If I had a time machine, I would take you back to Wednesday, April 4, 2012. It was a simpler time then, a day when there was joy and the prospect of something great to come. No one was disappointed or deceived. That part happened later.
Muhammad Ali and Bud Selig were in Miami that day, and Jose Feliciano sang the National Anthem as the 25-man roster and their coaches stood along the freshly-drawn chalk lines in the pristine taxpayer-funded stadium, waiting for their cue to play ball.
The stadium's nightclub, the Clevelander, was pouring drinks, and 36,601 fans were on hand in the team's new home that boasted a rather peculiar home run sculpture just beyond the outfield fence. There were TV cameras and with them an additional crew from Showtime's series "The Franchise", a documentary that was to chronicle the first season of the reborn Miami Marlins, a team that was chosen above the 29 others because they would make for great television as it ascended from the worst in their league to pennant contenders.
On that date, the Miami Marlins had swagger.
In the episodes that were filmed prior to the season starting, the focus was on the team's larger-than-life personalities and the suddenly-competitive roster. At this point, the quirky owner was behaving and the explosive manager was still employed. As a collective, they were arrogant. The team increased its payroll from $58 million in 2011 to $102 million in just one offseason, the highest in franchise history. The Marlins attempted to affect change through spending by adding free agents Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, and Heath Bell to their roster of homegrown talent like Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, and Josh Johnson. It was a plan that was supposed to make them competitive and entertaining, one which would make them a better ball club, a bigger profit, and with any luck, a World-Series winner.
We all know what happened next. The Marlins were 14.5 games out of first place at the trading deadline, the television show was canceled prematurely. Ultimately, the organization did the unthinkable and traded away all of its newly-acquired talent.
In some cases, all would seem like a hyperbole, but in this case, it's mostly accurate. Of the Opening Day starters from April 4, 2012, just two of them are on the Marlins' current roster -- Giancarlo Stanton and Logan Morrison. Of the 16 players that were used in that game by the Marlins, only a few of the relievers and pinch hitters -- Steve Cishek, Chris Coghlan, Ryan Webb, Greg Dobbs, and Austin Kearns -- remain. That's a 44 percent roster turnover, and there's a major difference: the relievers and pinch-hitters are no longer just late-game strategic replacements. They are now the faces of the franchise for a roster that is not worth its own television show, unless someone is making a documentary about dismantling rosters, weak offenses, and replacement-level players.
Steve Cishek( fl-marlins-a )
Following one of the largest salary dumps in baseball history, the Marlins' Opening Day payroll for this season was $50 million. Their highest-paid player was Ricky Nolasco ($11.5 million), since traded to the Dodgers. Now Adeiny Hechavarria and Placido Polanco are the highest-paid players, each earning $2.75 million this season. Following the fire sale, they have refused to spend on talent and they haven't been able to internally replace the pieces they've given up. Their roster is made up of players resting predominantly at two extremes: Young players who aren't fully developed and being rushed and misfits who have lost their jobs on more competitive rosters. The results have been disastrous.
The Marlins are currently 37-61. They have the worst record in the National League, and they are on pace for 101 losses, which would be their most since 1998 (and the second-most in their 21-year existence). They have the worst offense in the majors by virtually every metric, and their 72 OPS+ (park- and league-adjusted OPS) isn't just dismal when compared to what their peers have done this season, but the Marlins are on the verge of posting one of the worst offensive seasons ever.
No team has posted an OPS+ of 71 or lower since the 1910 White Sox, which isn't exactly a fair comparison given that the players and the game were much different then. If we limit the sample to teams of the postwar era, the Marlins would be the worst offensive team since the 1952 Pirates (losers of 112 games), which is quite the feat when you consider that some of the more recent dreadful teams, like the 2010 Mariners and 2004 Diamondbacks, finished with an OPS+ of 79 and 77, respectively.
Of Marlins hitters that have had more than 200 plate appearances this season, only Stanton has an OPS+ greater than 100 (116); the rest are averaging just 71.5. The Marlins have the fewest home runs in the majors (yes, even less than the Royals), and 39 percent of those home runs belong to just two players: Justin Ruggiano and Stanton. Hechavarria has hit into double plays at the second-highest rate in the majors (200 or more PAs). Aside from Stanton's 14.1 walk percentage, only two other hitters (Ruggiano and Greg Dobbs) are above the league average of 7.6 percent, and 44 percent of their hitters (200 PA or more) have a strikeout percentage higher than league average. The Marlins have reached the point where they'll try anything, and have called up two of the team's top prospects, outfielders Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick from Double-A. Both players made their major-league debuts on Tuesday; Marisnick went 0-for-4, but Yelich picked up three hits in four trips to the plate.
