Marlins rewrite rules of the race

Published: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 1:15 a.m.
MIAMI - With the addition of Carlos Delgado, the Florida Marlins may be ready to end the Atlanta Braves' reign in the NL East.
Then again, the Braves are pretty good at turning back challenges. They've won 13 consecutive division titles.
''The way to the title is through Atlanta,'' Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said Wednesday. ''That being said, I don't think there's any question that the Marlins' offense has been upgraded dramatically. They're going to score a bunch of runs, and it's going to be a real fun offensive team.''
Fun for Florida fans, that is - but not for Bowden's team or the rest of the division.
Delgado, who hit at least 30 home runs each of the past eight seasons with Toronto, agreed Tuesday to a $52 million, four-year deal with Florida and took his physical Wednesday. Assuming he passes, he'll anchor the Marlins' most potent lineup since 1997, when they won the first of their two World Series titles.
They've yet to claim a division title, finishing behind Atlanta in each of their 12 seasons. Last year Florida was in the wild-card race until mid-September but finished 13 games behind the Braves at 83-79. Can Delgado help make up that margin? And can Florida overtake NL champion St. Louis, which won 105 games?
''With this transaction, the Marlins have the firepower to win the division, the league and the World Series,'' Bowden said.
The Marlins likely agree. But manager Jack McKeon has been around the game long enough (54 years) to know that predicting a title is a bad idea, especially with the Braves in his division.
''I still think they're the team to beat,'' McKeon said. ''They find a way to come up with the players. Everybody gave the Braves a goodbye last year, and look what happened.''
There's no assurance the Marlins will be better than last year after losing ace Carl Pavano (18-8) and closer Armando Benitez (47 saves) to free agency.
General manager Larry Beinfest signed veteran Al Leiter to take Pavano's spot in the rotation. Guillermo Mota is slated to become a first-time closer as part of a revamped bullpen.
''How Mota handles the transition and how well the setup guys do will determine the Marlins' destiny,'' Bowden said. ''But knowing Larry Beinfest and Jack McKeon, if that becomes a problem during year, they'll go out and fix it.'' A left-handed power hitter has topped McKeon's wish list ever since he became manager in 2003. Delgado's one of the best.
''Sometimes patience is a virtue,'' McKeon said. ''Delgado gives us that ingredient we didn't have.''
He has already started to earn his keep.
The Marlins sold $150,000 worth of season tickets Wednesday, five times their daily norm.
But not every South Floridian had baseball fever. When asked about the signing of Delgado, Shaquille O'Neal said, ''Who is that?''
The Miami Heat center - coincidentally in Toronto for a game Wednesday - was informed Delgado is a baseball player who signed with the Marlins.
''Oh, I welcome him,'' O'Neal said. ''He can come by my house, you know where I live, eat some dinner. I don't have to share the spotlight. I don't have any spotlight. Nobody knows who I am down there. I'm just another pretty Latin face in Miami.''
Delgado will be one of seven regulars to have played in an All-Star game. And the rotation, the team's strength the past two seasons, still includes Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Dontrelle Willis.
''The Marlins were good before Delgado, and now they're a better team than they were last year,'' said Leiter, who pitched the past seven seasons for the Mets. ''With the considerable movement of players in the NL East, it's up for grabs.''
The acquisition of Delgado pushed the Marlins' payroll above $56 million, a franchise high.
They won out over division rival New York, which also made a $52 million, four-year offer.
''The Marlins get him and the Mets don't - taking him away from the Mets obviously does swing the balance'' in the division, Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said. ''No doubt he's an impact player. Middle-of-the-order hitters have an impact. That's why they get paid what they do.''
While losing the Delgado sweepstakes, the Mets have added Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, pushing their payroll above $90 million. On ''The Tonight Show,'' Jay Leno poked fun Tuesday at the Mets' spending.
''The new issue of Time magazine reports that President Bush is going to double the reward for capturing Osama bin Laden from $25 million to $50 million - which sounds like a lot until you realize the Mets just spent $119 million to get Carlos Beltran,'' Leno said.
New York's final offer to Delgado would have paid him $12.5 million in each of the next four years and had a $15 million club option for 2009 with a $2 million buyout. The Mets would have called $14 million of the money a signing bonus - not subject to state and city income tax - of which $7 million would have been paid in 2005 and the rest spread evenly over the remaining three years.

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