Miami Must Focus on Needs
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 5, 2012 02:10
With the baseball season ending on Wednesday, no team is happier to see the offseason than the Miami Marlins. After spending a total of $158 million on three prized free agents and moving into a $634 million new ballpark at the beginning of the season, the Fish floundered, finishing with the third-worst record in the league and dead last in the National League East.
Is this conclusive proof that money doesn’t buy happiness?
Money buys eccentric Dominican shortstops, perfect-game pitchers and field-level swimming pools, but it doesn’t necessarily buy wins, playoff appearances and champagne showers in the locker room.
Since entering the league as the Florida Marlins in 1993, the franchise has consistently struggled to generate revenue, maintain a loyal fan base and fill seats. In its 20 years of existence, it has had among baseball’s lowest payrolls — reaching the bottom in 2008 and 2009. Despite all that, however, the Marlins have also won two World Series, trailing only the Yankees for most in the past two decades.
The 2012 Marlins were supposed to take the franchise back to the playoffs. The 2003 World-Series-winning nucleus of Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Miguel Cabrera and Derrek Lee had all been traded away by a front office unable to pay their arbitrated salaries. In time, the next generation of cornerstones — Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Dan Uggla — was likewise dealt. Searching for a blueprint for their team, the Marlins turned back the clock 15 years.
Parallels can easily be drawn between Miami’s 2012 offseason and the one before its breakout 1997 campaign. That year, the Fish more than doubled their opening day payroll, rocketing from $25 million to $52 million with the signings of Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla and Cliff Floyd. This past winter, with the snap of a finger — and a couple televised press conferences — the Marlins again doubled their roster payments, moving from $57 million to $118 million.
The strategy worked for the 1997 team, who went on to defeat the Cleveland Indians in a shocking, seven-game World Series. So why didn’t it work now?
In the four years leading up to 1997, the Marlins had steadily improved, increasing their winning percentage in each successive season. The signings of Alou and Bonilla, coupled with midseason acquisitions of Darren Daulton and Craig Counsell, were considered contributions to a franchise on the rise, not major cogs in a World-Series-winning machine. The front office didn’t throw money around: It identified the team’s needs — power hitting and veteran presence — and executed its game plan flawlessly.
Contrast that with the moves of the last few years, and it seems that Miami’s offseason activity last winter was an act of desperation. The team had wavered around .500 for years and saw no other way out. The Marlins were trapped, and they felt the only way to properly adorn the new park and fancy uniforms was to back it up with the biggest available names on the market.
Were Mark Buerhle’s one perfect game and occasional acrobatic web gem enough to ink him nearly $60 million? His 3.83 career ERA doesn’t think so. Heath Bell had been a good closer on a bad team, clearly unfamiliar with the phrase “expectation of success.” Jose Reyes, likewise, was a gamble — one that left owner Jeffrey Loria with no more chips on the table.
The Marlins missed the postseason this season for the ninth straight year and for the 18th time in their 20 years in the league. Out of financial necessity, they traded away fan favorite Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers in July. The improvement project lasted barely half a season, and the Marlins are once again back at square one, presumably scratching their fins.
Much will be determined by the way Loria and manager Ozzie Guillen approach this offseason. Perhaps it will look more like the 2003 recipe for success, which yielded a triumph over the Yankees in the Fall Classic. This one, though, won’t be as easy as signing contracts, shaking hands and smiling for cameras.
The 2003 Fish followed up a horrific start with a mid-May managerial change, sneaked into the playoffs as the NL wild card and required the outstretched arms of infamous Cubs fan Steve Bartman to advance past the NL Championship Series. That team had baseball’s sixth-lowest payroll, which, at under $50 million, would have paid less than half of Reyes’ $106 million December signing.
No matter what Miami tries next, the direction of the team will be overshadowed by the attempt to create its city’s second “super team.” Of course, success could be just around the corner. It did, after all, take LeBron James only two years to win a ring in south Florida.
Matt Bell is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. FRESH OUT OF PHILLY appears every Friday.