I believe the Miami Marlins have been executing a good team-building strategy.
Two very important caveats here:
- The Marlins’ team-building strategy has been “good.” It hasn’t been “great,” nor “revolutionary,” nor would it necessarily be a good idea for other teams to replicate. I do contend, however, that it is far from villainous or cynical or apathetic, as is so often portrayed to be the case.
- I know next to nothing about the decidedly shady scenario involving the financing of Marlins Park and how taxpayer money was perhaps mis-utilized in said financing. Dave Zirin and his readers are welcome to chide me for my lack of good-citizenry awareness on this point.
The thing is, I like to read things that are about sports, and when this topic has popped up ’round the sporting parts of the Internet, there’s this little governor in my brain that causes me to space out and scroll on to the next thing, because it’s a story about politics, not about sports. Consider it a personal area of improvement.
It is totally true that the Marlins’ stadium financing must be given serious weight when considering the holistic value and worth of the franchise’s total history. I intend to limit the scope of this article strictly to the factors that have affected the Marlins’ ability to compete for the World Series, and the address and construction of their home field contributes very little impact toward this competitive quest.
It is, however, impossible to discuss the Marlins’ competitive situation without discussing their owner—and resident premier villain of the MLB—Jeffrey Loria. Loria is one of the few characters across the majors who unites both pundits and online commenters, who happily concur with one another as they voice their collective disdain for Loria’s meddlesome methods.
The collective assumption is that Marlins general manager Dan Jennings operates more or less entirely underneath the boot of his intrusive boss, being allowed no freedoms as he dials up one of the other 29 GMs to deal away valued Marlins prospects for pennies on the dollar, all at Loria’s bidding. Loria strips his own roster of any and all sizable contracts (and talent) in order to push his team down the standings, personally reaping the profits while his fans watch a non-fictive iteration of the Bad News Bears from their own personal row.
Are these assumptions about Loria true? Does he really treat the major leagues as a competitive farce? How do Loria’s teams compare against the teams of the other 29 present owners in MLB? Compared against the other owners, how often does Loria win regular-season games, get into the playoffs, or win a World Series? The chart below lists the comparative performance of all current major league owners, ordered by the date they acquired the team:
|Results During Tenure, Current MLB Owners||Playoff Appearances||World Series Championships|
|Owner||Team||Purchase Year||#||#/Year (Rank)||#||# /Year (Rank)||W/L% (Rank)|
|Jerry Reinsdorf||White Sox||1981||5||0.15 (19)||1||0.03 (T-7)||.512 (10)|
|David Montgomery||Phillies||1981||8||0.24 (15)||1||0.03 (T-7)||.503 (T-12)|
|Jim Pohlad||Twins||1984||8||0.26 (T-12)||2||0.07 (5)||.491 (T-17)|
|Mike Illitch||Tigers||1992||4||0.18 (18)||0||0||.465 (24)|
|Bill Neukom||Giants||1992||6||0.27 (11)||2||0.09 (3)||.524 (8)|
|Nintendo||Mariners||1992||4||0.19 (17)||0||0||.491 (T-17)|
|Charlie Monfort||Rockies||1993||3||0.14 (T-20)||0||0||.471 (22)|
|Peter Angelos||Orioles||1993||3||0.14 (T-20)||0||0||.472 (21)|
|William DeWitt, Jr.||Cardinals||1995||11||0.57 (4)||2||0.11 (2)||.541 (6)|
|Robert Nutting||Pirates||1996||1||0.05 (25)||0||0||.440 (T-27)|
|Ken Kendrick||Diamondbacks||1998||5||0.31 (10)||1||0.06 (6)||.498 (15)|
|Stuart Sternberg||Rays||1998||4||0.25 (14)||0||0||.461 (25)|
|Larry Dolan||Indians||1999||4||0.26 (T-12)||0||0||.503 (T-12)|
|David Glass||Royals||2000||0||0 (T-26; last)||0||0||.426 (29)|
|Rogers Communications||Blue Jays||2000||0||0 (T-26; last)||0||0||.493 (16)|
|John Henry||Red Sox||2002||7||0.58 (3)||3||0.25 (1)||.564 (3)|
|Jeffrey Loria||Marlins||2002||1||0.08 (T-23)||1||0.08 (4)||.483 (20)|
|Fred Wilpon||Mets||2002||1||0.08 (T-23)||0||0||.485 (19)|
|Arte Moreno||Angels||2003||5||0.45 (6)||0||0||.548 (5)|
|Robert Castellini||Reds||2005||3||0.33 (T-8)||0||0||.503 (T-12)|
|Mark Attanasio||Brewers||2005||2||0.22 (16)||0||0||.506 (11)|
|Lewis Wolff||A’s||2005||3||0.33 (T-8)||0||0||.516 (9)|
|Lerner Enterprises||Nationals||2006||1||0.13 (22)||0||0||.460 (26)|
|Liberty Media||Braves||2007||3||0.43 (7)||0||0||.539 (7)|
|Thomas Ricketts||Cubs||2009||0||0 (T-26; last)||0||0||.440 (T-27)|
|Hal Steinbrenner||Yankees||2010||3||0.75 (T-1)||0||0||.574 (1)|
|Ray Davis||Rangers||2010||3||0.75 (T-1)||0||0||.570 (2)|
|Jim Crane||Astros||2011||0||0 (T-26; last)||0||0||.333 (30)|
|Mark Walter||Dodgers||2012||1||0.5 (5)||0||0||.549 (4)|
|Ron Fowler||Padres||2012||0||0 (T-26; last)||0||0||.469 (23)|
All through end of 2013 season. (Includes Wild Card single-elimination games as playoff appearances.)
