David J. Neal

David J. Neal: The bottom line: Miami Marlins are building a contender as long as Stanton is re-signed

Two years ago, the Marlins indulged in another roster shattering that’s endeared them to more fans of every other team than potential fans of their own. Another Proven for Promising deal felt like the most cynically broken promise in that first year of the Debt Dome in Little Havana.

Almost a year ago, another jettisoning, that of longtime Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, drew a widespread shrug. What substantial difference could there be between Beinfest and promoted-from-within successor Mike Hill and Hill’s successor-from-within, general manager Dan Jennings, as long as they served the same master of the Marlins’ domain, owner Jeffrey Loria?

As it turns out, a playoff race’s worth of difference.

Much of what’s turned the Marlins from a 62-win corpse by summer proper into a 63-63 playoff chaser got put in motion by the aforementioned events.

Jennings and Hill brought in Casey McGehee (batting .297) and Garrett Jones (13 home runs) as free agents during the offseason. They’ve managed to put together a roster that survives the loss of Jose Fernandez, one of the three best pitchers in the National League.

Now, Jennings and Hill must perform the Herculean task of keeping Giancarlo Stanton’s brawny bat from taking the road most traveled by Marlins’ prospects who develop into stars. They gained the salary space to do so on those two seemingly dark days in 2012 when the Marlins deconstructed the team built to play in the newly constructed Marlins Park.

What a salary dump, we thought. At midseason, they dealt Hanley Ramirez and around $39 million of remaining Hanley salary through 2014 to the Dodgers. Then, in November, they sent pitchers Josh Johnson ($11.25 million for 2013), Mark Buehrle ($45 million over three seasons) and their best position player, shortstop Jose Reyes ($92 million left over five seasons), to Toronto.

In what looked like a massive salary dump, the Marlins got back in the Toronto trade: pitcher Henderson Alvarez, their current ace in the absence of Jose Fernandez; shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, hitting .275; pitcher Jeff Mathis, the one major-leaguer in the July trade that brought pitcher Jared Cosart, 2.45 ERA in three starts.

Meanwhile, the injury-plagued Johnson hasn’t pitched in 2014 after going 2-8 in 2013. Reyes hit .296 last year in Toronto and .290 this year, a nice average but not at an average of $13 million over the last two years. Buehrle’s been a winning pitcher, but not a dominant one.

Oh, and all that savings can be put toward keeping Stanton tractable by enhancing his surroundings and his bank statements. By “surroundings,” we’re not just talking about raw talent. It’s easier to deal with a hard journey to success if you like who’s sharing the back of the bus with you.

I asked Stanton about the difference in vibe around the Marlins now as opposed to 11 months ago.

“It’s been different since spring training, even without the win and loss column,” he replied.

“There’s been a different feel in the clubhouse. More relaxed. We click a little better. We have fun in here. We understand the difference … this is our area, we can do whatever we want in here, but out there, we’ve got to take care of business.”

Seems like the Marlins front office finally can say it’s taking care of business on the field, as well as on the bottom line.

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