Miami Marlins

Winter of their content brings Miami Marlins great expectations

Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton signs a 13-year, $325 million contract as owner Jeffrey Loria looks on at Marlins Park on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014.
Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton signs a 13-year, $325 million contract as owner Jeffrey Loria looks on at Marlins Park on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. El Nuevo Herald

It was part juggling act and part jigsaw puzzle.

There was a 4 a.m. trade for a starting pitcher and an agreement with a free agent first baseman in a hotel parking lot. There were a couple of sleeper deals and a couple of bombshell player exchanges.

Over the course of 23 days in November and December, the Marlins pulled off a flurry of moves —- six trades, a free agent signing and a draft selection — many now believe could rocket them to October.

To a dreamland destination they haven’t been since 2003 when they won the World Series.

When the Marlins open their 23rd season Monday, they will roll out a vastly renovated product from the one they finished with in 2014.

Almost all of it came together in a brief period of time.

All of it happened after the Marlins pulled off the unthinkable, convincing Giancarlo Stanton to agree to an all-time whopper of a contract: $325 million over 13 years.

To hear it described by the team’s top two baseball executives, president of baseball operations Michael Hill and general manager Dan Jennings, it involved a detailed game plan and many late-night negotiations.

How did it all unfold?

“Everything was lockstep,” Hill said.

The Marlins’ transactions page from Nov. 28 through Dec. 20 appears neat and orderly, from their trade with Kansas City for pitcher Aaron Crow to their deal with San Francisco in which they gave up third baseman Casey McGehee.

But it was anything but sequential.

“You’ve heard of synchronized swimming?” Jennings asked. “This was synchronized trading.”

Take their Dec. 19 trade with the New York Yankees for Martin Prado and David Phelps. Discussions for Prado actually began before the Marlins pulled off the Crow trade on Nov. 28.

The Dec. 10 blockbuster in which the Marlins acquired speedy second baseman Dee Gordon and veteran starting pitcher Dan Haren from the Dodgers? The Marlins had been inquiring about Gordon for more than a year, only to be told “no thanks” repeatedly by the Dodgers.

So exactly how did it all transpire? Where and when did it all begin?

At a Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in New York City in October. That’s when Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria gathered the team’s baseball staff — executives and top scouts — to draw up a plan.

The first order of business: signing Stanton.

“Conventional thought was, OK, you get him for [five or six years],” Hill recalled.

Ultimately, though, someone floated a more grandiose idea.

“ ‘What about a Marlin for life?’ ” was the shocking suggestion, Hill said.

In the end, Stanton signed the biggest contract ever by a North American professional athlete.

“But we hadn’t really improved our roster at that point,” Hill said. “We had to get to work improving our roster.”

Hill said the leadership group decided to focus on upgrades in three distinct areas: adding a potent bat to the lineup, a veteran starter to the rotation and an everyday second baseman.

After the Marlins came up short in the bidding for free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, they turned their attention to Michael Morse, who was coming off a World Series season with the Giants. Morse met with front office staff during a visit to Marlins Park in December, before the Winter Meetings in San Diego.

“Right away it was instant jell,” Jennings said. “You got the vibe that this guy was a winner.”

Although no deal was reached at the time, the seeds were planted.

It was in San Diego where the other pieces began falling into place.

Late on the night of Dec. 10, in the Dodgers’ suite at the Grand Hyatt, the Marlins reached a handshake agreement on a trade for Gordon, Haren and infielder Miguel Rojas for pitcher Andrew Heaney, reliever Chris Hatcher, infielder Kike Hernandez and minor-league catcher Austin Barnes.

“The big pieces were easily identifiable,” Jennings said. “And then it was, OK, what else do you have to have to call it equal value?”

Said Hill: “It was a big deal. Both sides had to give a little bit. We didn’t want to give up Kike or Austin Barnes.”

Referring to the give-and-take negotiations between the two teams, Jennings said: “The last two pieces were Rojas and Barnes. And then it becomes, how much of the pinch can you stand? You pinch both ways.”

Once that deal was completed, other dominoes started falling.

Hill said he was on the phone with Haren, welcoming him to the Marlins, when Reds general manager Walt Jocketty tried getting through to him. It was now past midnight.

“ ‘It’s late,’ ” Hill said.

The Marlins had asked the Reds about pitchers Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake.

They received a “no” on Cueto, but a “maybe” on Latos and Leake.

When Jocketty finally reached Hill, he was ready to deal. Hill said the Reds wanted a young, major-league ready pitcher (Anthony DeSclafani) in return for the veteran arm (Latos) they were giving up. They also wanted catcher Chad Wallach, a prospect in the Marlins’ farm system.

“We argued a lot,” Hill said, adding that the Marlins didn’t want to part with Wallach, especially after losing another young catcher, Barnes, in the trade earlier that night with the Dodgers.

But eventually he gave in, and the trade was completed.

“By that time, it might have been 4 o’clock in the morning,” Hill said

Said Jennings: “Midnight oil plus.”

On the morning of Dec. 11, the Marlins dealt left-handed reliever Dan Jennings to the White Sox for right-handed pitcher Andre Rienzo. Within hours, they selected lefty reliever Andrew McKirahan in the Rule 5 Draft.

The Winter Meetings were officially over.

But the Marlins weren’t yet done. As team executives were leaving the hotel and throwing their luggage in the airport shuttle, Morse’s agents came running out to the parking lot.

“They were ready to get the [Morse] deal done,” Hill said. “We didn’t finalize it there, but we got a lot closer.”

“We got it to the 2-yard line,” Jennings said of an agreement.

“And we didn’t try to pass,” joked Hill, referring to the ill-fated Super Bowl play by the Seattle Seahawks.

After returning to Miami, the Marlins completed the Morse signing and got to work on Prado. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman wanted a pitcher from the Marlins in return.

Since the Marlins had bolstered their staff with the additions of Haren and Latos, and knew that young star Jose Fernandez would be returning to the mound in mid-summer following Tommy John surgery, they decided they could give up Nathan Eovaldi. And since they had just signed Morse and planned to use him at first base, the Marlins were free to include Garrett Jones in the trade.

“It was the right deal,” Hill said. “We could part with a pitcher. But if you’re going to trade a pitcher, you have to make sure you’re going to have one coming back.”

So the Marlins required that the Yankees include Phelps in the Prado trade.

But that would also leave the Marlins with two third basemen, Prado and McGehee. Or would it?

As they were hammering out the trade details with the Yankees for Prado and Phelps, the Marlins were working behind the scenes to find a taker for McGehee.

“As soon as you think you have a deal for Prado, you’ve got to get a McGehee deal in place,” Hill said. “Because if you get Prado done before you get McGehee done, then you’ve lost all value in McGehee. Teams know that you have to trade him.”

Once they finalized the trade with the Yankees, but before it became public, they worked out a deal with the Giants for McGehee.

“We couldn’t juggle any harder,” Jennings said.

And so that was it. Six trades, a free agent signing and a draft selection in 23 days.

So what would have happened if the Marlins had been unable to sign Stanton? How would that have changed matters? Even though Stanton remained under team control for two more seasons, they would either have had to trade him or lose him in free agency.

“Let’s don’t play the ‘what-if?’ game,” Jennings said, laughing.

Said Hill: “We don’t deal with hypotheticals.”

And did the Marlins pop champagne after their wild winter of wheeling and dealing was complete?

“No,” Hill said. “The champagne is reserved for when you actually win something.”

“October,” Jennings said.

Related stories from Miami Herald