The decline of the Florida Marlins might only be beginning, because their payroll is likely to keep falling.

Team president Don Smiley, who is organizing a group of investors to buy the team, plans another drastic reduction in player payroll to $16 million or less for the 1999-2001 seasons.To meet such a budget, the World Series champions likely would be forced to trade stars Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Alex Fernandez and Charles Johnson.

"It's tough," said Johnson, the Marlins' Gold Glove catcher. "It's something the organization feels they have to do, and as players we have no say-so. We have to go with the flow."

Smiley considers the cuts necessary for the Marlins to make a profit while he seeks a new ballpark with a retractable roof.

The Marlins reduced their payroll from $53 million last year to $33 million this season, which ranks 20th among the 30 major-league teams. The only teams with payrolls below $16 million are Pittsburgh ($13 million) and Montreal ($9 million).

Smiley disclosed his budget plans this week in an outline to more than a dozen prospective investors. The figures were confirmed Wednesday by a source close to the group's negotiations with current owner H. Wayne Huizenga.

The source said Smiley may cut payroll as low as $12 million.

Fans are already bitter about the breakup of the team. Attendance has declined 28 percent this season, and the Marlins drew the two smallest home crowds in franchise history on consecutive nights this week.

Further belt-tightening would leave in doubt the future of manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski, who may prefer to find a more competitive situation. Leyland considered quitting after one season with the Marlins because of last winter's payroll purge, and Dombrowski is in the final year of his contract.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a payroll of $17 million in 1996, the year Leyland resigned as their manager because he was frustrated about the team's financial situation. Leyland declined to comment Wednesday.

Cutting the payroll to $16 million would be impossible unless the Marlins trade Sheffield, their $10 million-per-year slugger. Sheffield, who must approve any deal because of a no-trade clause in his contract, said Thursday he'd consider going to the Atlanta Braves or Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but otherwise he'd prefer to remain in Miami.

"Whatever happens, they'll have to bring it to me, and then we'll discuss it," he said. "Until then I just have to do the best I can for the Marlins."

Efforts to trade Sheffield last winter failed because no team was willing take on his six-year, $61 million contract that took effect this season.