Way back in 2007, the Marlins employed a 24-year-old slugger who possessed terrifying skills at the plate. Four seasons plus into his career, he’d blossomed into a perennial MVP candidate and the face of a franchise that had twice won it all, but had never managed to sustain its success. Two years before this superstar could test free agency, the Marlins rewarded him … by shipping him to the Tigers in what would prove to be one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.
Two months ago, the Marlins employed a 24-year-old slugger who possessed terrifying skills at the plate. Four seasons plus into his career, he’d also blossomed into a perennial MVP candidate and the face of a franchise that had twice won it all, but had still never managed to sustain its success. Two years before this superstar could test free agency, the Marlins rewarded him … by signing him to what could become the largest player contract in sports history.
What changed? How did the Marlins go from a frequently penny-pinching club that couldn’t find the money to sign future first-ballot Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera to a team that just paid Giancarlo Stanton $325 million1 before making a slew of other offseason moves intended to turn Miami into a consistent contender? After 22 tumultuous years for the franchise, why do the Marlins now believe they are financially secure enough to pay their best player a third of a billion dollars and talented enough to compete for a playoff spot — not only in 2015, but also for years to come?
Because Stanton’s deal is heavily backloaded, he’ll make the full $325 million only if he decides not to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract that kicks in after six years. Assuming Stanton stays and gets the whole megillah, his contract will be the largest in sports history, ahead of … the one Detroit gave to Cabrera last offseason.
“That’s a long story,” said David Samson, the Marlins president since 2002 and likely the only man in baseball who can talk for 20 minutes without taking a single breath.
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To understand why the Marlins are suddenly so optimistic about their chances, we need to go back to the beginning. To fully grasp how they became willing and able to extend Stanton; trade for Mat Latos, Martin Prado, Dee Gordon, and Dan Haren; sign Mike Morse; increase their payroll;2 and make a run at the postseason, we need to first explore the peaks and valleys they’ve experienced since 1993.
Haren, at least, isn’t going to cost the Fish anything. If he stays in Miami, the Dodgers will cover his entire salary. He’s made it abundantly clear that he only wants to play on the West Coast, however, so the Marlins could flip Haren or let him retire.
When the Marlins first took the field in 1993, they did so at Sun Life (then Joe Robbie) Stadium, a multipurpose behemoth that was somewhat functional for football and disastrous for baseball. Wayne Huizenga, the Marlins’ owner at the time, also owned the Miami Dolphins and the stadium. Though he spearheaded renovations in an effort to make Joe Robbie more baseball-friendly, Huizenga also sought, but failed, to secure a new ballpark for the baseball team.
Following the 1996 season, Huizenga went on a spending spree, bankrolling the signings of Alex Fernandez, Bobby Bonilla, and Moises Alou and approving a trade for Cliff Floyd. Entering the 1997 season, Huizenga announced that, win or lose, he’d break up the team if he didn’t get the new stadium deal he wanted. In their fifth season, the Marlins made the playoffs for the first time … and rolled all the way to a World Series title. But the local government rebuffed stadium overtures anyway, and true to his word, Huizenga dumped most of the Marlins’ best players.
Samson considers many of the Marlins’ subsequent struggles a byproduct of that fire sale. “That led to a lot of hurt, frustrated fans,” Samson said. “So [the team] never got that bounce, that sustained success that should come with winning a World Series.”
Frustrated by the lack of stadium progress, Huizenga sold the team to John Henry in January 1999. The Marlins gradually improved on the field, going from a disastrous 108 losses in 1998 to a 79-82 mark by 2000. But attendance crashed, plummeting from nearly 2.4 million in 1997 (the second-highest figure in Marlins history) to an unthinkably awful 813,111 in ’02.
When the fans flee, it’s time to either radically change the approach or throw in the towel. Henry chose the latter, opting for a three-way franchise ownership swap after the Marlins averaged fewer than 16,000 fans per game in 2001. In January 2002, then-commissioner Bud Selig awarded the Red Sox to the group led by Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino. To bail out another owner in distress, Selig then agreed to have MLB buy the soon-to-be-extinct Montreal Expos3 from Jeffrey Loria for $120 million. Loria, in turn, took over the Marlins.
They became the Washington Nationals in 2005.
Loria, an art dealer, arrived in Miami after fleeing the flaming wreckage of an Expos team that would cease to exist two years later, and the perception at the time was that MLB had just handed the game’s second-worst-positioned franchise to the man who’d at worst purposely torpedoed the worst franchise, and at best let it die.
“We came from Montreal with baggage,” said Samson, Loria’s stepson and the former executive vice-president of the Expos. “I don’t think all of it was deserved, but it was there nonetheless.”
