In the seven months since the transfer of control to the group led by principal owner Bruce Sherman and chief executive officer Derek Jeter, it’s been nary a dull moment surrounding the Miami Marlins. The franchise was embroiled in controversy before the ink dried on the transactional papers. “Did commissioner Rob Manfred overlook financial nuances to help Jeter, longtime face of baseball, win the bidding over Jorge Mas?” “Why wouldn’t the Marlins just build further off what they have, rather than tear down and build back up yet again?” These were merely a couple of the endless questions posed by those skeptical of this new regime after the introductory press conference. The criticism inferno became emboldened when names like Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich were traded, and J.T. Realmuto was shopped. I contend that the difficult and often unpopular decisions being made under this new regime in Miami are precisely the moves that are not only warranted, but necessary, to build a winning culture of baseball in South Beach.
That Miami baseball needed a fundamental change from the top-down was about as much of a poorly-kept secret as you’ll find in a major professional sports league. The Marlins have existed for 25 seasons, and are already on their fourth ownership group. Their previous owner, Jeffrey Loria, controlled the franchise for 16 years. Throughout his reign, the Marlins became little more than a punchline. They won a World Series in 2003 over the Yankees, and won more than 84 games just once in the 14 seasons thenceforth. In 2004, the team was decent, but hardly impressive, winning 83 games. 2005 rolled around, and expectations were high for a franchise that had just broken a financial franchise record to sign famed ex-Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado, also adding Al Leiter among others along the way. They ended up finishing with the same record as the previous year, and a rebuild ensued. This rebuild never paid off, however. Despite often hovering in the mix for the NL Wild Card for the next 3-4 years, it went south in 2010. In each of the next five offseasons, there was constant direction change. In 2011, there was the Reyes/Bell/Buehrle fiasco. They blame 2012 on the Ozzie show. In 2013, it was the managerial disaster that was the Redmond/Jennings failed experiment. After that, it was the injuries to Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. It was already an era of turmoil, so what does Loria do?
He financially shackles an already-floundering organization by committing $325 million over 13 years to a player who, in the five years leading up to the date of the signed deal, was 17th in the game in fWAR. In only two of five seasons had he played over 125 games, and he was deemed worthy by Loria of being baseball’s first $300 million man on a franchise that still, after years of spinning its wheels, couldn’t determine its present (much less its future). This is basically 2003, Alex Rodriguez in Texas, 2.0 – that is to say, a situation in which a mid-market team committed so much of its resources to one superstar that they couldn’t afford to build a competitive team around him.
So, you see the endless problems with the previous regime. You ask, “Why should the Marlins be hopeful now? They just stripped down everything they had which was, arguably, one of the better lineups in baseball, if they could’ve just added some pitching…” Therein lies the grub, as they say. When the new regime took over, they had a good lineup, yes. They had NO pitching. This isn’t like the Astros last season who had several good mid-rotation guys but needed a legitimate ace. The closest comparison you could probably make was in 2015 with the Blue Jays adding David Price midseason. Even that was different, though. Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, two talented legitimate pitching prospects at the time, were knocking on the door for the MLB rotation, and while it remains to be seen how Sanchez bounces back, Stroman has begun to look the part of a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, and they had at least decent other starters as well: Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, and Marco Estrada all finished with at least 1.5 fWAR each. In 2018, the Marlins project to have ZERO pitchers reach this mark according to Fangraphs. Last season, only Dan Straily even surpassed 1 WAR on the Marlins’ pitching staff.
This isn’t a team that needs a #1. This is a team that needs a #1, a #2, a #3… well, you see my point. They need at least three (probably four) starting pitchers and probably at least three relievers. According to Spotrac, to add even three league average starting pitchers plus three league average relievers would cost over $30 million in additional payroll based on average salaries for the positions in 2017. Assume that puts their payroll at $152 million, approximated just based on filling their rotation with league-average pitching alone. Now, tell me, when was the last time a team with a pitching staff that was perfectly league-average made much noise at all in the postseason? The 2016 Rangers got swept in the ALDS. The 2015 Rangers lost in the ALDS in five games. In 2014, the Tigers didn’t win a single game in the ALDS. The 2007 Phillies saw their postseason end in a sweep by the Rockies in the opening series. In today’s game, you simply cannot have a pitching staff that is below-to-equal to league average and have any reasonable expectation of winning in the postseason. We’re talking sizeable commitments to at least 3-4 pitchers that would push their payroll well north of the hypothetical $152 million figure. Let’s say two of those $6.4 million starters were actually $18 million qualifying offer-level guys and one of those relievers was a $10 million, second-tier closer type. Suddenly, we’re well over $180 million. Factor in the fact that in a few years, Yelich will be making about (and eventually over) $10 million more than he did in 2017. Ozuna was going to get a pay increase in arbitration and likely will see that compounded entering next season, before hitting free agency entering the 2019/20 offseason. Commonly-used metrics suggest that he is probably about a $15 million player, and seems reasonable to be expected to demand close to that in an arbitration setting. Essentially I project that the Marlins, to field a legitimately competitive team (and with their lack of firepower in the upper minors and state of being completely devoid of pitching), would have needed to run up a payroll in excess of $220 million, and even then what? They blow over the tax, likely lose a draft pick, potentially bind themselves financially even further for the future, and the risk far outweighs the reward. Pitching, especially when needed in copious amounts, is far better off being developed through the system.
When I saw that Jeter had actually gone through with trading all four of the players, I thought, “What a win for Miami.” It won’t feel like it in 2018 or 2019, but what Sherman and Jeter proved this offseason is being very overlooked. As they stated, this low-payroll plan is a short-term affair, and they expect to be big spenders again in about three or four years. What do I take away from this? This is not a regime that is indecisive. They have mapped out the future, they have a long-term gameplan, and they will stick to it and see this through, come Hell or high water. Gone are the days of Loria, who showed an emotional, somewhat reactionary approach and a lack of commitment to a plan, which was reflected in the team’s performance when viewed from a span of multiple years. This is the Derek Jeter era, one seemingly of methodical, in-depth approach, much as he approached the game as a player. After poaching one of the most respected talent evaluators in baseball, Gary Denbo of the Yankees, the Marlins further added reputability to their staff.
At baseline, what does an elite lineup and below-average pitching get you? Mired in mediocrity. I applaud Sherman and Jeter for recognizing all of this and not being afraid to acknowledge the two options that sat before them. They could walk in the moccasins of teams like the Astros, Indians and Cubs. That is, be downright dreadful, get the picks and do the international scouting, and build a sustainable 25-man roster overtime. Alternatively, they could keep continuously winning 80-85 games per season, just missing the playoffs or being one of the first teams eliminated, picking in the 13-18 range, spinning their wheels as they’ve done for many painful years. Kudos to Jeter for recognizing only one of these paths would lead to prosperity and sustainable success in the long-term for Miami.
For all of these reasons, I call upon Marlins faithful to sit back, weather the storm for a little bit, and trust the process. There is a plan, and the Sherman-Jeter regime appear committed to its execution. This is already an improvement on recent memory.