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The Marlins’ Mask Is Slipping

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Last fall, as the rest of the league geared up for October baseball, MLB owners unanimously approved the sale of the Miami Marlins to a group led financially by billionaire investor Bruce Sherman, and publicly by former Yankees star Derek Jeter. When they bought the team, the state of the roster and team finances were such that, if they chose, the Marlins could have kept an approximation of their then-lineup for a few more seasons. They could have taken advantage of Giancarlo Stanton’s considerable talents for a shot at winning before going into rebuild mode, and if necessary, some players with contracts set to expire could have been traded to make things more financially palatable in the short term.

Instead, the new owners blew it all up.

In the lead up to Christmas, the Marlins traded away Stanton, Dee Gordon, and Marcell Ozuna. In late January, they completed the bulk of the firesale with the trade of Christian Yelich to the Brewers. It was a massive windfall: In addition to the $295 million left on Stanton’s contract (minus the $30 million they sent to the Yankees in the deal), the Marlins shed around $113 million in future commitments — $43 million for Yelich, an estimated $20 million in arbitration for Ozuna, and more than $50 million owed to Dee Gordon.

In a vacuum, those moves seem like a justifiable beginning to yet another reset in Miami, giving the Marlins flexibility to add top free agents while retaining some homegrown talent. In reality, the Marlins received only a few well-regarded prospects in those trades, and their chances of a turnaround off of their Minor League reserves are slim.

An ownership change is usually a sign of hope and opportunity for a fanbase; a chance to reset and come up with new ways to get the best out of a franchise. The Marlins are content to skip that step.
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And Marlins fans saw through it right away. Shortly after those early trades, the team held a town hall during which one season ticket holder legitimately cried about the club not targeting pitching talent to boost their chances of success in 2018. An older fan responded to Jeter’s insistence to be patient by saying he doesn’t have many years left. And the love-to-hate-him Marlins Man admitted that the early stages of this ownership group made him miss the much-derided Jeffrey Loria. Morbid and pissed off is generally not the tone you want coming from your most loyal fans.

Jeter has attempted to assuage critics with platitudes like, “I want to win as soon as possible” and “There are [prospects] you don’t know their names yet, but you will know.” Those comments echoed what he later told Sports Illustrated: “The bottom line is we’re here to win, and anybody here should have that mindset. And if you’re not on the same page? Then this won’t be the place for you.” But sprinkled throughout that town hall and in the aftermath were other, more telling, comments. At one point he defended himself by saying, “I’m trying to learn.” And he referred to the Stanton trade as giving a “gift” and getting $265 million in return.

But what is particularly worrisome about the Marlins cutting salary and relying on … uh … a group of players … to populate the team, is that the new owners should ideally still be enjoying a nice honeymoon period with their fans. An ownership change is usually a sign of hope and opportunity for a fanbase; a chance to reset and come up with new ways to get the best out of a franchise. This ownership group is content to skip that step. Instead of reinvigorating fans, they’re prioritizing money over tangible, optimistic improvements they could have attempted while still being financially responsible to their investors.

Is this is the new status quo for baseball? Teams openly admitting they are more focused on finding ways to improve their bottom line at the expense of players and fanbases? Because profits aren’t explicitly connected to on-field performance, owners are increasingly content to not spend for championships and instead strive to stay in the middle, avoiding the luxury tax by low-balling veterans and stocking up on low-cost young players who haven’t hit free agency yet.

It’s been one of the worst kept secrets in sports that baseball teams have figured out that accidentally winning a World Series is far more worthwhile than actively pushing for one. That the Marlins have reached this point, without pausing in the “caring about the fans” phase, is downright depressing. They went straight to the same cynicism the rest of the league is trafficking at possibly historic speed.

The Marlins didn’t sell their stars for baseball reasons

Firesales happen with new teams, especially those that are already struggling when the transfer of ownership takes place. Miami was not truly one of those. There’s no real reason they had to cut salary to the extent they did during their first offseason as owners.

After they purchased the team for a whopping $1.2 billion, the new owners announced they were aiming to cut 2018’s salary from an anticipated $140 million to $90 million. Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt on Stanton — that he forced his trade; that the Marlins had limited landing spots due to his no-trade clause — the $25 million owed him should have been enough of a cut to satisfy their budget constraints and still try to win.

As a defense to rumors they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) spend because they were already strapped, Jeter told Sports Illustrated, “... people [are] thinking that we are out there raising money because we are broke, that is not the case.” And if that was true, then why didn’t the Marlins keep a few of their trades and rebuild around those talents? In a different interview with SI, Stanton says he advocated for at least trying: “Give it one half of the season. If we aren’t right there with the Nationals, or right there in the wild-card race, then you can deal everybody.”

Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Could the Marlins’ motives have something to do with the fact that a profitable team would reportedly net Jeter a multi-million dollar bonus, worth up to $8.8 million over the next four seasons on top of his existing $5 million-a-year CEO salary? Or that the group started looking for as much as $250 million in cash from investors almost immediately after their ownership was approved, and investors are more attracted to a lower payroll?

The Marlins are waiting around for a $50 million payout from the league (as part of the sale of BAMTech last year) so they can technically be profitable in 2018, even though they could have suffered (air quotes heavily implied) through being marginally in the red for a season or two while also putting an entertaining product on the field to lure investors and begin a turnaround. If they receive a hefty payout from a renegotiated TV deal with FOX Sports Florida, as their plans predict, and money from a possible stadium naming rights deal, as they’ve touted, the decision to shear off that much payroll will look even worse.