A pattern emerged in the previous paragraph, and in case you didn't pick up on it, I'll beat you over the head with it now: Stanton is exonerated in these discussions of offensive ineptitude because he is not a contributor to their struggles, rather he is a one-man offense that is being held hostage in a lineup of ineffectual hitters. Even though he's missed 42 games this season due to injury, he's still the clear star on the roster, and he hasn't even been that good this season.
What the hell are they keeping him for?
Right now, Stanton's presence on the Marlins' post-apocalyptic roster is a reminder of a common dilemma that organizations face during rebuilds: Should all of the good talent be traded, or should one or two remain the focal piece of the team's rebuild? For the Marlins specifically, it's a question of whether or not Stanton should remain on the roster through the rebuild years. It's a very tough question to answer. Stanton's service time creates a race against the clock, because beginning next season he will be getting progressively more expensive, and the Marlins don't really do expensive. It seems likely he will hit the road after 2016 at the latest. Can they rebuild fast enough to contend while he's still there, especially as he takes up an ever-larger chunk of the team's shrinking payroll, or could they rebuild faster with the prospects that he would bring?
Stanton is in his fourth season with the Marlins, and will be eligible for arbitration at the end of the season. If they sign him to a one-year deal or go to arbitration, they would have to repeat this process again in 2014 and 2015 before he hits free agency in 2016. But following this season, Stanton will go from making $500,000 to making millions. If the goal is to keep payroll low throughout the rebuild, then Stanton's presence on the roster may actually impede the rebuilding process. If Stanton somehow remains on the roster through 2016, that gives the Marlins just three seasons to improve sufficiently that they're not wasting their money and his talent by leaving him the lone slugger in an anemic lineup.
Perhaps the best-case scenario for the Marlins would be to turn around as quickly as the 2003-2006 Tigers did. In 2003, the Tigers went 43-119. Just three seasons later, in 2006, they won 95 games, made the playoffs, and went all the way to the World Series before losing to the Cardinals.
The 2003 Tigers were a huge mess, weak on both sides of the ball. Over the next three seasons, they made defensive upgrades, added young talent like Curtis Granderson, and signed free agents like Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Jones, and Kenny Rogers. They also selected Justin Verlander with the second-overall pick of the 2004 draft, and by 2006 he was a fixture on the team that made the World Series and winner of the Rookie of the Year award.
But the Tigers' fast turnaround wasn't just about improving on balls in play and making smart draft picks. They also spent money: Their payroll increased by 40 percent between Opening Day 2003 and 2006. It's hard to predict when the Marlins will start spending again (or if they ever will), but even if they add one or two players a season, it doesn't seem likely that they plan to increase their payroll substantially through free agents in the next few seasons -- a strategy that is problematic given how often players are electing to forego the market these days. If the Marlins stick with their strategy of a grassroots rebuild, the process could take years beyond 2016, when Stanton would be due for his first big payday or free agency.
Of course, we know the Marlins don't do long-term contracts and high-salaried players, but their rebuild is going to force them to spend some money, even if it's on the talent they currently have on their roster. Stanton, Cishek, Morrison, Ruggiano, and Mike Dunn are all arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, and since they are using young talent like Jose Fernandez, Yelich, and Marisnick on the major-league roster, ready or not, they are also speeding up the calendar by which they will reach their arbitration years -- the Marlins will see their meager payroll double before the team actually starts improving.
Giancarlo Stanton (Justin Edmonds)
They may deal some or all of the non-Stanton arbitration-eligible players at this year's deadline -- no doubt the relievers are attractive to contenders -- but that means the team will take another step backwards before it takes a step forward. If Yelich and Marisnick aren't ready to combine with whomever the team gets in trade to form a precocious Murderer's Row South, Stanton will be even more isolated -- and by the time they are ready, they too could be ready for arbitration.
Given that several teams have had their eye on Stanton since the Marlins started dismantling, the return could be huge. It's time to start entertaining offers; the moves that alleviated the Marlins of nearly $60 million in payroll were done in an attempt to clean house and clear debts, not build the future. While they undoubtedly received some talent back in return, that wasn't necessarily the goal. With Stanton, it could be. Stanton is the final chance for the organization to prove that the rebuild isn't just about putting money back into the pockets of the owner now that he got his new stadium.
It's hard to trade a player of Stanton's ability and get equivalent value back in return. That's always the risk when you deal a good player. Still, even if the Marlins get a few decent players back for their one great one, that will help fix the franchise long-term; nothing will get them back to the promise of April 4, 2012 for quite some time, but it will be a step in the right direction, a bigger one than sticking with their star and hoping they can surround him with a supporting cast by other means before time runs out again.