Not Safe At Home: An Analysis of the Marlins Trade With the Blue Jays

Some want to claim that this is the end of the line for the Marlins. That this deal will destroy their franchise and kill baseball in Miami once and for all. Others, a little more apologetically, urge caution and say that this deal does make baseball sense – if anyone is willing to listen to reason.

Somewhere in the middle is the truth.

Yes, the Marlins broke free of their three year watch period as issued by MLB. Accused of just trying to pocket their revenue sharing money, back in 2009 the Marlins books were being watched by officials. In the offseason of 2012 the Marlins happened to shed over $150M in payroll owed by the team through 2018 right after the eyes on them were removed. Coincidence?

The fans cry out for justice. They accuse Loria of trying to destroy the franchise. Some have even tried to issue a protest at Marlins Park this week, but so far, no serious press has been made of it. Their poor heartstrings were tugged on with these players and they are crying foul. They want their tax money back and the team to be tossed out.

But who’s to blame here? Is the front office? Should the owner and his diminutive stepson be vilified? What about the supposed promise made from the Marlins brass about not trading the big ticket players they acquired last season? Oh! The moral implications! How dare they break unwritten promises to professional athletes only here for one year! And on a team that managed to win 69 games nonetheless!

Everyone, calm down. One of the biggest culprits here is getting away scot-free – the fans of the Marlins. (Here’s a heavy-handed article that is not balanced, but does call out the fan base for a change.) You are as much to blame here as your owner, president, and GMs. But even that isn’t enough. The real problem has to do with perception and the funny history of baseball in south Florida.

First of all, you had a fire sale after the 1997 championship. That was due to Wayne Huizenga acting like a spoiled brat and wanted to take his ball and go home. So he did. And he kicked everyone out. Dave Dombrowski, a shrewd GM, was able to amass a lot of young talent that would become the core of the 2003 championship team. That you can call a success, if you choose to see it as a Phoenix-like story. Huizenga did a good thing though – he did strip the team down and sold it off (at a profit) and didn’t leave the cupboard bear. He also passed along some payroll flexibility to new owner John Henry, but locked him into a horrific lease that pretty much soaked up most of the revenue from the team.

Henry, failing to net a stadium, sold the team to Loria (via a shift of ownership from Montreal to Florida, while Henry moved on to Boston). The 2003 championship in the debut of the new manager looked significant but doubts harbored around Loria because of his past in Montreal. The team was dismantled in 2005 after winning 83 games because of revenue troubles, but it was hardly a fire sale like back in ’97. Still, with the suspicion abounding, Loria never got the fair treatment that say, a team like the Red Sox would get, when they decided to shed their payroll significantly this past season. Again, it’s all about perception.

The fans in Miami tend to be short-sighted at best. Overly emotional, vastly undereducated about the sports they supposedly love. The Heat only have a huge following because they had the greatest offseason in human history back in 2010. The Dolphins have the longest history, but even that team is not drawing as well as it used to. The Marlins? 18th in attendance – and that is with a brand new park and over $100M in payroll last season. And once again, perception wins out.

The fans don’t fully realize that you have to build a winner with a strong foundation. You have to have a core of players that can win and play the way your organization envisions – and you use free agency to fill the gaps to get that team over the hump. In 2003, the Marlins did just that getting Ivan Rodriguez as an experiment but also in trading for Ugueth Urbina to close games. The gambit worked and they got themselves a championship because the core players – Mike Lowell, Derek Lee, Luis Castillo, Miguel Cabrera, Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Dontrelle Willis – were all developed by the Marlins and with a focus on winning as a team.

The big market teams try to build big – with big name free agents to “reload”. They also have deeper pockets and lots of revenue. If they mess up on a $100M contract, they can scratch around and eat the loss. A team like the Marlins still have a tighter margin of error and Loria’s assessment and reaction to scrap a team that cost $111M but only won 69 games is a bold one, but the right one. The contracts of the players being sent away are not ideal as there are many questions about whether or not those deals can be of fair value over the life of those contracts.

Is Jose Reyes worth another $96M for another 6 years? He has a history of being injured and his offensive production has never amounted to winning baseball (see his Mets years and his lone year as a Marlin). Mark Buehrle is 34 and owed another 3 years. What kind of a pitcher will he be by the end of his contract? Once again, these deals are also heavily backloaded which means they will be owed most of their money when they are most likely in decline as players. Why? John Buck? Well, he sucks. Plain and simple. Josh Johnson is in the final year of his contract but is arguably not worth $13M – you could have Zack Greinke for nearly that kind of dough (if you want to take a risk on a socially awkward ace). Emilio Bonifacio is a loss, but you have to give something to get something. You can always find more speed – Bonifacio was acquired for Josh Willingham, after all.

Again, this is all about perception. Fans, a majority of them only reacting to emotion, fail to see the bigger picture. This team is here to stay. Maybe Loria will be around, maybe not. The fact of the matter is this franchise is now worth significantly more than when he bought it – and that makes it a very attractive asset. The fans, however, complain that they want a major league team in their major league ballpark. And they are right – they deserve one and the ability to compete is much more greatly amplified because of the new park and increased revenue. Yet, we should also have a major league fan base with a major league turnout. Enough with the excuses. If people were going to games, despite the 69 wins, this team might actually think twice about alienating its fan base. Yet, there were few at the games so, what fan base would they really alienate?

So, at the end of the day, a baseball decision was made to try and rebirth this team. In order to do that, you need a strong core and you need more young talent to get that. You can regroup and build up through free agency – the Marlins did add Juan Pierre as a replacement for speed and leadoff hitting. The fact he is a familiar name (and played with Redmond) are all positives, too. He did hit .307 last year also.

The Marlins are not going to add huge names this offseason. Nor should they. It would make them out to be confused and possibly hypocritical. They need to target missing pieces to hold down the fort and make this team competitive for the next few years while they develop their young talents. Who is going to play 3B? Kevin Youkilis would be a nice addition, but not at the price he is trying to get. For the right price, he would be a nice fit, provide solid defense, experience, some leadership. Maybe some offense, but nothing like he used to provide. That said, there are much better options out there. Even the Red Sox might align with the Marlins’s view on this one.

The Marlins are making the tough call on this one, but they are getting it right and moving in the right direction. They are rebuilding their farm system, acquiring 3 of the Blue Jays top 10 prospects, and bringing them to their system, which already sports Christian Yelich and Jose Fernandez (both of whom are among the top 20 of all prospects throughout the entire league). The future is bright for the Marlins – they have an emerging farm system reloading with young talent and payroll flexibility. Heat fans can attest to the wonders of having payroll flexibility but you have to have the right targets in mind.

The foundation is laid, but the only question remains is that can the Marlins fan base perceive it? This is all about perception – and the front office cannot spend time trying to sell everyone on rebuilding with a young team. They have to go out and show that their turnaround is much quicker and that just shooting for 70 wins is not enough – but trying to buy a championship will not work either. Regardless, this team is here for the long haul and it is shaping up for a much more enduring build that last year’s free agent mercenaries.

Which brings us to one final point. Since when do teams have to be loyal to their free agent signings? If they signed them with the promise to win more games and play in games that matter, why should these professional athletes not be jettisoned when they don’t deliver? After all, players will quickly leave a team that developed them to chase more money. It isn’t like Reyes and Buerhle are not going to get paid (even though there is a significant tax increase heading to Toronto – yeah socialism!). And the fans? Please. Most of them just grabbed new jerseys because they said “Miami” on them. The glitz of getting big name free agents, although exciting, didn’t help the team win. We all should be chasing the bums out of town. All of them. The owner did that for us. It’s not enough, but it is a start.