The Florida Marlins: Competing On A Budget Again

Mike Stanton of the Florida Marlins hits a 3 run HR during a game against the Colorado Rockies at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

If Moneyball isn’t the most influential baseball book of the past decade or so, it’s at least the most referenced. When a player takes a walk on a 3-1 pitch, that’s supposed to be a "Moneyball moment." When a team picks a puffy player in the draft because he can rake, regardless if he’s a threat to swallow his own glove, that’s supposed to be a "Moneyball pick." And when a player bunts a runner over, that’s supposed to make a Billy Beane bobblehead cry tears of real blood.

It was a book more about market inefficiencies than chubby guys taking walks, and now that the A’s are more of a pitching and pitching team -- though occasionally they’ll try to win behind their pitching -- it’s a completely tired reference.

If I could suggest a book idea, then, for an enterprising author, it would be Fishyball: How the Florida Marlins Are Always Okay Despite Being Cheap. You can take the idea, but only on the condition that you take the awful title. Package deal.

The Marlins since winning the 1997 World Series:

Year Payroll Payroll Rank
(out of 30)
1998 $15M 28 54-108
1999 $15M 30 64-98
2000 $20M 29 79-82
2001 $35M 27 76-86
2002 $41M 25 79-83
2003 $49M 25 91-71
2004 $42M 26 83-79
2005 $60M 18 83-79
2006 $14M 30 78-84
2007 $30M 29 71-91
2008 $22M 30 84-77
2009 $37M 30 87-75
2010 $55M 26 80-82


Two terrible years, one bad year, a whole lot of average or better, and another World Series title. There are about 15 teams that would kill for that track record over the past 13 years, and yet the Marlins did it cracking the top-20 in payroll only once. In 2011, the Marlins' $57M payroll ranks 24th, and if the season ended on Tuesday, they'd be the NL Wild Card. They're good again.

Fishyball  would include these themes:

  • scouting well
  • drafting well, but without a chapter that makes every amateur player drafted seem like a can’t-miss stroke of drafting genius
  • trading good players before you have to pay them a lot
  • receiving talented players you don’t have to pay a lot in return
  • why revenue sharing means you can still afford to add avocado to your deli sandwich, even if it’s something ridiculous, like an extra $1.50

When Bob Costas wrote Fair Ball in 2001, he opined that the Twins couldn’t compete. Apparently he was a decade ahead of his time -- a modern day Tesla! His reasoning back then, though, was that the Twins couldn't afford to pay free agents. The Twins have won six division titles since the book was published.

What Costas's argument ignored was that players are paid like end-of-the-bench players for the first three years of their careers, and then paid below market rates for three years after that. This is the sweet, sweet nectar of competitive balance -- as effective, if not more so, than a salary cap. The Marlins have taken the idea to an extreme -- using cheap, young players well enough to stay out of the cellar without paying for any complementary players at all. That would be the core of Fishyball (a title that makes you dumber every time you read or write it, but it stays because it's late and I can't think of anything better).

How did the Marlins decide to rebuild after 1997? After 2003? How did they choose which prospects to receive in trade? What were the trades they left on the table? What were the drafting and international strategies? How did they develop so many pitchers? What did they do that the Pirates and Royals didn't?  Was his name really Dan Uggla? I want to read a chapter that answers every single one of those questions.

The Marlins are moving into a new ballpark, and as we all know, that turns bad teams into spendoholic win addicts. Their big moves in recent years -- locking up Hanley Ramirez, Ricky Nolasco, and Josh Johnson to long-term deals -- suggest a different strategy in preparation for their new home. It's kind of a shame. As a spend-just-enough team, the Marlins are fascinating in their success. The Rays have their outstanding book already. Now I want another underdog story about a team from Florida. 

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