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They had baggage, but it turned out they also had impeccable timing. Thanks to the incredible collection of talent the previous regime had left behind, Loria and Samson hit the jackpot in their second season in Florida, winning the 2003 World Series. That team got a major boost from two impact rookies, Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis; veterans Ivan Rodriguez (who’d signed a one-year deal), Ugueth Urbina, and Jeff Conine (who were acquired in season); and an armada of power arms led by Josh Beckett.
Mike Hill, the Marlins’ current president of baseball operations and a member of the front office since 2002, rattled off a list of players on the 2003 squad who had multiple years of joint service time, like Derrek Lee, Alex Gonzalez, Mike Lowell, Juan Pierre, Juan Encarnacion, A.J. Burnett, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, Mark Redman, and Beckett. “Many of those guys came up together,” Hill said. “They definitely had that bond that they all shared with one another. That made them a special team.”
Just not special enough to keep together: Rodriguez, Urbina, Lee, Encarnacion,4 and Redman all left after the season via free agency or trade. Championship teams tweak their rosters all the time, and the Marlins acquired some decent replacements, but it was still strange to see them shed 15 percent of their payroll right after winning it all. While this wasn’t another Huizenga hatchet job, it was still unfortunately timed, especially with attendance climbing 34 percent in 2004 thanks to some of the year-after bounce the team had hoped to receive.
He rejoined the Marlins via midseason trade in 2004.
Attendance and payroll both trended up in 2005, with the 1.85 million fans marking the club’s highest total since 1997, and the $60.4 million payroll marking an all-time franchise high.5 The Marlins stayed competitive, finishing 83-79 in both 2004 and ’05. Moreover, they remained a young and talented team, with Beckett, Burnett, and Willis topping the rotation, Cabrera emerging as a full-blown star, and a strong supporting cast in place. Thirteen years into the Great South Florida Baseball Experiment, it appeared the Marlins had finally found some stability.
The Fish had never before spent $50 million in a season.
They hadn’t. Despite a 6 percent uptick in overall attendance in 2005, the Marlins still averaged fewer than 23,000 fans per game that year, ranking ahead of only the Expos among NL clubs. While following up the World Series season with consecutive above-.500 seasons wasn’t too shabby, the brass had higher hopes coming off the 2003 title. Loria and Samson wanted to return to the playoffs, and they also wanted a new, mostly publicly funded baseball-only stadium. They’d begun negotiating for a new park in 2003 with an eye on opening it in 2006, but that didn’t happen.
“We didn’t draw, didn’t win, and worse than that, we didn’t get a new park,” said Samson. “So we had to recycle the process.”
“Recycle the process” is one way to put it. “Roster evisceration” is another, as the Marlins unloaded every starting position player from the 2005 lineup except for Cabrera. Huizenga got hammered for shaving 14 percent off the team’s payroll after the 1997 title; Loria and Samson flushed more than three quarters of the payroll, dropping to an impossibly low $14.7 million in obligations for the 2006 season thanks to one of the most dramatic housecleanings of all time. A year later, after posting their worst record of the new millennium, the Marlins traded away Cabrera, the 24-year-old franchise player who could’ve led the team back to glory and eventually become the first player to wear a Marlins hat into Cooperstown.
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That’s the prism through which many Miamians have viewed the Marlins ever since. Even though the post-2005 overhaul gave way to an excellent core of young players (led by Hanley Ramirez) who got the Fish back to 87 wins and a near-playoff berth in 2009, those in Marlins headquarters kept harping on the lack of a new stadium and the revenue onslaught they presumed would follow. And so the locals lost patience — with the losing, with stars leaving for greener pastures, and with Loria and Samson’s threats to leave Florida if they didn’t get what they wanted.
The final straw came in 2012, when the Marlins finally moved into the new stadium they’d been seeking for two decades. The $634 million Marlins Park was an ambitious piece of architecture, but it was also a mind-bogglingly massive drain on taxpayer money, at $2.4 billion over 40 years.6 True to their word, Loria and Samson spent money upon moving into their palatial new home. But in a very un-Marlins twist, they spent way too much, and they spent it on the wrong guys.
The price tag was so huge, it triggered an SEC probe.
“We’d budgeted $70 or $80 million in 2012 — we thought that made sense,” said Samson. “Then we thought about the new park, how we’d hired Ozzie Guillen, who we thought would be the catalyst for a new, winning cycle. And we thought, You know what? We’re going for it all!”
