The Miami Marlins begin spring training Monday with the first full-squad work up in Jupiter, but hope does not spring eternal. Hope sprung a leak.
It smells like rotten Fish in here.
The Marlins are tanking the season after a shameful winter salary dump that betrayed the trust of fans yet again.
South Florida disliked former owner Jeffrey Loria with much cause. The new ownership led by Bruce Sherman but fronted by CEO Derek Jeter rode in heroically to be the anti-Loria but instead has put their financial bottom line above the product on the field, above the paying customers.
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Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Poor manager Don Mattingly. Stripped of his best players, he’ll send a glorified minor-league team onto the field. What’s left of the Marlins is expected to be the worst team in baseball; USA Today projects the record at 60-102.
“You probably think I’m crazy, but I could look you right in the eye and tell you how excited I am,” Mattingly says.
No, I don’t think you’re crazy, Don. You’re being a good company man saying what he must publicly.
Maybe given truth serum, Mattingly might admit it’s been a colossally dispiriting offseason in which the new owners inherited a decent team that finished only four games under .500 last season, but rather than build and add to a promising core, they tore it apart instead to save money.
Earlier this month, the Major League Baseball Players Association excoriated certain teams for hurting the integrity of the sport. Teams were unnamed, but based on this offseason, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark clearly had the Marlins in mind.
“Spring training has always been associated with hope for a new season,” Clark said. “This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom. This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”
No team has raced to the bottom — blatantly tanked — like the Marlins. In yet another fire sale, this team traded away superstar NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, rising stars Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, and popular leadoff man Dee Gordon, all for cheap prospects. The most prominent guy left in the lineup might be catcher J.T. Realmuto, and he wanted out, too, after the gutting of the team.
The Marlins got stunningly little from the Yankees for Stanton. Why? Because they wanted New York to absorb his remaining enormous contract more than they wanted top-tier prospects — another example of profit margin having it all over baseball product with these new owners. An owner with deeper pockets or a greater commitment to winning now would have swallowed more of Stanton’s contract to get much better young talent in return. But this is an ownership group that spent the entire fall and winter scrambling to add investors.
In the four players traded away, Miami dumped 20.3 WAR points (wins above replacement), making it the second-biggest offseason decimation of any team in the 147-year history of the game, and most since 1899, according to research by theringer.com. (For perspective, the infamous 1997 Marlins fire sale that left Wayne Huizenga vilified was a talent dump of 16.0 WAR points.)
Yet from all of those four trades that ransacked the team, Miami landed only one top-tier, stardom-aimed prospect: center fielder Lewis Brinson, from the Brewers in the Yelich deal.
The Marlins last season had a credible lineup, solid offense. They lacked pitching. They were two legit starters away from being a winning team. And the starters were out there, available. Free agent Yu Darvish was on the market until very recently, when the Cubs signed him. So was 18-game winner and all-star Jason Vargas, until the Mets signed him Friday. Proven winner Jake Arrieta is still out there, available. So are Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, who in 2017 combined for 23 wins, each with an ERA well under 4.00.
The thing is, signing veteran free agents means actually spending money.
Jeter’s “Project Wolverine,” the prospectus shown to potential investors, projects the Marlins will have a $68 million profit in 2018. No wonder, with all the salary dumps and lack of spending. They could have kept the stars they dealt, spent in free agency and still been profitable, though modestly, because MLB revenue sharing and broadcasting rights are built-in windfalls. Instead, Jeter’s “wolverine” ended up disemboweling the hopes of fans.
This team could have kept its stars, added pitching and been a playoff contender in 2018, but it would have required a spend-to-win-now attitude these new owners lacked.
Jeter, on Marlins fans disappointed by the exodus of stars and the full reboot: “Honestly, I don’t pay much attention to it. I’m an optimist. I get it, the fans are frustrated because it’s a complicated history. But the bottom line is, we’re not changing something here that’s been working.”
Fans are not frustrated because it’s a “complicated history,” Derek. Fans are frustrated because you inherited a bright young core, including the best outfield in baseball that could have been a part of something that did work, and you sent it packing.
The rationale for the reboot — the spin — is that the Marlins’ farm system was barren. OK. There are two ways to have a strong minor-league system:
1. The cheap route: Trading away your best players for prospects. Or …
2. The smart route: Drafting better! Hiring smarter player-development people.
The way the Marlins are doing it, fans are being asked to sit through what could be years of minor-league product with the hope that someday, maybe, all of the cheap young players will coalesce into something.
So Stanton takes his 59 home runs to the Yankees, Ozuna’s 37 homers land in St. Louis, Yelich’s blossoming star goes to Milwaukee, Gordon steals his bases in Seattle, and Marlins fans get screwed — again.
On the bright side, though, Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter’s profitability is looking better and better, thanks.