The Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays are an annual participant of the "Citrus Series," one of the few yearly interleague "rivalries" that at least make some geographic sense. But this matchup is only a "rivalry" in name, as one side has dominated the other for some time. Since 2006, the Marlins have played 42 games with the Rays in interleague play and the team is 15-27, good for a .357 winning percentage. Of course, the comparison of the teams themselves shows a similar disparity. The Marlins are 541-592 over the course of that time span, good for a .477 win percentage. Their run differential suggests the performance of a .473 win percentage team. On the other hand, the Rays are 585-549 with a .516 win percentage and a run differential suggestive of a .518 win percentage team. If those were the true talents of both teams over the long haul, we would expect the inferior Marlins to have won 46 percent of their games played, along the lines of a 75-win team.
There are more lopsided matchups in the world of geographic rivalries, but not too many more. Since 2006, the Rays have handled the Marlins fairly thoroughly. I picked the 2006 season for a few reasons. For one, this was the first season of a new Marlins era headed by players that were strictly acquired by the Larry Beinfest regime; only Miguel Cabrera remained from the past ownership and its front office. I also selected this season because it was the first year that Andrew Friedman took over as the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations. Since then, the Rays have steadily become one of the consistently great teams in baseball, having made the playoffs in three of those seven seasons and even made a trip to the World Series. Meanwhile, the Marlins have been a very poor team since that time, having not made the playoffs in any year and recorded two winning seasons versus three 90-loss campaigns since then.
However, when you look at the payrolls of both teams, they are not all that different.
|Season||Marlins Payroll ($Mil)||Rays Payroll ($Mil)|
The Marlins spent $310.8 million in those seven seasons, while the Rays spent $340 million. Overall, the Fish spent a good deal less than the Rays, but the disparity in win percentage was certainly not on the order of $30 million or $60 million in wins. The Marlins and Rays have had distinctly different paths since 2006, and those paths continue this year. While the Rays are ready to compete once again, the Marlins are facing down the barrel of a 100-loss season. The Rays acquired a top prospect in Wil Myers a swindler of a deal with the Kansas City Royals, while the Fish had to trade the majority of the rest of the 2012 core they just acquired in order to restock an embattled farm system.
This brings up the question of why the Marlins and Rays have diverged so drastically since that time, and why their performances have differed despite similar payrolls. That tale shows a little bit about how well the Rays have drafted and a lot about how the two teams approached their handicaps entirely differently.
Success in the Draft
To an extent, the Rays benefited from consistently high picks and success in the draft. From 2002 to 2008, the Rays never picked lower than eighth in the draft and picked first three times. On average, the Rays drafted third in those seasons. Those drafts yielded extremely talented prospects like David Price, B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria. Four of the players the Rays selected in those seasons became top-10 prospects in baseball at some point in their minor league careers.
In contrast, the Marlins drafted in the middle of the rounds from 2002 to 2008 because the team was often in a winning position. The Fish posted winning records from 2003 to 2005 and did decently in 2002 and 2006 as well. As a result, those Marlins drafted 15th on average in those drafts and were only able to produce one top-10 prospect out of those first-round selections (Jeremy Hermida).
In that respect, the Marlins cannot be faulted when compared to the Rays. The Fish have had more first-round selections than Tampa Bay, but most of these selections have been in the middle rounds. The Rays have struck gold multiple times with their draft picks, but with most of them at the top of the draft, it was significantly easier to find impact players for them than it was for the Marlins.
But the advantage for the Rays was not just in terms of prospects. The Rays also took advantage of having great prospect talent by keeping them cheap throughout their arbitration years by signing them early to good extensions. The Rays were able to extend their time with their top players by signing Longoria, Carl Crawford, and Rocco Baldelli to extensions that bought out free agent years early in their careers (Crawford signed before Friedman's tenure as leader of the organization. Many of these contracts were signed before the players were arbitration-eligible, allowing the Rays to set their arbitration prices a little lower. The team did not strike gold with every extension, with Baldelli's extension not succeeding because of his health, but the Rays tried to lock up every keeper within the first few years of their time in the majors.
The Marlins only attempted this with two players, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson. With Ramirez, the team struck early enough to get a decent discount, but with Johnson, the Marlins struck when he already began his arbitration clock. The Fish never discussed anything with their top prospect, the eventual failure that was Jeremy Hermida, but the fact that the team was too patient and allowed players to get to arbitration cost the team millions on each potential exchange.
Had the Marlins had as many opportunities as the Rays did for extensions, perhaps the team would have tried more often. But even if they did, it would seem as though the Rays' aggressive approach with extensions for prospects left them with extra bargains on their team that helped them manage their costs.
It is well-known that the Rays have an analytics department that deals with advanced statistics that assists in the evaluation of players. The Rays have taken an approach that blends scouting and statistics, and their organization follows through with top-down recommendations. Even as a third-party onlooker from far away, it seems the Rays are well-informed in their analysis and organized in how it is applied throughout the hierarchy, down to the very playing field with the managers and players.
It is less known whether the Marlins use a sabermetric approach, but it has long been suspected that the team shies away from such analysis in favor of a more scouting-heavy philosophy. As mentioned before in this blog, there have been many instances in which you hear prominent names within the organization spout things such as RBI as important markers for skill in players. We have long suspected that the Marlins are among the more traditional teams left in the majors that eschew more contemporary statistical views.
While it would be difficult to see how this manifests itself on any given transaction, it is hard to deny that this has played a role in the gap between the Marlins and Rays.
But with the Marlins, it goes beyond just a lack of this sort of thinking within the organization. With the Rays, you do not get the feeling that the ownership group led by Stuart Sternberg is actively meddling in the long-term process managed by Friedman. Rays fans are well aware that Friedman is the decision-maker within the organization, and the hierachy falls in behind him.
With the Marlins, owner Jeffrey Loria plays an all-too-prominent role in the team's decision making. Much like Friedman is hailed as the head of the Rays decisions, Loria, not Beinfest, is seen as the top dog in Miami. Loria's meddling and involvement in managerial hirings and firings and player movement has disrupted the continuity of the Marlins multiple times since 2006, most recently in 2012 and 2013. This has led to drastic directional changes by the organization that have shown a lack of long-term planning. This sort of problem cannot help in the development of players or any semblance of an "organizational culture."
It seems hard to fault the Marlins for everything that is different between them and the Rays. The ball bounced quite a few times for Tampa Bay, in the form of multiple top draft picks and one extremely lucky signing in Longoria's extension. But while those were clearly visible differences that could not be considered problems per se, the Marlins still have organizational differences that have led to the problems they face today. While the Rays have done well to create a core surrounding a player like Longoria, they have continued to do well despite their major league success by not only drafting and developing well but by also making shrewd, intelligent moves. Meanwhile, the Fish are still adrift, aware of where they would like to be but seemingly without a plan to get them there.