Intriguingly, it appears that the most reliable way to win a World Series as an owner is to own a team for a very long time. Only eight current owners have won a World Series, but of the five longest-tenured owners, four of them have won a World Series.
Out of the seventeen owners to purchase a team in 2000 or later, only two of them have won a World Series. One of those two victorious modern owners is John Henry, famously at the tip of the spear of the sabermetric revolution in Boston. The other is Loria.
How to interpret Loria’s 20th-overall finish in winning percentage? It’s certainly an uninspiring mark, and it doesn’t take a giant leap of imagination to picture Jim Crane’s Astros, Thomas Ricketts’ Cubs, Stewart Sternberg’s Rays, Lerner Enterprises’ Nationals, or even Ron Fowler’s Padres all in the near future surpassing the Marlins’ .483 mark under Loria.
But Loria, even with the one scarce playoff appearance in his 12 years of ownership so far, has still consistently overseen the assembly of competitive teams. Robert Nutting’s Pirates, David Glass’ Royals, and Mike Illitch’s Tigers (even with their recent elite performance) all lag significantly behind Loria’s winning percentage, and Charlie Monfort’s Rockies and Peter Angelos’ Orioles are behind as well despite an additional decade of experience. Perhaps with the exception of Angelos, these men are not lampooned quite so often.
Another variable that’s important to consider is that Loria is working in a baseball market that presents as many challenges as attempting to establish a luscious farm in the middle of the desert. After a short (and relatively unimpressive) honeymoon period following the Marlins’ inception in 1993, neither victory nor new ownership nor a new stadium has reaped the Marlins anything but league-worst attendance:
|The Marlins Built It, They Did Not Come|
|Year||Fans/Game||NL Rank||Marlins Win%||Significant Event|
|1997||29,189||5||.568||World Series Champions|
|2002||10,038||15||.488||Loria assumes ownership|
|2003||16,089||15||.562||World Series Champions|
|2009||18,075||16||.537||Finished five games out of Wild Card|
|2014||21,453||15||.519||Through May 27|
Even a 91-game winner in 2003 (Loria’s eventual World Series winner—this chart only includes regular-season attendance) and a legitimate Wild Card race in 2009 were unable to lift the Marlins off the attendance-ranking floor. Marlins attendance was a critical problem even before Loria’s tenure, it dropped significantly in each of the first four years of franchise history, even while the team improved its winning percentage with each subsequent season.
A near-total lack of attendance creates a confounding and cascading series of disadvantages for a revenue-strapped team. One solution, executed famously and near-flawlessly by the A’s and the Rays, is to hire a group of totally transcendent analytical minds to shift all of baseball’s paradigms on their ear until money is no longer one of the game’s most valuable resources.
But let’s say that you can’t find a totally transcendent analytical baseball mind. (They are, I hear, quite rare.) One plausible but high-risk strategy is to decide to pursue cyclical—not sustained—success. That is, for most seasons, keep your focus on developing young (low-cost) talent, and then push all of your chips and saved-up shekels to the center of the table when you feel there is an opening for your team to succeed.
The steps that a team in pursuit of cyclical success could take might look something like this:
- Nail your draft picks and international signings. Acquire an ace like Josh Beckett, sluggers like Miguel Cabrera, slick gloves like Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez.
