It’s true, probably. If you remove emotion from the equation, the Marlins of the past two decades have been a successful corporation. Even under the newest ownership, they’ve satisfied all of the requirements you might put on a great franchise. Your appraisal of their work to date, and even their trade this week, includes emotion, but an honest eye towards the bottom line can put a different spin on all of it.
What could you ask of your team? A championship. Winning seasons. Profitability. Fulfilling ballpark experiences. Strong decision making. Clear eyes when it comes to competitiveness and a strong heart when it comes to making bold moves. The ability to sign big free agents when it makes sense, and the knowledge to know when it doesn’t make sense to do so. We’re getting vaguer by the statement, but so far so good for the Marlins.
This expansion team has won championships under two owners, including Jeffrey Loria. They won the series four years after they were created. They won it all six years later. The San Diego Padres were born a quarter-century before the Marlins and have never World Series. Ditto the Milwaukee Brewers. It’s unseemly to point to TEH RINGZ, but they are the ultimate goal of every franchise, and the Marlins have satisfied the requirement.
Teams are companies, and they should have an eye out for making money. There was general uproar when Deadspin revealed that the Marlins had been making money for years despite pleading poverty and taking in revenue sharing money, but anyone financially associated with the team should probably have been happy with leadership for working the system that way. Perhaps anger directed at leadership — tasked with making money — should be directed at the system instead.
Maybe they could have used more of their profits when it came to the stadium. Their involvement in the financing of Marlins Park was a baseball-low 30%. It certainly wasn’t as civic-friendly as the deal in San Francisco, which was privately financed. But again, isn’t anger at the front office misplaced? The decision to publicly finance a stadium was made by publicly-elected officials — to some extent, it reflected the will of the people. Did the taxpayers have a false decision between two groups that each would have bowed to the Marlins’ will? Sounds like a failing of the political system. Were the pols duped by Loria? They should have known that new stadiums don’t bring jobs. It certainly isn’t a bad business move to take advantage of a willing population, even if it is Gordan-Gecko-like.
The Marlins needed a new park. Their front office decided they couldn’t or wouldn’t build a new park with only private funding. The end result was still a new, mostly beautiful park for Marlins fans.
Evident so far is a clear-eyed, goal-oriented approach, optics be damned. The Marlins wanted rings, profits, and a new ballpark and didn’t care about how it looked. That sort of mindset filtered all the way through to the baseball decisions in a way that, well, in a way that was very saber-seeming.
One of the main tenets of the statistical approach to baseball is honesty. Numbers can help see past any mystical optimism into the stark reality of a team’s competitiveness. How much the Marlins actually depended on statistical forecasts in their decision-making is debatable, but one thing is clear: they knew when they had a shot at winning, and they knew when they didn’t.
There are plenty of ways to spin their approach more negatively. Pump and dump. Boom and bust. Fun, then fire sale.
But if your team is not going to be competitive, why keep high-priced assets around? The Astros traded away Ben Francisco, Steve Pearce, Carlos Lee, Brandon Lyon, J.A. Happ, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and Chris Johnson this season, there was no uproar. Houston wasn’t going to win, and so they sold their older, more expensive pieces for future pieces. Nobody blinked. Totally reasonable. The Marlins showed last year that they were more than a piece or two short of competing in a suddenly loaded National League East. So they sold their parts. Do the same thing a couple times, and you’re a villain, it seems. But why spend on mid-tier free agents just to go through the motions? It didn’t do Omar Minaya’s Mets any good to stay with the pack and cling to competitiveness with bad deals. Would you rather be a Mets fan? There’s a highly-leveraged team hemorrhaging money that hasn’t won a championship in over a quarter-century, and has muddled it’s way through middling seasons without bold rebuilding periods.
Public relations is a huge part of this picture, on the other hand. Each of these aspects of the Marlins’ past work has upset the public even as they achieved profits, rings, and wins for the franchise. Upsetting the public affects brand loyalty. Fans may identify the ‘bust’ parts of the cycle just as quickly as the team’s front office, and stay away until they sense a boom. Future free agents may be wary of signing with the team for fear of being shipped out the minute the team hits a rough patch. This bold, fearless approach to running the Marlins has not won friends, or the loyalty that travels with them. The downside is obvious.
Winning is the only reliable way to put butts in seats. Zeroes before the decimal get contracts signed. Rings can build a loyalty of their own. This approach may seem heartless and conniving — it may even BE heartless and conniving — but the results have been remarkable. This vehemence pointed towards the Marlins’ leadership has come before, and it was mostly ignored for a year during the exuberance of a new stadium and shiny new free agents. Excitement may come again under the right circumstances.
If excitement will come for a new ownership group — Dave Cameron seemed to suggest a sale is the best future for the Marlins’ ownership after these moves — then they did an even better job. Even if selling the team has some pitfalls — most notably a profit-sharing plan that would take much of the money out of the sale out of Loria’s pockets — the team’s long-term health outlook just got rosier.
Think about acquiring the Marlins now, with a man-child Giancarlo Stanton in the middle, flanked by a young roster. If the team can find a buyer for Ricky Nolasco, there won’t be a player on the team with more than a $5 million salary. The overall payroll will sit under $20 million without their highest-paid pitcher, and it will have a chance to go down in the future. The Marlins will have a history of making profits and will take in revenue sharing money. In a new stadium.
That seems like a well-run enterprise and an attractive corporation to acquire.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.