The Miami Marlins accomplished the organization's third fire sale in team history and the second one under current owner Jeffrey Loria. The concept of the "fire sale" has actually become synonymous with the Miami Marlins name, as it is often the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the Fish to the casual baseball fan. You can guarantee a few more seasons of fire sale talk, jokes, and ridiculous Giancarlo Stanton trade proposals in the years to come as the team recovers from yet another mass exodus from Miami.
Since this is not the first go-around by the Fish, it seems natural to draw similarities between this latest fire sale and the previous ones. The one that caught my interest was the similarities and differences between this one and the 2005 fire sale that saw the Marlins break up the remainder of the 2003 World Series core. This piqued my interest because former Fish Stripes author Ehsan Kassim, now the lead blogger at Marlins Daily, brought this up in a conversation before the Marlins traded six major players from the 2012 team to the Toronto Blue Jays. Ehsan pointed out a number of similarities between the two teams, and I countered with a number of differences that I felt would prevent the Marlins from attempting another 2005-like fire sale.
Clearly, I came out wrong, but let us look back at that old fire sale and see how close this team followed that blueprint.
The Marlins kept most of their roster intact from 2003 to 2005. In fact, the team even made a major addition in free agent first baseman Carlos Delgado prior to 2005 in order to fill in a major hole in the organization after both Derrek Lee and Hee-Seop Choi were traded in the previous year. The sell-off that most casual baseball fans thought occurred "right after the Marlins won the World Series" actually occurred after the team finished a disappointing 83-79 season.
Which pieces did the Marlins send away? The following important players who were on the roster in 2005 were traded from the Fish before the 2006 season:
In addition, Guillermo Mota was added to the Boston Red Sox trade, but he was a reliever of little consequence. In 2005, the Marlins actually lost a good deal of their roster from free agency rather than trades, as the team allowed Opening Day starters Alex Gonzalez and Juan Encarnacion along with starting pitcher A.J. Burnett walk via free agency. All told, however, this Marlins iteration lost all but one starter from the Opening Day lineup, with only Miguel Cabrera remaining. The rotation lost one key member but kept the other in Cy Young runner-up Dontrelle Willis.
The package the Marlins received in return for the number of players dealt away was highlighted by top prospect Hanley Ramirez, who was ranked as the 30th-best prospect before the 2006 season but was previously rated as high as tenth in baseball. Anibal Sanchez, who came with Ramirez in the Red Sox trade, was ranked 40th in baseball before 2006 as well. However, in the trades of the other players, the Marlins did not get significant returns. Delgado netted Mike Jacobs as the major return, but Jacobs was an overachiever who, by his final season in Double-A in 2005, was simply beating up younger pitching. Pierre netted a positive asset in Ricky Nolasco, but he was never highly ranked either. Luis Castillo and Paul Lo Duca were sent off for what amounted to scraps, leaving the Red Sox trade as the primary return for the Fish.
One of the things Ehsan mentioned that had to force concerns into the minds of Marlins fans was the team-wide disappointment that both the 2005 and 2012 teams featured. Both clubs were expected to at least compete for a division or Wild Card playoff spot, and both teams fell short of expectations.
One difference was the level of disappointment between the two teams. The Marlins of 2005 were at least competitive, and they stayed within the realm of contention until about August, when the team began to fall off to the wayside. This Marlins team from 2012 did a lot worse from the get-go, putting up a disappointing April and following up a hot May with a second straight terrible June. By the end of July, the Marlins were way out of any shot at the playoffs and the team cemented that role by trading its players. The 2005 Marlins sent no one away during the season, only suspending and sending home Burnett at the end of the year after he was becoming a clubhouse nuisance.
Part of the reason why both of the teams involved were expected to do so well was due to their offseason moves, and particularly the signing of premium free agents. The Marlins took a shot in 2005 and filled in their open first base position with the power-hitting Delgado, who in response turned in a nice offensive season (.301/.399/.582, .407 wOBA) that only looked worse because his fielding at first base that year was terrible according to the defensive metrics. Given our uncertainty about those numbers, it is very possible Delgado put up at least a four-win season with below-average defense, and the team certainly reaped the benefits. The problem was that the rest of the 2005 team was not good enough to eke out the necessary wins.
The 2012 team was also given some free agent talent, but the team did a lot more before this past season by signing three players in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. Bell flopped royally, but Reyes and Buehrle performed just a bit below their projections. While that does not bode well for their future, it was good enough that the Marlins should have been happy with those investments. The problem was that the remainder of their plan failed to come to fruition.
Both the 2005 and 2012 Marlins were banking on good performances from their marquee signings. Both teams got decent performances, but in both cases, it was the remainder of the squad that failed them. The difference, and one of the reasons why I did not believe the Marlins would pull off a fire sale this offseason, was the scale and magnitude of the Marlins' moves in 2012. With three major commitments, it seemed impossible for the Fish to shed all of that salary, yet somehow this organization did it, in one trade no less.
