payroll would be "one of the things to look at in bargaining." Fehr also admitted he was troubled by the second player sell-off in South Florida in a span of eight years.

"Anytime you see something like that, it's very unfortunate," Fehr said. "We need to examine the uses to which revenue-sharing funds are put. That's a fairly significant issue, and it's not just Florida."

Last time around, back in the summer of 2002, it was management that proposed a payroll floor while the players opposed it, most likely because they feared it could lead to a payroll cap.

But the NHL recently joined the NBA in setting an annual payroll floor, and with the Marlins fielding a $15 million outfit, $20 million below the next-lowest competitor, the appetite for such restrictions may have grown.

"I think it's something the players would like to see: `This is the least amount of money you're allowed to spend,'" said White Sox player representative Chris Widger. "But with each team being so different, you're going to have owners that say, `We don't want to do that. You can't tell us how much we have to spend on our team.'"

Any NBA team that doesn't spend at least 75 percent of the salary cap is surcharged at the end of the season, with the difference put into a pool for the players.

Under the new NHL parameters, teams must spend between $21.5 million and $39 million on player salaries, signing bonuses and performance bonuses this season. A sliding scale will be used in subsequent seasons.

With many baseball observers viewing the luxury-tax threshold - set this year at $136.5 million - as a de facto salary cap, the NBA range would translate into a $102 million minimum for baseball. If baseball chose to emulate the NHL, the lowest payroll might have to be 55 percent of the luxury-tax number, or $75 million.

Considering just five big league teams opened the year with payrolls of less than $57 million, something in the $50 million range seems a reasonable minimum. After all, Vegas visitors can't sit at a $50 blackjack table and expect to play for 50 cents a hand.

Or perhaps baseball could take a cue from the Toronto Blue Jays' ownership, which recently committed $210 million during a three-year period to player salaries. A requirement that every team spend, say, $150 million every three years would leave the Marlins needing to jump back up to $66 million in 2007.

San Francisco Giants chairman Peter Magowan said a payroll minimum "might be workable" but was reluctant to endorse or reject the concept.

"I don't want to comment on the details of how low should be low and how high should be high," he said. "Are there still things we'd like to get in the new contract? Sure. I'm sure there are things the union would love to get. But the most important part of the game is that it be competitive balance and not an exhibition.

"You don't go to a baseball game to see the Harlem Globetrotters and know the outcome of the game. You go because you don't know the outcome of the game."

Remember that while you're watching the Marlins slog through this summer with a $15 million product.

Mike Berardino writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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