- Conduct a ton of trades, swapping established veterans with known ceilings in exchange for a multiplicity of minor leaguers. Not all of them will work out. Not all of them have to. You trade Kevin Brown but you get Derrek Lee. You trade Matt Clement but you get Dontrelle Willis. You had to trade three prospects to get Mike Lowell, but it’s okay. (All three of them will bust anyhow.)
- You sense your team is ready to compete. In the offseason, you trade major leaguers for major leaguers now. You trade Cliff Floyd, which hurts, but you get Carl Pavano. You trade Preston Wilson—who is going to get MVP votes the year after you trade him—but you get Juan Pierre, who will get MVP votes in the next two years. Sign a marquee free-agent to a short-term deal: Ivan Rodriguez for one year, $10M.
- Your team is competing, but you need help at the trade deadline in order to get over the top. The time is now! Trade Adrian Gonzalez—he’s just a prospect now, it’s fine—for Ugeth Urbina. Trade for Jeff Conine.
- Win the World Series.
- Look, you can’t do this again next year. You can’t spend that sort of money on free agents every offseason, and you sacrificed some real talent in the trades of the last 12 months. Lee and Juan Encarnacion are traded. Rodriguez is allowed to walk. The retooling must begin.
In the winter of 2011, the Marlins thought that they were at Step #3. They pushed in all of their chips to the center of the table—an essential part of cyclical success—and ran wild over the free-agent market, signing Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle and pursuing Albert Pujols. When the Marlins ran aground the following season, finishing 69-93 in 2012, with no additional attendance or revenue to show for their spending, they had to change course, and quickly, because paying superstars was not sustainable for a small-market team that drew in fans like they played in a minor-league market.
In winter of 2012, the Marlins hit reset and went back to step #2, swapping major leaguers in exchange for minor league talent—a large quantity of minor league talent. Their blockbuster deal with the Blue Jays was despised from the moment it happened. But now, a medium distance away from the trade, we can see that the major league veterans Toronto acquired in the deal have produced at about the same dollars-to-WAR efficiency as the very green prospects Miami acquired. (Justin Nicolino is still in the minors, and Anthony DeSclafini just made his debut this month.)
|November 19, 2012 — The Toronto-Miami Megadeal|
|Player||New Team||WAR||Salary (2013 + est. 2014 YTD)||fWAR $ – Value w Team||Net Value|
|Emilio Bonifacio||Blue Jays||0.3||$1.5||$1.8||$0.3|
|John Buck*||Blue Jays||—||—||—||—|
|Mark Buehrle||Blue Jays||4.3||$14.1**||$22.6||$8.5|
|Josh Johnson||Blue Jays||0.5||$11.25**||$2.7||($8.55)|
|Jose Reyes||Blue Jays||3.0||$12.4**||$15.3||$2.9|
|Blue Jays Totals||8.1||$39.25||$42.4||$3.15|
*Buck would not appear for the Blue Jays, as he was traded to the New York Mets as part of the deal that brought R.A. Dickey to Toronto. While he did contribute to the Blue Jays as an asset in that package, I’m not sure how to represent that value here.
**Per stipulation of the trade, the Marlins paid the following sums of each player’s 2013 salary: $3M of Buehrle’s , $2.5M of Johnson’s , and $3M of Reyes’ . The numbers included in this chart already have subtracted the Marlins-funded portions of these salaries.
***Yunel Escobar was originally included in the trade between the Blue Jays and Marlins. However, weeks later, in the same offseason, the Marlins and Tampa Bays Rays traded Escobar and Dietrich in a one-for-one swap. Thus, Dietrich is represented here.
If not for Hechavarria’s calamitous performance—which, it is worth noting, came mostly in the consequence-less, low-leverage depths of last year’s Marlins season—the Marlins already would be significantly ahead of the Blue Jays in acquiring wins per dollar. Despite Buehrle’s fantastic start to this 2014 season, it would not be surprising to see the prospects acquired by the Marlins surpass the Jays’ haul in net value by the time September rolls around and perhaps also in WAR a few years down the line.
And what did Loria and the Marlins lose with their disaster of a 2013 season? A vicious tongue-lashing in the court of public opinion, yes, but it’s not as if he lost any potential ticket sales—Miami crowds weren’t going to come to the games to see a winner anyhow. Instead, the Marlins received a ton of salary relief and, more importantly, a ton of prospects to develop alongside their potent nucleus of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Jose Fernandez. While Loria may never receive respect in baseball until he leads an annual 90-game winner, it may be unrealistic to expect a perennial contender to exist in Miami.
What the Marlins are is a cyclical contender. What it means, amongst other things, is that when this generation of Marlins inches closer to true playoff contention, Loria and the front office will push all of their chips to the middle of the table.