In both cases, the team chose a player to represent the future of the organization and the guy who would carry the team into the next era of baseball. That young player was retained and the Marlins moved on with him at the helm of a crew of youngsters. In the 2005 team's case, there were two young players in Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Both were heading into similar years in terms of team control, and the Marlins were aware that, at some point, they would have to make a decision about either extending them or trading them for parts.
In the 2012 team's case, the similarity lies between Cabrera's situation and that of Giancarlo Stanton's. Both players are elite talents at the plate and they appear to be generational-level players who could perform for 15 years to come. In Cabrera's case, he was far more polished at the plate but was a negative in the field, while Stanton is likely slightly worse as a hitter but a far more capable outfielder. In both cases, the Marlins were left with potentially seven-win superstars around whom the team could build.
Unfortunately, their financial situations are also the same. Cabrera had four years of team control remaining by the start of 2006, and the team found that it could only afford two of those seasons. The Marlins paid $7.4 million to Cabrera in his first season of arbitration in 2007, and after that year, the team was forced to trade him while pleading poverty. Stanton is almost perfectly lined up in the exact same situation, and while Stanton never had the growing character issues that plagued Cabrera in his tenure with the Fish, Stanton also has a component of anger with the organization and the way it is being run.
With Stanton unlikely to re-sign with the Marlins for the long haul, the Marlins are likely facing the same problem they faced back in 2005: how can the team convince their elite superstar to stay or find a suitable trade partner? In 2005, the Marlins thought they had a second star in hand in Willis, but his rapid decline threw that idea out the window.
The Trades and Returns
The return the Marlins received in the midseason and offseason trades for their roster seemed fairly similar to that of the 2005 trades. Here are the players the Fish sent away who played major roles in 2012:
With the exception of Sanchez,, these players were under team control for seasons beyond 2012. There were fewer free agent departures for the Marlins in the 2012 version, as they had only one major 2012 free agent in Sanchez. The team was able to eke out as much value as possible out of the players they had on that roster to start the season. This time, two starting players from the initial Opening Day starting lineup remained, but the team made up for that by trading more pitchers in Buehrle and Sanchez in addition to the ace Johnson.
The return, again, was surprisingly similar and aimed towards depth. The Marlins traded more players in 2012, leading to a better return, but the top of the heap remains comparable. In Jacob Turner, the Marlins got the troubled top prospect that Hanley Ramirez once was. As a pitcher, the risk is higher for Turner than it was for Ramirez, but both players were highly rated before their stocks fell in their final season. The other major returns were outfielder Jake Marisnick (ranked in the top 50 in Baseball America) and Nathan Eovaldi (ranked in the top 100). The Marlins in 2005 only got two top-100 players, while this year's edition received three.
The remaining depth of the 2012 batch sounds more promising than the 2005 batch, but with minor league depth being what it is, it is impossible to begin pencillng in the remaining prospects to be important parts of a future Marlins team. Just as the last crew focused in on Ramirez and Sanchez's performances, so will this one focus on Turner, Eovaldi, and Marisnick primarily.
The Inherent Farm System
One major difference between the 2005 and 2012 editions of fire sales was what was left of the Marlins' franchise after the trades. Yes, both trades sent away the team's primary starters at most positions from the previous year, but the advantage of the 2005 team was that they had reinforcements in wait. The Marlins of that year already were prepared with three top-100 prospects who were expected to adequately fill the void left by the fire sale. Jeremy Hermida, Josh Johnson, and Scott Olsen were all highly regarded and stepped immediately into important roles in the 2006 team, and for the most part they were early successes (though that did not translate to late success for two of them).
This year's 2013 Marlins will not have such assistance. It is possible that top prospects Christian Yelich and Jose Fernandez, both likely top-20 prospects in baseball this season, will tear up Double-A to stat the year and receive their promotions, but it is unlikely. No other Marlins are remotely ready for major league play among the team's homegrown group. The 2012 Fish did acquire Turner, Eovaldi, and Adeiny Hechavarria to fill major league voids in a manner similar to the 2005 Fish getting Ramirez, Sanchez, and Nolasco. But without homegrown talent to also supplement this team, it is much more likely that the 2013 Marlins will fail where the 2006 Marlins succeeded.
Indeed, this may be the critical difference between the two clubs. The returns and departures may have all been fairly similar, but the major contrast is who the Marlins have in-house to replace the empty spots left by the numerous trades. This reason is perhaps the best one for the suggestion that the Marlins are likely to easily lose 100 games. Once again, the lack of an adequate farm system will hold back the Marlins for years.