The spending spree failed miserably. Rather than making incremental moves to supplement their existing stable of young players, the Marlins nearly doubled their payroll, landing just shy of $108 million after reeling in big-ticket free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. Somehow, a 93-loss disaster ensued, triggering another massive sell-off highlighted by a 12-player trade with the Blue Jays that stupefied fans and plunged payroll back below $25 million. The deal eventually proved to be smart from a baseball perspective, but in the moment, it washed away the goodwill the new park had engendered.
That’s how the Marlins lost 100 games in 2013. That’s how fans started checking out yet again, with attendance falling to an NL-worst level each of the past two years. And that’s how the team managed to piss off its new franchise player, with Stanton hopping on social media and into a reporter’s notebook to air his grievances with the franchise.
Then, just a few months after Stanton’s ominous “Five months doesn’t change five years” lament, he shocked the baseball world by pledging his allegiance for the next six seasons, and maybe even the next 13. He did so, said Samson and Hill, for four reasons. First, it’s tough to say no to $325 million. Second, Stanton loves living in Miami. Third, he saw the Marlins emerging as one of the most dangerous young teams in the game. And fourth, he bought into his bosses’ promise that the Marlins had finally found the organizational stability that had eluded them since Opening Day 1993 and that they’d stop giving their fans and players heart attacks every few years.
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One of the notable things about the Marlins’ projected 2015 roster is the number of players entering their third, fourth, or fifth seasons, a callback to the young 2003 squad that came of age and went all the way.
Leading the charge is an outfield Buster Olney recently called the best in baseball. The now-25-year-old Stanton is the marquee name, the masher with more homers than anyone in the NL over the past four seasons, and the third most in MLB behind Jose Bautista and Cabrera. And Stanton is no one-dimensional threat, ranking as a top-10 defensive right fielder every year except 2013, according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved metric. Playing next to Stanton will be Marcell Ozuna, the 24-year-old toolbox who cranked 23 homers in his first full season despite playing his home games at the pitching-friendly Marlins Park. Former Mariners talent evaluator and current ESPN contributor Tony Blengino recently declared Ozuna a future star thanks to his athleticism and batted-ball profile. Rounding out the trio is Christian Yelich, the 23-year-old former first-round pick lauded for his hit tool and strong batting eye. Yelich owns a solid .365 on-base percentage through 206 career games and projects as an ideal table setter for his middle-of-the-order outfield mates.
The Marlins are also going young up the middle, with 25-year-old Adeiny Hechavarria manning short and 26-year-old Dee Gordon at second. Neither player has posted the kind of impressive defensive numbers to match his reputation, but Gordon is coming off his first big league season at second base after coming up as a shortstop, and Hechavarria is routinely praised by scouts for defensive tools. Gordon offers offensive potential, too: While he cooled off considerably after his red-hot start with L.A. in 2014, he has learned how to use his speed to his advantage, hitting fewer balls in the air last year than ever before and swiping an MLB-best 64 bases.7
Bonus: He’s also got no shortage of charisma.
To get Gordon, the Marlins had to give up Andrew Heaney, a 23-year-old lefty who was their top pitching prospect. There’s a decent chance that Heaney will become the best player in the seven-player deal, possibly even as soon as this year. But Miami knew it needed to address its second-base woes, and dealing a top prospect to address a current need is another sign of the team’s commitment to contending now.
Plus, the Marlins aren’t short on pitching. For one, 24-year-old Henderson Alvarez has quietly emerged as a highly effective starter, though not in quite the way people might’ve expected. Alvarez throws 93 mph heat, but he makes his living by killing worms, flashing a sinker-changeup combination that made him one of the league’s most prolific ground ball generators last year. Those grounders combine with one of the stingiest walk rates in the league to make Alvarez a less heralded version of Doug Fister, a highly effective right-hander who can thrive without missing many bats.
Alvarez will be backed by another 24-year-old righty, Jarred Cosart, who fared much better with the Marlins last year (two homers allowed in 64 innings with a 2.39 ERA) than he did while pitching in a tougher league and ballpark while with the Astros. Cosart, whose 54.2 percent ground ball rate ranked eighth last year, is an even more proficient ground ball pitcher than Alvarez.
The biggest X factor on the roster is just 22 years old and has hurled just 224.1 innings in the majors. Of course, Jose Fernandez is hardly an untested commodity, having detonated the league during his amazing 2013 season, when he earned rookie of the year honors and Grantland’s undying love. But Fernandez had Tommy John surgery on May 16, 2014, and though he reportedly could return to the Marlins as soon as June 1, there’s no guarantee he’ll be his old self right away.
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Still, other significant roster upgrades could buy the Marlins time until Fernandez returns to form. If the Stanton mega-contract demonstrated a newfound commitment to investing in talent and trying to win, then we can’t discount what the trades for Mat Latos and Martin Prado meant in terms of both optics and on-field production.
