We live in the era of Trusting the Process. Teams across sports have convinced fans to buckle in for extended periods of rebuilding with the promise of draft picks and dynasties at the end. It’s become an ethos for some fanbases, a just-you-wait attitude behind a knowing grin.
But here’s the thing about tanking: At the end of the day, you’re losing on purpose. There’s an undeniable strategic aspect to tanking, of course. Just look to the Cubs’ and Astros’ back-to-back World Series titles. It works if you do it well and get lucky along the way, and if you’re willing to spend some money at the end of the cycle. But, again, you’re losing on purpose, and that stuff about doing it well and getting lucky is a lot of “if,” and it assumes you’re doing it for the “right reasons.”
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The Marlins are in the midst of yet another of their notorious teardowns, and it’s not for the right reasons. Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon have already been shown the door, and it’s likely only a matter of time until Christian Yelich and J.T. Realmuto play in different uniforms as well. Miami hasn’t won 80 games since 2010, and its farm system, even after these trades, could generously be described as sparse. That sounds like grounds for blowing up the team, sure, but it ignores important context. Miami’s group of position players was actually rather strong, and was more than capable of succeeding if surrounded by a competent pitching staff.
Miami’s trades are not a firesale. They are part of a liquidation, one that was given a stamp of approval by the highest authority in the sport.
The new ownership group led by Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman has been remarkably open about their desire to purge salary. Reports surfaced as early as October that there would be heavy cuts, which is almost surely linked at least $400 million of debt that the ownership group assumed in the sale. Jeter struggled to piece together the necessary investors to purchase the team, a transaction that totaled $1.2 billion. It leads one to wonder whether the franchise is largely operating on money it doesn’t really have. Offloading player salary, as well as cutting scouts (including one who was confined to a hospital bed at the moment) and team ambassadors like Andre Dawson and Jeff Conine, is far more about finances than putting a viable team on the field.
Miami did get intriguing prospects back in the Ozuna deal, and theoretically could get hauls for Yelich and Realmuto. Prospects are just that, though — prospects. The Marlins will also operate without much leverage in any Yelich or Realmuto talks, given that both players have understandably requested trades off the sinking ship and that other teams know that the Marlins are motivated by a need to clear money off the books.
Even if the Marlins strike gold in the forthcoming trades, the franchise is likely looking at at least a six-to-eight year rebuild.
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Given that this plan was mostly public knowledge, and that salary-shedding tank jobs are in vogue throughout the league, it’s almost laughable that commissioner Rob Manfred tried to say on Dan LeBatard’s show Wednesday that he had no clue that the Jeter group would orchestrate a teardown of the roster. Naturally, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald quickly came out with an article that cited two sources saying that Manfred knew quite well what was about to happen in Miami.
Manfred told LeBatard that he did not see “player-specific plans” from the Marlins, which is probably true, but the commissioner has been caught with his pants down. Manfred tried to hide that he knew about the Jeter-Sherman group’s plans, which he knew would be wildly unpopular both in Miami and around the sport, and that he knew Miami’s plans would lead to a prolonged period of non-competitive baseball in a large market that has been without a winning team since 2009 and has already suffered through multiple firesales and failed attempts at relevancy.
Was baseball so desperate to move on from the Jeffrey Loria administration to an ownership group fronted by one of the game’s cuddliest stars that it was willing overlook that Jeter and his backers, with all their financial quibbles, would quickly commit many of the same crimes against viability as Loria? Why sell to a group that doesn’t have the money and/or the willingness to put a competitive team on the field? Manfred has sent a message that he does not seem to mind another long period of embarrassment from the Marlins, at least not enough to block the sale or to strongarm any new ownership group into trying to build around Stanton and other above-average players on the roster.
This is not surprising. Even the teams that tank for the “right reasons” still pull in massive profits through ticket sales and TV deals. The Cubs, for example, still drew fans during their lean years, averaging nearly 2.9 million fans.
A lower payroll means lower expenditures, after all, and baseball teams are above all in the business of turning a profit. The Marlins barely draw fans as is, and those few fans will be even less likely to show up in 2018. A town hall meeting with fans Tuesday night saw Jeter confronted with anger, tears and even superfan Marlins Man himself proclaiming that he wouldn’t renew his season tickets.
Some of this anger has surely been exacerbated by Jeter being stunningly bad at managing the PR aspect of this. He has been clumsy in his public comments with reporters, shockingly neglectful at communicating with his players, and opted to be seen at a Dolphins game instead of at the winter meetings when Stanton was traded. He has not said the magic “process” word, which would have at least given reporters something to chew on and something for Jeter to sell to fans.
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He hasn’t — because this is so nakedly about money and nothing else. We shouldn’t be surprised at the league allowing this, because it was partially about money when the Astros and Cubs took aim at the cellar. The current embarrassment of the Mets being allowed to continue on their nebulous financial track in one of the biggest markets in the world has been and will continue to be entirely about money. The Bud Selig regime allowed it to persist, and Manfred seems willing to do the same. Instead of forcing the Wilpons to sell, they are allowed to putter about and operate a New York team like they’re the Rays, or, well, the Marlins.
The commissioner’s job is to run the league and ensure profits for the owners of the teams. In that, Manfred is doing quite a job. Baseball is thriving and revenues are only going up.
Yet Manfred has failed the fans of Miami. It will be extremely hard for the Marlins to win back the fans’ trust. And really, why should the fans trust them? The new boss is the same as the old boss, it seems, and that boss is backed by a league that is lying to protect them.
It seems counterintuitive to buy a baseball team that you can’t exactly afford, unless there’s a cold calculation in place to not try to win in the name of accumulating capital. Jeter has shown his hand already. It remains to be seen where Manfred and the league will fall when the next firesale happens down the road. It’s possible that Manfred has shown his hand too.