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Marlins trying to avoid the treadmill of mediocrity

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The Miami Marlins want their fans to know that they understand that winning and losing cycles exist, and that the franchise is simply preparing for them to avoid everlasting mediocrity.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins are trying to go places in 2015 after suffering through an awful 2013 campaign and a surprising rebirth the following year. Jonah Keri of Grantland highlighted the thinking behind David Samson, Jeffrey Loria, and the front office of this franchise with regards to the Fish and noted how this team may be ready to finally settle in and compete for the long haul.

The one thing that is interesting that came out of this article was the quote from Samson that discusses the Marlins recognizing cycles of winning and losing.

"The Phillies had years of greatness; now they’re three years into a down cycle," Samson said. "A team like the Yankees, you’d think there’d never be a down cycle, but it happened from ’82 until the mid-’90s, and we’re now two years into a no-playoffs streak for them. The Braves won all those years; now they’re in a down cycle. The Rays had a terrible down cycle when they came into the league, then they went up, now they might be back down. The Marlins are just not viewed as charitably."

Samson wonders why a GM like Billy Beane could get away with years of down play from the A's in the late-2000's and come out unscathed while the Marlins, led by Larry Beinfest and later Michael Hill and Dan Jennings, look like villains after doing similar things. One could point out the fact that the A's never fully tanked, having won more than 70 games in each of those late-2000's seasons. Marlins fans want the team to appear to be competitive and trying, even as it undergoes a down cycle.

The Marlins, on the other hand, clearly subscribe to the theory of the "treadmill of mediocrity." The treadmill of mediocrity is a concept originally from the NBA, and the idea is simple: a middling team will never win a championship because a middling team will forever be stuck with middling players. If you are not a playoff contender, your best bet is not to hang around .500 or slightly below that, but instead it is to bottom out and start over with a fresh new core. The bottoming out serves the purpose of providing the team the best chance to attain a new superstar-caliber player out of the draft while not hurting its presents chances at the playoffs, which were already far off.

You can see this activity in the fire-sale trade of 2012-2013. The Marlins had no interest in fielding an expensive 70-win team, so they felt it necessary to deal away those players, start off with a fresh new core, and see how they would perform. Once the Marlins found that new core, now based around the re-signed Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Jose Fernandez, the team finally is ready to compete once again.

The treadmill to some degree affects the baseball world as well. The top players in the draft are indeed in the top picks. A look at this chart from a 2014 Hardball Times article should point that out.

NET DRAFT PICK VALUE, MARKET % VS WAR-BASED ARBITRATION MODEL
Draft Pick Pre-FA WAR Market Value $ Cost – Market % Net $ – Market % Cost – WAR Net $ – WAR
1-5 9.2 70.1 17.6 52.4 15.9 54.2
6-10 5.2 39.7 9.3 30.5 10.3 29.5
11-15 4.1 31.2 7.2 24.1 8.9 22.3
16-20 3.5 26.7 5.7 20.9 7.9 18.7
21-25 3.1 23.7 5.0 18.7 7.4 16.3
26-30 2.8 21.5 4.4 17.1 7.1 14.5
31-35 2.6 19.9 4.0 15.9 6.8 13.1
36-40 2.4 18.6 3.5 15.0 6.4 12.1
41-45 2.3 17.5 3.2 14.4 6.2 11.4
46-50 2.2 16.6 2.8 13.8 5.9 10.7

The top ten draft picks obviously produce the most wins, but more importantly, picks between the 16th selection and the 50th selection do not heavily differ in their expected value. If you are an 75-win Marlins team, you are not likely selecting a player a whole lot worse than the guys selected in the compensation rounds. Why bother being a "competitive" non-playoff team in the mid-70's win totals when it does not yield you a great draft pick or a chance at the playoffs? Continuing to do such a thing could lead you to be the Toronto Blue Jays, forever falling just shy of the playoffs in a tough division.

But the treadmill argument has some issues as well. Drafting high in the draft does not guarantee you a star by any means, and that is especially troublesome in baseball, where the impact of any individual star is far less than in basketball. In addition, the 75-80 win teams have added resources that allow them to make the push to contention. Spending money in baseball is significantly easier and leads to more improvement of your team than it does in basketball. With a salary cap structure and heavily-established markets where the best players choose to go, it is much harder for smaller-market areas to make improvements via free agency or retain superstars after trades.

The uncapped free structure of MLB does not face similar problems. Teams only face their own personal restrictions to payroll in attempting to sign big free agent names. And this is where the issue for the Marlins resides. The Fish had an opportunity years ago to take an 80-win team and turn it into a contender. The post-2006 core played its best baseball in 2008 through 2010, and it was consistently around 80 wins. A couple of high-variance additions or a solid signing at a position of need could have made a critical difference to the Marlins' chances in those seasons. Those teams stuck around until after 2012, but the Marlins never made the additions to those squads that was needed to put them over the hump. When they finally did in 2011, the season was marred by injury.

Financials also played a big role in 2012. A normal club may have looked at the early-season performance and decided that there was still enough talent to ride through the rest of the season to assess the team. Jeffrey Loria, in his rush to judgment on the team, labeled them a disaster and, in large part due to the financial implications of fielding a $100 million "disaster," triggered a recycling of the roster.

This is not something the A's do regularly, nor do the Tampa Bay Rays. Those teams have gone through up-and-down cycles, but they have found ways to support their team and, as noted by the franchise's win-loss records over the last 10 years, have remained fairly close to the forefront for an extended period of time. The Marlins claim that their franchise has done what the A's and Rays do without being ridiculed, but the Marlins have neither delivered the consistent success of the Rays' recent seven-year run at the top nor the playoff runs that the A's have brought to their franchise. Those front offices have managed more success, even if neither has reached the pinnacle like the Marlins did in 2003.

What has changed now is that Miami has a new stadium and a star who signed for the long haul. If the Marlins are serious about competing, they can try and emulate the success of those other small-market teams and create a longer-lasting run of success at the top without running into the treadmill of mediocrity.