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The Miami Marlins Fire Sale and Its Effect on Free Agent Signing

The Miami Marlins just completed a mammoth fire sale trade with the Toronto Blue Jays which saw the team ship out two of their top free agent signings from 2012. How can the Marlins expect to ever sign free agents after such an ordeal?

Jose Reyes committed to the Miami Marlins long-term and got traded just one season later. How can the Marlins convince other free agents to sign if they cannot commit to keeping them around?
Jose Reyes committed to the Miami Marlins long-term and got traded just one season later. How can the Marlins convince other free agents to sign if they cannot commit to keeping them around?
Alex Trautwig

The primary argument for the fire sale trade perpetrated by the Miami Marlins with the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday is that the team saved a good amount of money on negative assets. As good as Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle were, their back-loaded contracts were not likely to be valuable to the team in the future, as the Marlins could have done a better job with their money. Reyes did well enough to be a bright spot for the Marlins in 2012, but he did not live up to expectations entirely and should be expected to start declining in the next few seasons. The same could be said for Buehrle, especially at his advanced age. It was unlikely that either player would be able to live up to the rest of their contract simply due to increasing age and the back-loaded salaries.

In a perfect world, the Miami Marlins would be able to turn around and utilize those savings to supplement a future team with enough free agent pieces to become a contender. The Marlins accomplished the secondary goal of refiling their organization's barren minor league system so that, in two or three years, the team may have prospects who are ready to become major league contributors. But the world created by the fire sale trade performed by the Fish is not one that would allow for the Marlins to sign free agents. Beyond the question of whether or not owner Jeffrey Loria would even consider spending again after the worst case scenario season of 2012, the team's actions in this trade had to have convinced prospective free agents that signing with the Marlins is not a long-term commitment.

One reader from our initial piece insisted that the Marlins put themselves in the best financial situation to compete in future seasons, and in that I tend to agree. With all the money the team opened up, they could spend in the future to build around their in-house prospect talent. But I argued that showing this kind of lack of loyalty to their players, particularly their free agent signings, undermines the organization's ability to negotiate with free agents. No player would take the choice of playing with the Marlins over playing with another team for anything close to a similar offer.

I am not privy to negotiations of any players, but it is easy to believe that money is a primary determinant of whether a player will or will not sign a free agent contract with a team. However, as obviously important as money is, I find it difficult to believe that money is the only determinant. If money really were the only determinant, no-trade clauses would have no value, and it is clear that no-trade clauses hold some value to players, as their inclusion typically lowers the value of a contract. Players are not just baseball machines that are turned off when the game is over. They are people with families who want to live in a location in which they can be comfortable for a long period of time. They have children whom they want to remain in good schools for a long duration in order to not upset their development. They want to build a home that they know will be their home for a long time to come in order to bring a measure of stability in a profession that is wrought with the potential for upheaval at any time. Much like any other family, moving constantly and changing locations is not preferable, and I believe there is a value to this for players, though it is significantly lower on the totem pole than money.

The point here is that any player is also a human who wants stability for him and his family. No one likes to move around constantly, so when they finally get a chance to make their own decision about where they will be in the future, you have to believe that many of them would also prefer to sign with an organization who can assure them that they will be here for the long haul. The Miami Marlins are officially the last organization from which a player can receive that kind of commitment. After the trade of all three of the Marlins' free agent signings from last season, the organization has broken any nuance of trustworthiness that they may have had with future free agent negotiations. Signing with the Miami Marlins may have been perceived as sketchy before, but now there is no way the Fish can shake that perception. There is an argument that, even if free agents suspected this problem before, they will certainly know about this problem now that the team perpetrated such a mass exodus of recently signed players.

If a player's goal is to receive a long-term contract and stay with one team for as much of the duration as possible, you know that signing with the Marlins is never going to be an option for that player. But as was pointed out in the initial piece by some readers, money is still an overwhelming factor that can override some of these problems. For the Marlins, however, simply overpaying for free agents creates another problem for the franchise. Most ball clubs can be decently efficient with their free agent money, generally paying what the market will bear. But for select teams with a history of mediocre performance, it is far more difficult to get players to sign. The result is that, for a team to attract free agents, they have to overpay at a high level to get players to commit.

An often-used example of this is the Washington Nationals signing of Jayson Werth, which was deemed an overpay by much of the analytic community but was also considered a "necessary evil" to prove that the Nationals were interested in contending. The Nationals may be competitive now thanks to their efficient recent drafting, but they will still have Werth's expensive deal hovering over their heads for years to come.

The problem with this is that it perpetuates a bad cycle. If the Marlins have to drastically overpay to sign free agents, they will never maximize their assets and, if their core of prospects falters, they will end up in a position akin to the one the organization felt they were in after 2012, with a series of overpaid veterans and no young core to support them. If the young players. Combine this problem of either being unable to sign or being inefficient in signing free agents and the issue with being unable to retain Giancarlo Stanton and other young stars, and you get a recipe for consistent failure, as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs noted in his piece yesterday.

And if you can’t keep a 22-year-old superstar, then what’s the point of any of this? The whole point of having cheap young Major League talent is that you can get quality performance at a low cost, allowing you to redistribute the majority of your payroll to expensive veterans and build a good team around them. But if you alienate your franchise players and have lost any credibility in negotiations with free agents, then all you are left with is a bunch of minimum salary kids who aren’t good enough to win on their own.

The pillars of success for many franchises are tied to growing, developing, and retaining stars from the minor leagues and supplementing them with good free agent signings. We already discussed how the Marlins are going to have difficulty retaining young stars with an organization that lacks a long-term plan or commitment to a process, and the team's lack of commitment should also cause problems with their ability to attract free agents looking for a place in which to settle down long-term. This does not even consider what Loria will do with the payroll and what the winning situation with the Marlins will be in the next few years. All of these factors are combining to form an ugly combination for the franchise, one in which they have little to which to look forward.