The Miami Marlins went through a horrific fire sale that saw the roster torn down to pieces just one year after promises of playoff berths were made with big signings. The Marlins stripped the roster bare and kept only the bare essentials, mainly Giancarlo Stanton and Ricky Nolasco. I was highly critical of the team at the time for the move because it ruined the pitch that this was a new era of Marlins baseball and appeared to be a return to the days of old.
The Houston Astros have been tearing their major league roster apart since 2011. The team traded two of its best players in Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence that year, and in 2012 under new general manager Jeff Lunhow, the team continued to strip away its major league pieces for minor league parts. Yesterday, Rany Jazayerli of Grantland discussed the systematic wiping of the Astros' roster.
On the surface, the above paragraph could easily describe the Miami Marlins. The Marlins, just like the Astros, are going through hell over the next year or two to bring up their prospects to form a new nucleus of the future. Very few players of the now are going to be relevant cogs of the Miami Marlins of 2015. Right now, the job of the Marlins is to evaluate the young, cost-controlled players who do have a shot to be valuable in 2015 and see which ones will stick and which will falter.
So why were the Marlins ridiculed while a smart blogger like Jazayerli praises the Astros' future plan, even as he admits the current Astros team is more than deserving of ridicule? The difference lies in part in the above quote's first sentence.
Perhaps alone among all the teams on the above list, the Astros are there by design, and not the design of an owner simply looking to fill his coffers.
What is that supposed to mean? For Marlins fans, it seems almost obvious. While new Astros owner Jim Crane has met his share of problems on the way to purchasing the team, no one has yet to question his motives for the team. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has a strong reputation regarding his motives, and the prevailing idea is that he is more interested in making money off the franchise than building a winning product. As of late, those two paradigms are on opposite ends of the spectrum of team-building.
But the reason behind the sabermetric community's relative praise for the Astros' future plan is not boiled down simply to the owner. It speaks to a broader problem of credibility; the Astros seem to have it, while the Marlins do not.
Take a look at the front offices. The Astros' Lunhow was a former scouting director with the St. Louis Cardinals during a time in which the Cards had one of the best minor league systems in baseball. Lunhow helped build the current Cardinals up, and his work in the field has gotten notice. He also has a tendency to listen to sabermetric principles and advance statistics, something that is desperately needed in the league simply to catch up with other front offices.
Compare that to Larry Beinfest and his team. Beinfest has an unfortunately shoddy history in the draft over the last ten years and was in part responsible for the dearth of talent that was promoted in the late 2000's and early 2010's. The Marlins' minor league system ranked near last in each of the three years before this past offseason, and it was due to a series of poor drafts that were finally rectified by recent picks. Also, Beinfest and company have shown no inkling of interest in statistics and have proven they have very little knowledge on the matter based on the comments they have made in the past.
The Astros recently made good on their draft picks last season by utilizing their large sum of draft money and cutting deal with top pick Carlos Correa, who went cheaper than the slot for the top pick. That allowed the Astros to pay more for multiple talented selections in the later rounds who fell because of bonus demands. The Marlins would not be able to pull off a similar move due to the lack of draft funds they will have under the new slotting system. But in years past, when other small-market teams were taking advantage by paying large sums overslot to assure draft talent, the Marlins fell in line with the league and paid just about slot for all of their picks, opting for "safer" choices and signability over taking the risks that small-market teams need to take.
All of these factors go into why the Astros have credibility under their new regime and the Marlins do not. The Fish have bungled moves for years under the Beinfest regime, so they have lost a lot of their luster that they had from he World Series years. Lunhow and company have employed a necessary strategy that will keep them at the bottom for a season but should bring them competitiveness in a few years. The Marlins have done the same, but there is no guarantee that Jeffrey Loria will spend when the team is ready or that the Marlins will make the right moves to support a competitive franchise. There are no such questions at the time with Lunhow and the Astros' ownership.
The Marlins and the Astros are in the same place right now. Both clubs are in a heated race for dead last in baseball. If the Astros beat out the Fish, they will earn a third consecutive first pick in the draft. The Astros are well on their way to building a potential contender, even if the present is currently bleak. The Marlins are as well, but the credibility of their ownership and front office is the difference between the optimism surrounding the Astros and the dogged pessimism that continues to haunt the Fish.