The Marlins’ fallback defense against accusations of penny-pinching is that they have a plan. There has been lots of talk about said plan, and how it will not only rejuvenate the community but will result in winning. “If you firesale, wins will come” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well as “If you build it…,” but they’re sticking with it. In the Miami Herald’s reporting on this ownership group, they found details of the Marlins’ supposed plans via a leak of “Project Wolverine,” which was circulated to the league and investors before ownership approval.

As part of that plan, accurate as of August 2017, the team expected to increase ticket sales by more than $15 million and corporate sponsorships by almost $20 million over the next three years. With no star players on the field and now distrust among the fanbase, those projections seem overly optimistic. This looks very much like a group that threw a bunch of numbers at the wall and didn’t ever stop to think about whether the plan was realistic. The numbers looked good and profitability was within their reach, so boom!boom!, sign here, and congratulations, you have a baseball team! Good luck!

The Marlins didn’t even have the decency to cover up their scheme

Again, the Marlins aren’t the first team to change hands and immediately have the new owners slash payroll in the hopes of kickstarting a rebuild — one that might make them sports saviors in their new market. And some billionaires actually buy a new asset and then spend their money to improve it [waves at Cubs and Dodgers].

Looking at the last 10 teams to be purchased — going back to the 2005 sale of the Athletics — there were three instances of a team having a lower salary the season after the sale than the season before. The most drastic salary cut belonged to the Nationals, who dropped $25 million from the roster. Those that needed to slash early either leveled out again, or eventually exceeded previous spending, and those that wanted to run the team their way took the time to assess the situation before making big moves.

Not all of those situations worked out (and the Marlins could, in theory, surprise everyone and turn everything around, or start spending suddenly). But framing matters, and what is happening in Miami has a desperate frugality to it that other situations did not.

That Jeter, baseball’s PR-obsessed golden boy, couldn’t figure out how to make the new owners seem like conquering heroes instead of invaders at the gate is downright shocking.
rich baseball, probably being mean

Jim Crane had college teammates talking him up when he bought the Astros. The ownership group led by Lew Wolff promised a new A’s ballpark and more money being put into the team. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio outlined his plan concretely when he said, “We need to continue to put money into the farm system. And then frankly we need to figure out a way to get another $10 million into the payroll over the next couple of years.” He even cited the Marlins’ World Series win at the time, saying, “As far as I’m concerned, once we get the payroll above $50 million, there are no more excuses from anybody. There is no reason why we can’t compete at that level.”

Attanasio hasn’t shown as much enthusiasm in spending the money required to win as that first burst of excited investment, and Wolff’s group has become much-maligned for not delivering on the majority of its promises. They may have only had money on their minds at the time, getting ready to milk maximum profits from their new toys while keeping spending low. But publicly, they at least kept up appearances.

Contrast that with the Marlins. Fans weren’t the only ones incensed. In one Miami Herald story, multiple county commissioners expressed their disdain for what Jeter and company are doing. Commissioner Joe Martinez went so far as to say: “They ruined it … It was a horrible deal and it’s been made worse. I believe this ownership group is worse than Loria.” “Worse than Loria” would have been an unimaginable outcome as recently as six months ago, yet now that doesn’t even seem like hyperbole. Martinez also said, “They are not going to give the taxpayers what they thought they were getting.”

No matter this group’s actual plan, community perception is in dire shape.

That Jeter, baseball’s PR-obsessed golden boy, couldn’t figure out how to make this ownership group seem like conquering heroes instead of invaders at the gate is downright shocking, since managing his reputation has been the focus of his entire career. Having a legitimate plan, being honest with fans, and spending millions on a team mired in debt might be too much to ask at once. But maybe one or two of those things? That shouldn’t be this hard. And if these owners had had any foresight, they could have pulled a Ray Davis, who didn’t even give an interview about the Rangers until nearly five years into his tenure as owner. No one can use your words against you if you don’t talk in the first place.

And MLB let this all happen

Maybe this changeover feels different from previous new ownership situations because the league didn’t hide its cards, either. The Sherman/Jeter group may have had the highest bid for the team by $200 million, but there was an offer on the table from Miami-based billionaire Jorge Mas as well. Mas would have not only reportedly kept Giancarlo Stanton, but increased payroll in the short term to take advantage of Stanton’s talents while they were still in South Beach. Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB’s owners went for the higher offer over the local option, which involved $400 million in debt, because it put the league in a better position to value teams more highly in the future (i.e., if this shit heap sold for $1.2 billion, other teams may be worth even more). Owners approved the sale with full knowledge that they would make money even if the new ownership group fails to turn the Marlins around.

And MLB knew failure was a serious possibility if they let Sherman and Jeter take the reins, because Project Wolverine revealed to stakeholders the extent of the group’s salary-slashing gambit, and profit forecasts that were optimistic at best. Manfred denied that he had knowledge of which players would be traded after he got caught in a lie about whether he’d seen the plan, but he never specifically denied that the league and its owners didn’t know about the imminent teardown in Miami.

We can’t predict the future (although if you can, please let us know what will happen to the Dinger Machine because we’re very worried), and the Marlins’ actions may well be the nadir of owners acting in the best interest of their wallets. But this could also be a harbinger of things to come — an era when owners are less motivated than ever to either support the on-field product and the fan experience, or even profess that they care.

And if teams don’t have it in them to care about fans, they may be surprised to find that fans have it in them to stop giving them money. Wouldn’t that be the day.