Miami Marlins stymied by bad decisions, bad fortune

10/07/2012 1:08 AM

10/07/2012 1:20 AM

The Apocalyptic Miami Marlins season somehow started with an international controversy involving Fidel Castro.

Then things got bad.

The team gave up on this Season From Hell months ago, sending out a lineup in Washington with five players hitting .173 or worse. That seems like an impossible math riddle until you consider that this is also the squad that had seven walks and seven stolen bases in five innings once while producing all of one run. The entire unholy mess came to a merciful, put-it-out-of-its-misery close symbolically last week when, far away from here, in a different league, in a different stratosphere, former Marlin Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown for another team as the Marlins started someone at third base named Gil Velazquez.

Given that Babe Ruth was sold, not traded, that Marlins trade of Cabrera is the single worst trade in the history of our most historic game, and Marlins management hasn’t done a great deal right since making it. Velazquez, meanwhile, is 32 years old (older than Cabrera, in other words) and entered this season with all of 16 career big-league at-bats. Can’t imagine why no new ballpark ever has drawn as poorly as the one our poor city built here at considerable expense. There aren’t a lot of ways this season could have been more of a disaster than it was, not even if you were trying to find ways from fiction. Fidel Castro? A shaking Muhammad Ali? That’s where we’re going to start?

All those back-loaded contracts management gave while spilling money all over the bar last offseason were meant to create a three-year experiment to see if baseball could indeed work in South Florida with no rain and heat. Three years? They gave up inside of three months, and in a season when 18 of baseball’s teams were within five games of the playoffs in the last month, no less. So, attendance was crushing for a new park and will result in a reduced payroll next year because the Marlins didn’t make nearly as much money as they hoped off the ballpark novelty.

And now, as they did with Hanley Ramirez, sending away a bad contract for pennies on the dollar, they’ll likely try to staple Heath Bell’s bloated contract to Josh Johnson’s in a trade that will bring back diminished value for Johnson, the team’s ace. This isn’t much of a plan for moving up or forward, obviously, sending away the few prospects you do hit on to scrub away the scent of your misses. That’s running backward on a treadmill. Doesn’t help that the art-collector owner thinks he sees value where others don’t and personally anchored this team with Bell and John Buck for reasons he ought to be forced to explain when he isn’t busy calling the media over to make statements about how much of a failure Fredi Gonzalez was.

Alas, it is difficult to fire owners, so you know what happens now. People scurry beneath him to protect their jobs because the blame for this has to go somewhere, losing exacerbating a dysfunction atop the organization that existed even before the epic fail. Boston just fired manager Bobby Valentine after one year, even though the Red Sox put more players on the disabled list than any team in a quarter century, because a failure to meet large expectations tends to get people unemployed in worlds with scoreboards.

And there is plenty of blame to go around here in management, from an owner who is insecure and meddlesome to a look-at-me president who doesn’t act very presidential to a general manager who has missed on a decade worth of first-round picks to a loudmouth manager who wouldn’t get along even with management teams that didn’t run off company men such as Fredi Gonzalez and Joe Girardi.

Ozzie Guillen, in a syntax about as fractured as his team, says flatly, “We bad team? Yes. We not play well? Of course we don’t. We stunk? Yes, we are. Am I bad manager? Yes, I’m a bad manager.” He adds, “I blame myself. That front office should look itself in the mirror because we are here together, and we fail together.”

It is unclear whether the general manager or manager will survive this, but you know what is most to blame?

Baseball.

It is so very cruel and random. The management of the Marlins is stunned by this failure, but it ought not be, given the vagaries of this particular sport. The Phillies and Red Sox are this season’s annual example of money buying you nothing. The Orioles and A’s show you what can be done sometimes on the cheap. Sometimes, a guy gives you ERAs of 5.09, 5.61, 6.67, 18.90 and then leaves the sport for years before becoming, at 37, one of the best pitchers in the league (R.A. Dickey). Sometimes a guy plays for five organizations in one middling year after being drafted in the 20th round and and then blossoms to hit 54 home runs in a season (Jose Bautista).

Miami’s biggest mistake wasn’t spending. The Marlins, believe it or not, did not spend poorly last offseason. Two of their three big free agent acquisitions ended up doing what they always do. Jose Reyes had a .347 on-base percentage and a .433 slugging percentage; his career averages are .342 and .440. (One of the many misfortunes of this season was wasting a healthy year from the oft-injured Reyes.) Mark Buehrle gave you the same 200 innings and ERA he always does. Yes, Bell was an unmitigated disaster, but he was the cheapest of the free agents, costing half as much as Buehrle. No, the larger problem, and the problem for years, has been Miami developing too few of its own players and banking too much on an unproven few — Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison, Ricky Nolasco, Emilio Bonifacio, Buck, etc.

What money does buy you in this sport is a good idea of who is great — the guys who are paid, generally, although some of them regress, too. Consider this: Giancarlo Stanton, Bonifacio, Morrison and Sanchez cost less this year combined than that hideous home-run sculpture. Only one of them panned out, and going into the season just assuming they’d get better is the kind of thing that gets people fired. Chris Coughlin, the former National League Rookie of the Year who hit .140 this year, ought to have taught the Marlins the dangers of banking too heavily on small sample sizes.

Miami was crippled, too, by Nolasco and Johnson regressing. Making matters worse, the Marlins could have traded Morrison for Gio Gonzalez, who might win the Cy Young, and not been outbid for Yoenis Cespedes, who would win American League Rookie of the Year if not for Mike Trout and helped lead the A’s to the playoffs. It is easy to say that they couldn’t have seen those things coming, but they are paid to see those things coming, and not seeing those things coming does more than get fans angry.

It gets management fired.

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