Christian Yelich was at Camp Pendleton for his brother’s graduation from Marine Corps boot camp when his cellphone began lighting up with text messages from friends and Marlins teammates.
Just down the road in San Diego, where the annual December winter meetings were taking place, the Marlins began their own winter offensive, making one trade and free agent signing after another to reshape their lineup and starting rotation.
First there was the trade with the Dodgers for second baseman Dee Gordon and starter Dan Haren.
Then came another deal with the Reds for pitcher Mat Latos.
Days later, they signed first baseman Michael Morse.
And before December was done, they picked up third baseman Martin Prado and pitcher David Phelps from the Yankees in another deal.
“When the one with the Dodgers went down, that’s when it all started,” Yelich said of the sudden explosion of text messages. “My friends would let me know first. My brother was graduating from boot camp and I kept getting all these texts from buddies and teammates, ‘Hey, we got so and so!’”
Those flurry of moves, preceded by the signing of slugger extraordinaire Giancarlo Stanton to the richest contract in professional sports history one month earlier, transformed the Marlins from a perennial also-ran into a team many think will end a playoff drought that stretches back to 2003.
“I think the national profile of our team has changed,” Marlins president David Samson said. “We are poised to become the epicenter of baseball, and that’s exciting.”
Of course, it wasn’t that long ago when the Marlins were the talk of the baseball world after making a major winter splash: three years ago, to be exact. That 2012 team proved to be a mammoth bust and the roster was torn to shreds in a sell-off that enraged fans.
But the Marlins are saying this time will be different.
For one thing, they have locked up Stanton to a 13-year deal that will pay him $325 million. The contract is heavily backloaded and enables him to opt out after six years. But it all but ensures he will be in Miami for the foreseeable future and end attempts and inquiries from other teams trying to pry him away.
“The brakes have been put on. The vault is shut [on Stanton],” Marlins general manager Dan Jennings said. “That eliminated that conversation.”
After the Stanton signing, the other dominoes started falling as the front office went about trying to improve the roster in other areas. They added two new starters to the rotation in Latos and Haren, and rebuilt three-fourths of the infield.
They acquired top-of-the-lineup speed in Gordon, who led the league in stolen bases last season, added a middle-of-the-order bat in Morse to help provide protection for Stanton, and obtained a proven third baseman in Prado, who brings more power than his predecessor, Casey McGehee, to a corner infield spot.
With a revamped infield and a young outfield that many believe is second to none in the majors (Stanton, Yelich and center fielder Marcell Ozuna), the Marlins appear primed to break out of their doldrums.
They haven’t had a winning season since 2009 and have never won a division title despite capturing two World Series championships as the wild card. The Marlins are hoping winning baseball brings fans to Marlins Park, which opened in 2012 but rarely filled to capacity.
“I think that the true magnet is winning, and we haven’t done enough of it,” Samson said. “We’re one of three teams who haven’t made the playoffs the past 10 years, and it’s just not good enough. So we really haven’t tested the theory of what it is to win in this ballpark, and how that would impact attendance.”
Morse, who was a Marlins fan while growing up in South Florida, is familiar with the team’s roller-coaster history.
“As an avid Marlins fan growing up, there’s been a lot of ups and downs in this organization,” said Morse, who went to Nova High in Davie. “There’s been a lot of times where you’re [left] shaking your head.”
But Morse believes the Marlins are headed in the right direction. He’s noticed similarities between the Marlins and the San Francisco Giants, whom he played with last season. Just as the Marlins find themselves in a division with a decided favorite, the Washington Nationals, the Giants were second fiddle to the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. Yet they sneaked in as a wild card and won the World Series.
“When I look at the 2014 Giants, I see a lot of similarity with this team,” he said. “The Dodgers were the monster in our division.”
The way Morse sees it, the Marlins — with all of their offseason maneuverings — are “almost like a perfect puzzle.”
“I think it’s going to work,” he said. “Once you start winning, it’s like a field of dreams. Build it and they will come. They’ve built it.”