Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Something Fishy in Miami

Yesterday’s big baseball headline was the trade that sent Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners to the New York Yankees.  It was quite a surprise to most people and hopefully a positive end to the quietly messy divorce that was happening in Seattle.  Click here to read Jeff Passan’s take on the trade.

But I’m writing about the other trade that was making headlines in the few hours before Ichiro changed clubhouses.  That trade involved the Detroit Tigers getting ready for a playoff run.  They picked up a couple of key pieces from…the Miami Marlins (I suppose the ellipses were for suspense in case you failed to read the title).

In an all too familiar move, the Marlins are sending away expensive talent and getting back cheap prospects.  It’s the way Jeffrey Loria and David Samson have run the team for years.  And they’ve been happy and successful with the formula.  Their only issue was with the old, ugly stadium they had to play in.  But after moving into a new, ugly stadium this offseason, they seem to be back to their old “market correction” schemes, despite assurances to the Miami-Dade County taxpayer that they were a new ballclub.  But with their Loss numbers growing at a much quicker rate than their Wins, they find themselves in familiar territory…the bottom of the NL East.  They currently sit 4th in the division, 11.5 games back of first.  They are closer to the bottom of the division, where the Philadelphia Phillies are occupying last place, only 3.5 games behind them.  The only difference between this year and last year is that the Marlins feel they’ve spent enough money to be in the playoff hunt.  The fact that they are not is unacceptable to this administration. 

The struggles the Marlins are having are not overly surprising to me.  I personally picked them to finish fourth in the division, behind the Braves, Phillies and Nationals.  They were a last place team with okay pitching that struggled to score runs last season.  They were counting on Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton and Gaby Sanchez to drive in Omar Infante and Emilio Bonifacio last year.  They signed Jose Reyes to lead off and get on base more, but they are still asking the same guys to drive in runs, and they haven’t gotten the job done for a second straight season.  They added a workhorse to the rotation in Mark Buehrle.  But Buehrle has never been more than an above average innings eater who is up there in age and can’t strike guys out.  He’s dependable, but dependably decent isn’t worth what he gets paid.  They paid him to be an ace, and he is not.  They added a good closer to a team that doesn’t seem to find enough Save opportunities as it is.  I don’t blame the team for Heath Bell’s struggles.  But it’s worth noting that many blame it on Bell’s issues with Ozzie Guillen, the new manager that the Marlins brought in.  They were hoping his fiery personality would shake things up and help this team win a few games.  And if it happened to bring more attention to the team, ideally in a money making format such as being the subject of Showtime’s “The Franchise”, so be it.  He’s achieved one of those goals, and it happens to be the one that brings in money independent of the on-the-field performance.  While that isn’t what the Marlins initially had in mind, they’ll take it, and cash in on the fact that they are making some money back and have some valuable assets.  The mission statement down there seems to be, “Make money first, and if we can win some games that’ll be nice too.” 

This is not a big secret in baseball.  The Marlins have been doing this ever since Jeffrey Loria bought the team.  Chris Jones wrote a great column about this for ESPN the Magazine this winter when the Marlins were pushing their “New Ballpark New Identity” slogan.  You can read it here.  It talks about the way Loria did something similar in Montreal, threatening to move if he didn’t get a new stadium, bankrupting the team, and then skipping town before he got saddled with the bill.  The difference was that this season, the Marlins promised things would be different.  They promised that if they got a new stadium, they would be able to draw more fans, make more money and begin to sign players to long-term deals and compete.  They assured Miami-Dade County that they had no money to pay for a new stadium and needed taxpayers to foot the bill.  They promised that the new stadium would greatly improve the economy and crime rate in Little Havana.  And they promised that they were done dumping players when they got too expensive.  They underscored it by signing 3 big free agents this offseason before moving into their new stadium. 

But with this trade we, once again, see their true colors.  The Marlins aren’t above lying to everyone.  The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the money for the new stadium and found that 80% of it was paid for by the taxpayer.  The Marlins claimed they had no money after finishing last in attendance for the last 7 years.  They claimed that people didn’t come to see the games because of the stadium.  But after the investigation, and the leakage of some financial documents on Deadspin, we found that despite their claims to be an impoverished team, the top executives, specifically Loria and his stepson David Samson, were making boatloads of money, mainly from revenue sharing off “richer” teams.  But despite all that, the Marlins still insisted the new stadium would change everything.

Well in the first season in the new stadium, everything looks the same.  Miami is still near the bottom in attendance and the NL East.  They are claiming more sellouts, but with the third smallest seating capacity of all ballparks in the MLB, it’s easier to sellout, something Loria and Samson know all about.  Other teams have had short spikes in attendance after building new stadiums, but it would generally last about a year.  Miami’s has lasted a few months.  And with guaranteed money contracted to their offseason free agent signees, and the traditional low attendance that this team is known for, the Marlins have to find a new way to make money.  The Showtime contract will help (thank God), but dumping salary is their tried a true method.  And it started yesterday with a talented young pitcher in Anibal Sanchez and a former All Star in Omar Infante.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  And if the Marlins have to decide between keeping a promise to a starved fan base and making back some cash from misguided financial investments, we all know which way this franchise will go.

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