Don’t Crucify the Marlins for Making Smart Moves

On Monday, the Marlins traded Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante to the Detroit Tigers for highly thought of pitching prospect Jacob Turner and a couple of other prospects, admitting that their grand experiment hadn’t produced a contender in 2012 as they had hoped. That deal didn’t generate much controversy, as Sanchez is a free agent at the end of the year and Infante is a role player without much name value.

Late last night, however, they agreed to ship Hanley Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Nathan Eovaldi, and the internet exploded.

Sports Illustrated:

For all of their rebranding and relocating, the Miami Marlins have done the one thing their fan base is least likely to tolerate, which is to bring back memories of the fire sales that followed their World Series wins in 1997 and 2003. The Sanchez/Infante trade could have been seen as part of a short-term regrouping on Tuesday. On Wednesday, in light of the Ramirez trade, that is no longer possible.

The Sporting News:

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria got his sweetheart ballpark deal and asked fans to fill it; in a span of about 36 hours, he disrespectfully chased them away because he didn’t get immediate satisfaction on the field. And according to at least two sources, other teams’ front offices are looking down on this latest Marlins fire sale.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The ever-fraudulent Florida Marlins are holding another fire sale. Their bold quest for another World Series championship barely made it past the All-Star Game.

Fraudulent. Disrespectful. Not possible that this is a baseball decision. It’s fire sale pandemonium, and the outrage meter is turned up extra high. And yet, it may all be completely wrong.

What the Marlins have done in the past three days is trade two months of a pitcher they probably weren’t going to re-sign, a year and a half of an average second baseman, and an overpaid underachiever who most teams wouldn’t have even claimed on waivers. As Knobler notes, the Marlins were willing to pick up half of Ramirez’s salary to trade him to Oakland, and Billy Beane was hesitant to even pull the trigger at that price. This wasn’t so much a fire sale as it was an inventory closeout of unwanted goods.

Yes, the Marlins have a bad history of tearing down their rosters. After they won the World Series in 1997, they traded away Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Robb Nen, Moises Alou, Devon White, and Jeff Conine before the season began, and then shipped off Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, and Bobby Bonilla six weeks into the season. That was a fire sale that turned a team that went 92-70 into a team that went 54-108. The team traded away nine of their highest profile players and slashed their payroll down from $50 million down to $15 million, coming in ahead of only the Pirates and Expos in total spending that year.

Over the next five years, the Marlins would build back up their farm system and, in 2003, found themselves as something of a surprise contender. On the backs of 21-year-old Dontrelle Willis, 23-year-old Josh Beckett, and 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera, an extremely young team snagged the wild card and ended up winning the World Series. Once again, the Marlins celebrated their championship by going cheap, though didn’t do anything near as extreme as the 1997 offseason. Ivan Rodriguez left as a free agent, Derrek Lee was traded to the Cubs, Juan Encarnacion was traded to the Dodgers, and Mark Redman was traded to the A’s.

But, those weren’t catastrophic moves that doomed the franchise. Redman was replaced by a returning A.J. Burnett, who actually upgraded the rotation. Choi actually posted an .882 OPS in 2004, essentially matching the .888 OPS that Lee put up the year before. Encarnacion’s job was given to Cabrera, which was an obvious improvement. They couldn’t replace Pudge behind the plate, but he got a 4 year, $40 million deal from the Tigers to cover his age 32-35 season and then took a huge step back offensively after the first year of the deal. Not signing a catcher headed into his decline phase certainly isn’t the same thing as a fire sale.

The 2004 Marlins didn’t get torn apart, nor did they collapse into the worst team in baseball. Their opening day payroll shrunk from $49 million to $42 million and they went from 91 wins to 83 wins. Despite what you may read this morning, the Marlins don’t have a history of selling off all their good players as soon as they get what they want. They did that once — 15 years ago — and that was under previous owner Wayne Huizenga.

I get that Jeffrey Loria is easy to hate. How he handled the Expos was awful, he’s done a lot of slimey things as the owner of the Marlins, and yes, he just spent a long time convincing the city of Miami to build him a publicly financed stadium that has greatly increased attendance, and in turn, his revenues. I have no interest in defending Jeffrey Loria from any of the valid criticisms that are leveled at him. However, the reality is that he wasn’t in charge of the team in 1997, and the off-season of 2003-2004 wasn’t a “fire sale”.

And neither is what they’re doing now. Hanley Ramirez hasn’t hit in two years, his transition to third base hasn’t gone very well, and he’s due $31.5 million over the next two seasons. Trading him now is no different than what the Arizona Diamondbacks did by making Justin Upton available in trade, and no one was calling that a fire sale just three months into the defense of their 2011 NL West title. In reality, underperforming teams that aren’t in the playoff race trade expensive underachievers and pending free agents every year. It’s not fraud, it’s baseball.