Though he’s not quite at the Kershaw/Cueto/Wainwright level, Latos has quietly proven to be one of the NL’s better next-tier starters, ranking 15th among 55 starters over the past five years in park-adjusted ERA (minimum 500 innings pitched). He’ll make somewhere between $9.4 million and $10.4 million as an arbitration-eligible pitcher in his final year before free agency, meaning Miami is spending real money for his services despite knowing it could lose him after 2015. Latos battled some health issues last year, making just 16 starts after making at least 31 in each of the previous four seasons. A healthy Latos, however, could be the Marlins’ best pitcher until Fernandez returns.
Acquiring the 31-year-old Prado was also a gutsy move in its own way. Casey McGehee hit so well early last season that he earned All-Star consideration, and the Marlins could have easily brought him back to play third base in 2015. But Hill, GM Dan Jennings, and the rest of the team’s brain trust recognized that Prado was a better bet going forward, so they agreed to pay him $16 million over the next two years8 and give up hard-throwing, 24-year-old right-hander Nathan Eovaldi in the trade. This was a go-for-it move that sacrificed youth for production while shrewdly identifying the team’s strengths and weaknesses.
He’s owed $22 million in the final two years of his four-year deal, but the Yankees are picking up $3 million per season.
Throw in the two-year deal for the 32-year-old Mike Morse and management’s collective mind-set becomes pretty clear: Try to win now, but avoid dishing out huge contracts for anyone but top-tier players in their twenties. The Marlins didn’t feel they had enough of those long-term-contract-worthy young stars to warrant locking up Cabrera eight years ago. Now, they see a Stanton-led bunch that can grow together, try to pull off something big in 2015, and compete for years to come.
Turning those playoff ambitions into reality won’t be easy, of course. The Nationals made a loaded roster even stronger when they broke the bank for Max Scherzer; the Padres and Cubs should be much improved; the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Pirates could be serious threats once again; and the reigning champs are always a factor. But if the Marlins really have turned a corner and are now prepared to operate like something approaching a normal baseball team, there’s reason to believe in their talent, the potential for more upgrades if they’re in the race come July, and even a sustained run of success behind their possibly-signed-for-life superstar.
Optimistic outlook aside, the Marlins won’t be minting money anytime soon. Even if their attendance improves, it’ll probably be a while before they win back the thousands of fans who still feel jilted by roster sell-offs. Building a stadium on the public’s dime boosted the franchise’s value, but Loria can’t truly cash in on that unless he sells the team. Meanwhile, baseball’s big money lies in television deals, and the Marlins’ TV contract stinks: The Fish take in just $18 million a year from their contract with Fox Sports Florida, tied for the worst haul in baseball. They can hope that their next TV deal will befit a team that plays in America’s eighth-largest market, but that’s no sure thing, and regardless, that’s five years away.
Still, the Marlins have excelled at scouting and player development throughout their history, pushing legions of dynamic youngsters to The Show. They have plenty of smaller-revenue teams to emulate, with the Twins, Rays, and A’s among the clubs that have achieved success and then sustained it over multiple years, rather than putting fans through the torturous roller coaster ride that Miami has. Like every baseball front office, the men who run the Marlins know some losing stretches are inevitable, but want to see similar sustained success.
“The Phillies had years of greatness; now they’re three years into a down cycle,” Samson said. “A team like the Yankees, you’d think there’d never be a down cycle, but it happened from ’82 until the mid-’90s, and we’re now two years into a no-playoffs streak for them. The Braves won all those years; now they’re in a down cycle. The Rays had a terrible down cycle when they came into the league, then they went up, now they might be back down. The Marlins are just not viewed as charitably.”
And, Samson said, that’s the rub. Though he’ll cop to his (and his team’s) failures, Samson said he resents competing in a landscape in which the A’s are lauded as revolutionaries when they trade veterans for prospects and retool their roster while the Marlins are accused of resorting to a fire sale when they make similar moves. What he and Loria want more than anything, he said, is to convince Marlins fans that making such moves is sometimes necessary, and that when losing does result, it isn’t the end of the world.
“We want to make them recognize that it’s not doom and gloom,” Samson said. “The team’s not going anywhere. We want to make people understand that we’re a normal team. We’ll have good years and bad years, but in the end, they’re just years. We’ll break your heart sometimes, but also make you jump for joy other times. That’s what being a sports fan is.
“We want young fans to know that the team they grew up with will be there when they’re adults, for adults to know we’ll still be here when they grow old. That’s how you know you’ve got a real franchise.”
That’s asking a lot of a beleaguered fan base, but it’s a sign of progress that the Marlins are asking it at all.
This post was updated to correct the length of Mike Morse’s contract.