The Miami Marlins, trades, and money talk, again

Marc Serota

The Miami Marlins completed a recent trade that sent away one of the better pitchers available for trade for pennies on the dollar. Why did the Fish get so little in return? Money, dear boy.

The Miami Marlins recently trade Ricky Nolasco for three menial prospects, and that has some people up in arms. They are up in arms not because the Marlins did not receive a good return (it was not good, but it was fair), but because the team could have done better had they simply prioritized talent over money.

That aspect has dragged back into the spotlight the questions of Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins being frugal over valuing the franchise's benefit. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs did an excellent job of beating that drum yesterday.

The Marlins can point to the Astros — who have an even lower payroll and are just as lousy — all they want, but at least there’s evidence that Houston is trying to win eventually. When they traded away some of their international spending pool last week, they did it to get a 20-year-old prospect who is already in Double-A. The Cubs just agreed to pick up some of Scott Hairston‘s 2014 salary in order to acquire Ivan Pineyro, a 21-year-old pitching prospect with some potential.

Other rebuilding clubs are using their financial positions to increase their talent base. In the Nolasco trade, the Marlins used talent to increase their financial position. It’s not against the rules, but the player’s association might argue that it violates the spirit of the rules. Or, perhaps, in the next CBA negotiations, they might just decide that it’s time to demand an actual minimum amount of expenditures from each team.

This is an excellent point by Dave. Unlike the Houston Astros or Chicago Cubs, the Marlins have eschewed using monetary resources to invest into the team. The Fish had just cause to trade away the franchise's major contracts in last November's awful fire sale, because if the Marlins honestly felt the franchise was not going anywhere with those players, an infusion of talent would have been better than keeping bloated contracts around just to appease the fan base. But this deal reeked of a simple salary dump because the Fish were unwilling to give half of Nolacso's salary back just to get passable players in return.

This brings up the question once more of whether the Marlins are a perfect example of a need for MLB intervention. We all know that the owners do not see a major problem in Loria's actions, despite the fact that he keeps funneling revenue sharing money from the top-end clubs into what we can only presume are his coffers. The fan base is incapable of convincing the ownership to spend more money; perhaps Marlins fans are less likely to go to games in general, or perhaps most fans are angry at ownership groups that continue to burn them years after 1997.

Loria's actions, on the other hand, do not seem to daze the fellow owners, as the franchise's frugal ways are almost accepted as "business as usual" for a franchise that has always struggled with payroll.

So what would MLB intervention mean? Marlins fans would like that to be intervention akin to the Frank McCourt situation with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the owners only intervened then because of the potentially huge loss in TV contract money that could have happened had McCourt been allowed to take a lower-than-market TV deal to cover his ridiculous expenses. The owners intervened because the actions of one owner would have affected them all. Loria's actions, on the other hand, do not seem to daze the fellow owners, as the franchise's frugal ways are almost accepted as "business as usual" for a franchise that has always struggled with payroll.

The Player's Association may get involved, as it did in 2010. Back at that time, the MLBPA along with MLB intervened and sternly asked the Fish to spend more money in compliance with the Basic Agreement of the collective bargaining agreement. The Marlins responded by making shrewd moves with their money, including signing Josh Johnson to a four-year extension that was in the works prior to the call-out. But the three-year slap on the hand lapsed, so too did the team's spending.

What about the salary floor that Cameron suggests? A floor of $40 million would certainly force the Marlins to spend, but unless Loria is being truthful about his financial situation, it would do nothing to alleviate the problem. Many people suspect that Loria is lying about the team's continual losses, especially now that the Fish are claiming $40 million losses with the opening of the new stadium. If he is indeed lying, then establishing a salary floor that forces him to invest into the team will not resolve the problem. If Loria wants to, he can simply invest small sums into one-year contracts every season without committing to a long-term deal and merely reaping less of a return from the revenue sharing that is currently in the system.

The only way this would solve the problem is if Loria is legitimately losing money. If he is, this forces him to spend the only money he is able to retrieve from the system, thus burying him further in a hole. It may force him to sell the team, but it does so to a man who was trying to keep the team afloat but is not so wealthy that he can afford to take yearly losses on the team.

In one scenario, the crooked owner keeps a smaller stash and the situation barely changes. In another, an honest, but losing, owner is forced out of the business he professes to enjoy, but the Marlins get a resolution to their problem. Neither is an ideal scenario. Cameron's solution of spending a floor for total player costs, including draft bonuses and international spending, is more intriguing, but with caps on amateur spending, it would still translate to bringing in some players to meet the floor for rebuilding teams like the Astros and Marlins.

The resolution of the issue in Miami is the removal of an owner who values money more than building the franchise, even though building a franchise may actually bring fans to the games.

Ultimately, the problem will not be solved by temporary interventions by Major League Baseball or creations of required spending. If Loria really wants to, he can spend small amounts every year, as it is his team. The resolution of the issue in Miami is the removal of an owner who values money more than building the franchise, even though building a franchise may actually bring fans to the games. The team claims it lost money last year, and that may be a believable claim. But this season is no excuse, and the Marlins will have no choice but to spend in the coming years as revenue sharing pays off the (relatively light) debts the franchise took on when it built the new stadium.

Most fans are already fed up with Jeffrey Loria, but he is here to stay. The hope is that, in the coming years, he comes through with his promise to at least offer Giancarlo Stanton a long-term extension and create the image tha the franchise will be willing to spend on a winner. If the conversation persists through 2015, Marlins fans will need a full-on removal of the ownership to ever receive the retribution they desire.

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