If the team trades Josh Johnson in the next week, I’m sure that will just be seen as more evidence that the Marlins are up to their old tricks. But, with Cole Hamels off the market, there’s a strong demand for premium pitching, and the Marlins will likely get a very strong return for the last year and a half of team control they have over Johnson. And, given Johnson’s history of health problems, his declining velocity and strikeout rates, and the team’s recent acquisitions of two good young starting pitching prospects, now is probably the perfect time to move Johnson for value.

Whether it can be interpreted other ways or not, these trades make baseball sense. You can view them through the lens of “Evil Jeffrey Loria Screwing Over His Fans Again” if you want, but I don’t think the facts really support that kind of conclusion.

If the Marlins don’t spend any of the money they just saved by getting rid of Hanley Ramirez, if they don’t extend Giancarlo Stanton, and they turn back into a low-payroll team that lives off revenue sharing, they should absolutely be crucified for that. But they haven’t done that yet, and it’s not fair to assume that is the plan simply because that was Huizenga’s plan 15 years ago.

If the Marlins do reinvest Hanley’s money into upgrading other parts of the roster, and they do get a good return for Josh Johnson before he breaks down again, there’s a pretty good chance that the 2013 Marlins will be better than the 2012 version. I understand why you might not think Loria deserves the benefit of the doubt, but a rush to judgement isn’t any better.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

I think what most people are beefing with isn’t the idea of trading Hanley, but instead the return. While Hanley hasn’t hit since 2010, he is still just 28 and his prodigous talent is still there. If he approaches his former self, his contract is not an overpay at all. And getting just Eovaldi is an underwhelming return, when Anibal and Infante brought back Jacob Turner and Dempster was going to bring back Delgado.

10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

I think you’re jumping to conclusions, Dave, about Ben’s point. I took it as why trade Hanley right now when his value is at his absolute lowest that it’s ever been. Hanley’s on the right side of 30, and is only two years away from a perennial MVP candidate. Could the Marlins have gotten more for him right now? No. Did the Marlins need to trade him this year, especially with the influx of money from the new stadium?

I’d also point out that there’s a huge difference between trading Hanley Ramirez and talking about trading Justin Upton. Teams will leak rumors to the press to try to motivate players, or to test the market to see what’s out there.

10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Agreed with Dave.

All the defensive metrics seem to agree that Hanley is a 1B/DH or maybe a corner OF at this point. And his .732ops the last 2yrs or even his .786ops over the last 3 makes him mediocre at best in those slots.

Heck, Eovaldi’s war rate (0.7/91ip) the past 2 yrs isn’t far off Hanley’s (2.7/780pa) already.

It’s a $35m gamble that Hanley can be closer to the player he was 4+ seasons ago….and that’s a big risk iMO.

10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

I think you’re way off, Dave.

10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Gotta think that you can buy a much less risky player than Hanley for $15m per year.

10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Well said. If Billy Beane had just traded his bloated, overpaid, underachieving clubhouse cancer and received a 22-year-old pitcher with Eovaldi’s stuff, the same media hacks would be gushing over Beane’s latest fleecing.

10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

It’s an issue of perception. Two years ago, everybody expected this kid to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. It’s hard to change people’s minds that quickly on a player of that caliber at his age. As a Yankee fan, if Robbie Cano has two bad seasons, I’d have a hard time thinking of him as “Cano, the washed up role player” rather than “Cano, the perennial MVP candidate who’s going to get back on track any day now.”

Matt NW
10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Who wants to blame the shoulder? I do, at least sorta.

As a sufferer of a shoulder injury, I say: they’re devastating. And the margin between “strong enough to get by” and being a big league power hitter is a big margin.

He stinks now. Seemingly isn’t an enjoyable human being (of course this matters). Good trade.

10 years ago
Reply to  Ben

Sooo….IF he returns to his former self, the Dodgers got a steal.

And if he doesn’t? They overpaid.

What is the probability of this “IF”?

Is it 50-50? If so, the return should be somewhere between “good Hanley return” and “not good Hanley return”.

Isn’t that what they got?

Seems like you are assuming the “IF” is going to happen.

10 years ago
Reply to  Steve

Hence the divide in perception of this deal. It all depends on what Hanley is going forward.

jordan s
10 years ago
Reply to  Ben

eovaldi is mildly underwhelming but aside from the fact that hanley has one of the worst reputations in baseball and has a rather large chunk of a contract left, the marlins are clearly targeting young pitchers that are close to major league-ready, which is why people expressing bewilderment over the marlins not getting zach lee or allen webster are kinda missing the point.