You have to feel bad for baseball fans in Miami. Of the three men that owned the Marlins from their birth as an entity in 1991 until late this past summer, one used them as a stepping stone to buy the Boston Red Sox and the other two would have credible cases to be the worst owners in baseball history were it not for former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt.
Marlins fans have celebrated two world championships since the team debuted in 1993, but the joy of those titles has been tempered by being forced to endure constant fire sales.
The most recent teardown began this winter, cutting short the elation fans felt after ridding themselves of former owner Jeffrey Loria, the architect of two such fire sales. The new ownership group, led by public face and team CEO Derek Jeter and main financial backer Bruce Sherman, immediately took a team that was only three games under .500 in 2017—and only a pitching upgrade away from being a legitimate NL Wild Card contender in 2018—and blew it to smithereens.
Claiming the team’s debts were too great to do anything else, over the course of two months Jeter and Sherman traded Dee Gordon to the Seattle Mariners, then dealt their entire starting outfield, beginning with superstar Giancarlo Stanton to the New York Yankees in a deal that was laughably one-sided in favor of Jeter’s old team. A week later, Marcell Ozuna was shipped off to the St. Louis Cardinals for a pair of prospects. Christian Yelich’s relationship with the front office quickly deteriorated and became so toxic that they had no choice but to grant his demand for a trade of his own, sending him to the Milwaukee Brewers for four more prospects. Yelich wasn’t the only other player who wanted out, either. Catcher J. T. Realmuto also demanded a trade, as has, amazingly, second baseman Starlin Castro—who just arrived in the Stanton trade and hasn’t even played a competitive game in a Marlins uniform.
The reaction amongst Marlins fans bordered on apoplexy. An ill-advised town hall meeting with fans went badly for Jeter, and ESPN radio host and south Florida native Dan Le Batard absolutely excoriated MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on his show, flat-out calling him a liar when he told him he accepted the Sherman/Jeter bid with no knowledge that their plan was to field a non-competitive team.
And non-competitive it will be. This will be a really rough season in Miami. Put a wooden spoon in between your teeth, everyone. This is going to hurt.
1 Greatest Addition: Starlin Castro
It's a testament to the dumpster fire that is the Miami Marlins that their top acquisition of the year already wants to leave.
Castro ends up in this spot by default. None of the rest of the trade returns have any major league pedigree, and the team's free agent activity was nil.
In a vacuum, Castro is a great addition. Last season might have been the best of his career. His power numbers fell slightly, but his rate stats jumped, going from a .270/.300/.433 slash line in '16 to .300/.338/.454 in '17. He's not an elite defender by any stretch, but he'll be an excellent addition to the batting order.
At least he will be if he's in any way motivated. Castro has already been a part of one ground-up rebuild with the Chicago Cubs (one he didn't even get to see through to its conclusion, no less) and doesn't want to endure another one. If he wants to get out, will he even care?
2 Greatest Loss: Giancarlo Stanton
There really isn't a question here either. Even when you consider the quality of the other three players the Marlins traded this winter, when you deal the man who will probably go down as the greatest power hitter of his generation, you have your greatest loss.
What's insane is what they got in exchange for losing him. All respect to Castro, Jorge Guzman, and Jose Devers, but this trade amounted to giving someone a Fabergé egg for some pocket lint and the change you found in the sofa. The Marlins lost a lot of leverage thanks to Loria's foolish inclusion of a full no-trade clause in Stanton's contract, but they should have gotten a better return than what they got. It's no wonder that some people bandied around collusion theories regarding Jeter and his former team in the days after the deal.
3 Greatest Asset: Lewis Brinson
Brinson struggled in a cup of coffee in Milwaukee last year and had his season largely marred by finger and hamstring injuries, but he immediately became Miami's top prospect upon the completion of the Yelich trade.
Originally drafted by the Texas Rangers, Brinson was the centerpiece of the 2016 trade that saw the Brewers send catcher Jonathan Lucroy to Arlington. An incredible athlete, Brinson has the potential to hit 20-30 homers a year and improved his plate discipline when he was on the field last season. At the moment, he's Miami's best long-term asset going forward, at least until the next fire sale.
4 Greatest Liability: The front office
Jeter and Sherman may have shot themselves in the foot this winter. Not in terms of next season—we all know they would punt on that (and several to come). What could soon become problematic stems from the way they went about their business over the winter.
Reports swirled in November that Stanton was presented with an ultimatum to either waive his no-trade clause for the deal of the club's choice or they would trade the rest of the club's valuable assets and leave him stranded on a glorified Triple-A team until he got to the opt-out clause in his contract. If that's true—and if it is, the entire league will know—it can't possibly be helpful in future dealings with agents and players. If the Marlins eventually become competitive through this latest rebuild and look to add through free agency, players may think twice if this is how they treat their talent.
Equally problematic is the relationship between the front office and the fan. Loria and Wayne Huizenga were awful owners, but at least they attempted to compete before their respective fire sales and those efforts brought a pair of titles to Miami.
Sherman and Jeter inherited a team that was actually pretty good. They had a promising lineup and wouldn't have had to do much to make themselves into a serious NL Wild Card contender.
But instead, the new owners detonated the club, handing more of the same to a suffering fan base that could be a force if they ever had a consistent reason to go to the ballpark.
It's hard to see a scenario where the fans ever trust this team again, unless perhaps yet another owner comes along and finally puts in the effort that the fans that have stuck with the team through fire sale after fire sale deserve.
5 X-Factor: Don Mattingly
After the fans, the person you have to feel for more than anyone else in this situation is manager Don Mattingly. He will have to try to make this team competitive against competition that will be superior to anything he'll be able to throw out. His abilities as a motivator and to get the most out of his players will be put to a severe test this season.
This isn't the first time Mattingly has managed through massive off-field distractions. He was at the helm of the Los Angeles Dodgers during the peak of the McCourt drama and led them to a winning season that year. Of course, that squad was stacked with talent from the teams that Joe Torre took to back-to-back NLCS appearances in 2008-09. Matt Kemp was at his MVP-caliber best, and Clayton Kershaw was winning his first NL Cy Young Awards. Thus, Mattingly ended up becoming the only Dodgers manager, Brooklyn or Los Angeles, to bring the team to the playoffs three consecutive times.
If Mattingly gets a respectable season out of this Marlins team, it will validate everything he did in Los Angeles and show that his success wasn't just the byproduct of his roster's talent.
6 Final thoughts
This team will be bad. Like, really bad. I think 100 losses are a given, 105 is likely and 110 isn't out of the question. We're looking at the doormat of the NL East for the next several years.
But it's perhaps more important to see what will happen off the field than on it. The fan reaction to the team this year will be a litmus test to see if this latest self-implosion is truly the straw that breaks the camel's back. If we start seeing swaths of Marlins Park deserted and attendance numbers approaching the levels of the Montreal Expos in their death throes, alarm bells will ring.
It's entirely possible that the relationship between this team and its fans has finally been damaged beyond repair. If the rebuild works and the team wins a few years from now and fans still stay away, it may be time to answer some serious questions about the viability of baseball in South Florida.
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