I know it’s nerdy. I know it’s now a dated pop cultural reference that I’d normally roll my eyes at, but every single time I hear about a fire sale, I think of this scene from Arrested Development. It’s inescapable.
Much like the television program character Tobias Funke’s acting career, the Miami Marlins appear to be going nowhere fast with their new stadium and off season re-investment in their roster. This is not more evidenced than in the organization’s two most recent transactions.
Over the last three days, the team has traded its starting second baseman, its second best pitcher and now, its starting third baseman, who has been the face of the franchise in Miami for the last seven years. The return, while not without its share of upside in Nathan Eovalde and Jacob Turner, has had just as much to do with money as it has prospect acquisitions.
And if current rumors are to be believed, the fire sale isn’t stopping there.
Marlins’ stance 24 hours ago was that they would trade Josh Johnson OR Hanley, but that may be evolving, given interest in Johnson.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 25, 2012
It’s not that either trade is particularly lop-sided. In fact, you can make convincing arguments that the Marlins did well to turn a player at the height of his value, a player they would’ve lost to free agency anyway and another player that hasn’t been providing the value for which he’s being paid into two really good pitching prospects.
The problem that so many are having with the Marlins selling off their assets in this fashion is the timing. It was only six months ago that the team, buoyed by a new stadium and years of saving revenue sharing funds, dropped enough fliff to cause all of baseball to take note. The front office signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell to a combined $191 million in contracts, while also reportedly making offers to Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and other big name free agents.
It was a complete and utter rebrand, not just of the uniform and the team’s surroundings, but of the organization’s culture. They were going to compete in the National League East in 2012, and beyond.
Unfortunately, plans don’t always work out, and despite dabbling with first place for a few games earlier in the season, the Marlins sunk hard and fast, ruined by an injury to their best player, Giancarlo Stanton. Coupling the disappointment in the standings has been an equally poor showing in terms of attendance. Averaging audiences of 28,400 for home games, while ranking 18th in attendance isn’t exactly the baseball in downtown Miami revival that ownership and the front office had hoped would occur.
Earlier today, ESPN’s Buster Olney accurately described what these latest moves and the rumored trades to come have done to Marlins fans.
The Marlins have a struggling team, and they can turn over their roster and get talented, cheap players in return. However, you would have thought that as part of the Miami rebranding, the Marlins would have endeavored to avoid a massive sell-off of players in the first year in their new ballpark. Now, for some would-be ticket buyers, the offseason roster restructuring will just look like a bottle of snake oil given the franchise’s history of fire sales.
The term “snake oil” and the name “Jeffrey Loria” weren’t exactly mutually exclusive before, and they certainly aren’t right now. However, Olney also hinted at something perhaps bigger than disappointed fans when he suggested that the front offices, or the “upper offices” of other clubs are none too pleased with the way the Marlins are conducting themselves.
Basically, the team over spent this off season, raising the bar on free agent salaries, as a means of making a big public relations splash, only to later bail on other deals as a means of finding room to afford making life miserable for other clubs.
In a piece for HardBall Talk, Matthew Pouliot offers a defense of Loria’s actions that consists of asking what else should the Marlins have done? The answer is either a) not arbitrarily inflate the cost of free agents for the sake of optics; or b) maybe not give up so fast on a team whose best player was injured, and has seen uncharacteristic struggles from multiple players.
Pouliot maintains that the three big free agent signings were only overpayments in hind sight and had no impact on the market for other free agents.
Six years and $106 million for Reyes? Someone else would have gone that high had the Marlins not moved so quickly. Four years and $58 million for Buehrle? That’s the deal that looked the most out of line at the time, but then, he made $56 million over the previous four years. Three years and $27 million for Bell? Of course, it looks like a bust now, but he had the track record. Maybe no other team would have gone three years at that rate, but he would have received at least $18 million for two years elsewhere.
For Reyes, that’s an awful large assumption, as a six year deal seemed to surprise a heck of a lot of teams when it was announced. For Buehrle, it makes no sense to look at what he made in the previous four years of his prime as a comparison for the next four years of his decline. And finally, for Bell, the only reason that contract didn’t establish a new market was because it was seen as completely bat-shit crazy by anyone in baseball with half a brain.
When Chris Jones wrote the following for ESPN: The Magazine’s back page, it was assumed that his forecasting was for a future further on down the road than a mere seven months.
Loria and [President David] Samson have spent this winter trying to paint themselves once again as saviors, having rescued another sad franchise from its baffling history of miracle victories and fire sales. They’re city builders too, these dream-driven local heroes behind the $634 million stadium rising out of Little Havana. If you believe the spin, that crime-plagued neighborhood will now be home to popcorn and megabucks free agents like Heath Bell, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle for years to come. Little Havana will be home to a permanent joy.
Trust me on this one: No it won’t. Miami will remain a murder capital. Stadiums have never saved cities.
In fact, you’re about to witness the Montreal scenario play itself out again, only on a far grander, even more heartbreaking scale. Loria and Samson have just done some seriously long-term spending, highlighted by the heavily back-loaded six-year deal for Reyes. Enjoy the party while it lasts, Marlins fans, because that debt, like the city’s debt, like the county’s debt, will eventually come due. And you watch: However they manage it, Loria and Samson will find someone else to pay the bill. For them, the sound of someone else’s wallet opening has always been like the pitter-patter of little feet.
There comes a point when gaming the system is no longer a cute ploy that smartly gets you ahead through cleverly thinking outside the box. That point comes when the system stops being taken advantage of, and fans, people and cities pay the price for the benefit of others in a more powerful position. It’s happening once again, and the only thing surprising about that is that it’s happening so quickly.