The Miami Marlins are facing the Tampa Bay Rays in a four-game series this week, and yesterday afternoon was not a good beginning to the series. The Marlins lost again, the Rays continued their climb back to a respectable 2013 record, and the two teams continue on diverging paths.
But the Miami Marlins get an interesting opportunity that the Rays received all the way back in 2006, when the Rays were headed by new executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. In 2005, the Rays were a 67-win team with a team with three home-grown talents, two of whom (Carl Crawford and Aubrey Huff) were rated highly, and a number of stopgap solutions. The next season, the team bottomed out at a 61-win campaign with a similar roster and an added prospects Rocco Baldelli, Scott Kazmir, and James Shields. The 2007 season brought Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, and Edwin Jackson via trade. By the time the Rays hit their 2008 season, they had wiped all signs of the "core" they had in 2005 and 2006 except for Crawford, who had developed into a star by then.
The Marlins, much like the Houston Astros, did this in an accelerated fashion, ridding themselves of a lot of the team's talent from 2012 and heading into their own personal 2006 Rays season. The disadvantage is that the Fish, much like the Rays did back then, are facing a disastrous season. The good news is that the Marlins have the opportunity to start anew. While the immediate future does not look nice, we know that there are ways for the Marlins to succeed going forward because of the team's recent moves.
That being said, what can the Marlins do to emulate the Rays and build a successful franchise like theirs?
The Miami Marlins will pick sixth in the 2013 MLB Draft, and the team has an excellent chance to follow up their recent draft success with more talent. One of the ways the Rays found success in the late 2000's was that their draft selections were all fairly successful. B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Evan Longoria, and David Price played roles on the later Rays teams and helped lead them to success in one way or another.
The Marlins already got a head start on the draft with three strong recent drafts. The Marlins picked up consecutive top prospects in Christian Yelich in 2010 and Jose Fernandez in 2011, and there are a few other likely contributors from the recent drafts in Jake Realmuto, Adam Conley, and last year's first round pick Andrew Heaney. The Marlins have a shot at a number of players of interest in this draft, and if the Fish can land one or two more impact talents, it could set up a strong nucleus.
But the key to the success of the team is continued work at the top of the draft. The Rays had multiple top draft picks from 2006 to 2008, and they landed two of them with Longoria and Price. The Marlins are sure to pick high in at least the two next drafts, and the success of those two picks could be difference between a Rays-like prominence and more years of 2006-era doldrums like the Fish experienced in the early 2010's.
Identifying the Right Talents
The Rays lacked funds just like the Marlins did, so they went out and spent only on the players they knew were important to their success. There were very few expenditures on expensive closers or over-the-top free agent talents. They looked for bargains in the market, such as Carlos Pena in 2008 or the Marlins' own Javier Vazquez in 2011.
The Rays also spent on their own talent if they knew they would be relevant in future seasons. Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Matt Moore, and Wade Davis were all given extensions, and the Marlins should attempt to follow suit. It may be too late for the Marlins to pursue a long-term offer to Giancarlo Stanton, but Rays-like deals for Yelich and Fernandez would be a good start for setting the foundation of the roster.
For the Marlins to build a foundation akin to the Rays, it is paramount that they identify the right talents for contract extensions and free agent signings, but the question of whether the team would even participate in this process still looms. Jeffrey Loria and the Fish are notorious pennypinchers, and with the team struggling with attendance and (at least the owners say) revenue to a degree, it is questionable whether the Marlins will even sign on to the spending part, let alone decide on whom to spend their money.
In the end, the Fish have a chance at a Rays-like rebirth in the coming years. But in order for the organization to bring about sustained success, we need to see them draft just as well as before and be willing to supplement the roster with smart, signings. That implies a lot of confidence in guys like Loria and Larry Beinfest, and neither of those two have earned that confidence yet.