Late last week, Jonah Keri of Grantland wrote an excellent piece about trying to understand the Miami Marlins in their latest wave of attempt at being competitive. The Fish are trying to contend around Giancarlo Stanton, whom they signed to the richest contract in American sports history.
Keri specifically asks what the difference is between now and a similar situation seven years ago, when the Marlins failed to sign Miguel Cabrera and traded him away with the same amount of service clock left until free agency.
What changed? How did the Marlins go from a frequently penny-pinching club that couldn’t find the money to sign future first-ballot Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera to a team that just paid Giancarlo Stanton $325 million1 before making a slew of other offseason moves intended to turn Miami into a consistent contender? After 22 tumultuous years for the franchise, why do the Marlins now believe they are financially secure enough to pay their best player a third of a billion dollars and talented enough to compete for a playoff spot — not only in 2015, but also for years to come?
"That’s a long story," said David Samson, the Marlins president since 2002 and likely the only man in baseball who can talk for 20 minutes without taking a single breath.
The story may be long, but a lot of the story is in fact the same. Seven years later, the situations remain the same and there is very little difference between the two teams, as we have mentioned multiple times here.
The 2007-2008 Team
Take yourself back to 2007 and 2008 as a Marlins fan, but forget the Cabrera trade. Imagine a roster with Cabrera on board. Imagine if the Marlins had just dealt Willis to the Tigers and signed Cabrera to a long-term extension akin to the eventual eight-year, $160 million contract he took. The roster the Fish would have boasted was a frightening one. Recall that the Marlins in 2008 had all four of their infielders knock 20-plus home runs, and just missed the boat on a four-infielder 30-homer campaign by one. Replace Jorge Cantu at third base with Miguel Cabrera and you have yourself a winning combination.
The comparison obviously goes beyond home runs. At the time, the Marlins had one bonafide star standing next to Cabrera in Hanley Ramirez. That matches the 2014-2015 version of the roster, which clearly has Jose Fernandez as approaching Stanton's star power. Ramirez had just finished a monster six-win season, and he would go on to post two more MVP-caliber years and another All-Star campaign before succumbing to injuries and the growing tide of resentment towards him in 2011. The duo of Ramirez and Cabrera under team control through the mid-2010's would have been terrifying for opposing pitchers.
The roster was not bereft of talent beyond that. Jeremy Hermida just came off a strong second half and was showing promise off of his prospect pedigree. You could reasonably have said, at that point, that Hermida figured prominently in the team's future, even though he eventually failed. Dan Uggla was not young at age 27 at the time, but he had multiple team-controlled years left and just put up a 30-homer campaign at second base.
The problem with the roster at the time was that the young, vaunted pitching staff had not yet declared itself. Coming off of the 2006 season, you would have had an easier argument for the Marlins' starting staff being part of a strong supporting cast around Cabrera. Josh Johnson had just put up a fourth-place Rookie of the Year showing, Anibal Sanchez just threw a no-hitter, and the rest of the staff looked reasonable. But the 2007 season featured two major injuries to those guys and poor performances from Scott Olsen and Ricky Nolasco, so it was tough to see where this staff would have gone from there.
The benefit of hindsight tells us a better tale. Johnson became an ace from 2008 through 2010 until he suffered a shoulder injury. Anibal Sanchez developed into a three- to four-win starter and helped anchor the roster. Even Ricky Nolasco had his moments between 2008 and his departure in 2012, and he would have served as an excellent back-of-the-rotation starter for a competitive franchise from that time period.
Overall, that supporting cast from 2006-2007 should have been young and talented enough to convince Miami to stick with Miguel Cabrera at the time. So why did the Fish bail?
The primary difference between then and now is simply a matter of financial concerns. The Marlins did not believe they had the financial stability, to Jeffrey Loria's standards, at the time to warrant a major contract extension for Cabrera the likes of which he eventually received. The reason seems obvious now: at the time, the Fish had not received the promise of the new stadium. The Marlins traded the core of the 2003 squad pre-2006 particularly because they had failed to reach the playoffs for two years and the team had not secured a stadium bid. Miami had the same issue in 2007; coming off of an injury-riddled 71-win campaign, the Fish saw no need to invest heavily on a star if the promise of better cash flow in the coming years was not happening.
Ironically enough, a mere two months later, the Marlins got the promise they were looking for, with Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami agreeing to fund a new ballpark in early 2008. Of course, two years of meddling from outside parties due to the controversial financing of the deal came about, and the Marlins would not eventually begin construction until 2010, but the team got the ball rolling on a ballpark deal a mere two months after they dealt Cabrera.
Now, the situation has changed. The Marlins have a semblance of cash revenue from the new stadium, owing to the fact that the franchise pockets nearly 100 percent of the money from the park. The Fish may have "corrected" to a league-low payroll again in 2013, but a lot of that seemingly had to do with Loria's lack of faith in that particular group. The franchise has bumped its payroll up to $65 million this season and plans to increase it slightly as the years progress.
A large part of those increases have to do with Stanton's contract, which pays him just $6.5 million this year but goes up to $14 million next season. Miami has his contract planned out well, with the team expecting a boost in revenue with competitive play and a newly negotiated TV contract in 2018. The difference between now and 2007 has nothing to do with the core of talent around the two superstars, as the core was very similar from before and now. Miami still had holes back then like it has holes in its current roster. The reason why Loria and company feel they can invest in Stanton and fill those holes around him is because of the stadium's promise. Let's hope they deliver on that.