Accepting the Marlins Inevitable Reality (It Was Clear from the Get-go)

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In today’s New York Times, Tyler Kepner writes about the empty seats in Marlins Park; about the gutting of the franchise; and the possibly bright future the Marlins have because of all the prospects they accumulated in trades of veterans.

We can go into the lack of attendance and perceived wrongdoing of owner Jeffrey Loria, but what he does is in the same ballpark (pardon the dual entendre) of what the Astros are currently doing, but the Astros are receiving widespread praise for putting together a big league club that is a big league club in name only. Weeks ago, I gave Astros owner Jim Crane a written lashing for his arrogant statements that if fans want the team to spend money, they should write him a check among other, “I’m a big shot, you’re not” alpha male nonsense, but no one else did. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is a stat guy centerfold and little criticism is heading the way of their front office in spite of their on-field atrocity.

The political machinations that got Marlins Park built, predominately at the expense of Floridians, is still being sorted out with allegations, accusations and SEC investigations. Does anyone really believe that the investigation will amount to much, if any penalties for the likes of Loria or the powerbrokers who facilitated him getting his new park and not paying for it? Loria fits every small bit of chicanery into the flexible rules under which he operates. Similar to the Astros within-the-rules stripping of their payroll to the bare minimum and putting a team on the field that on most days is non-competitive against legitimate Major League teams, there’s no rule saying Loria can’t sign free agents and trade them a year later; that he can’t fire his manager Ozzie Guillen one year into a four year contract; that he can’t take the benefits from the new park, pocket the profits and flip a chubby middle finger at anyone who dares question him.

The Marlins were a disappointment in 2012. Loria was right to fire Guillen for the poor job he did on the field and the ridiculous statement he made early in the season praising Fidel Castro. He had options rather than gutting the club (again) by retooling with a different manager and a tweak here and there to give it another shot in 2013. But it wouldn’t have made a difference with the fans if the Marlins were contending in 2013 with a manager who didn’t alienate a vast portion of the fans they hoped to attract. It wasn’t and isn’t going to work in Miami because the fans aren’t interested.

The Marlins attendance improved dramatically last season in comparison to 2011. During that year, their usual numbers were between 10,000 and 20,000. It was an annual problem. When there were higher attendance figures, it stemmed from ancillary attractions like the Mets and Dodgers fans who’ve relocated to Florida and wanted to watch their teams. One the one hand, it’s not fair to question the reasons the fans are coming—their money is just as green regardless which club they’re rooting for—but on the other, the Marlins can look at the increase in attendance and realize that it’s fleeting and say, “Yeah, but they didn’t come to see us,” and act accordingly.

In 2012, the attendance was better than it was when they played in Sun Life Stadium, a football facility. With the new park, they regularly drew crowds of nearly 30,000 and finished twelfth in the National League in attendance. That’s counting the second half after they’d conceded the season and traded Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Before 2012, they were annually at the bottom in attendance going back 15 years. In 1997, when they spent a ton of money and won the World Series, they were fifth in the National League in attendance, but it’s petered out and whether the team was good or not, the fans don’t have the passion. Since then, it’s gone rapidly downhill and even after they won another World Series in 2003, there wasn’t the usual accompanying attendance spike. The Marlins have stayed anchored to the bottom of the ocean of attendance.

And that’s the point. The Miami fans are not fickle, hammering home the point that the new park shouldn’t have been built in the first place. If someone stood up and told Loria to take his threats and his team and move if that’s what he had to do, none of the other stuff—the park, the investigation, the free agents, the trades, the faux anguish—would’ve happened. If he received a new park in San Antonio, Oregon, North Carolina or anywhere, the overwhelming probability is that he would’ve moved and done the exact same thing that he does in Miami—bought people’s favor, made promises and then utilized flexible statements and semantics to justify the gutting of the team and defend against accusations of ruthless profiteering. He’s a combination of a politician and a classically brutal businessman. He may want to have a team that wins, but when he sees that it’s not going to happen, all bets are off. It’s admirable in its way if you know what you’re dealing with going in.

Amid all the head shaking and abuse raining down on Loria, it all goes back to the initial mistake: giving in to his threats to move the club and Florida allowing him to get his park without paying for it. No one should be surprised, chagrined, or angry at the Marlins method of doing business. The system was rife for abuse and Loria abused it. There was no other way this could’ve ended and if the traded players Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, et al, didn’t see it coming; if the people who could’ve stopped the park from being built didn’t make a greater effort to do so; if MLB is allowing clubs like the Marlins and Astros to do whatever they want in their own best interests, then it’s on them for allowing it to happen. Lamenting it after the fact as if the money spent on the park would’ve been better-used for charitable causes is ludicrous. The Monday morning quarterbacking is done so in the same vein as the original decision to let the Marlins build the park. It was done for expediency and self-interest. The park wasn’t for the fans nor was it to “save” baseball in Miami because baseball in Miami can’t be saved. They don’t care whether it’s there or not.

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Did Ozzie Guillen Deserve to be Fired and What’s Next for the Marlins?

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After his firing as manager, Ozzie Guillen will receive $7.5 million over the next three years under the terms of the 4-year contract he signed when the Marlins acquired his rights from the White Sox at the conclusion of the 2011 season. Since they waited two weeks from the end of the 2012 season to pull the trigger, I thought that Guillen might get another shot to start the 2013 season, but the Marlins cut the ties and it’s understandable.

When a person is known for his shtick and pushing the envelope with, “he did not just say that,” level comments, the line between candor and self-immolation becomes blurred. A vast chunk of what Guillen says is simply for the sake of taking the pressure off his players and bringing the spotlight onto him. He doesn’t know when to stop and this is how he gets into trouble with statements of “love” for Fidel Castro—a reviled figure in the town in which Guillen had just signed on to manage for four seasons. For a club that was struggling and desperate to bring fans into their new ballpark and whose targeted fanbase includes a large number of Cuban expatriates, escapees, and descendants of people who lived under the oppression that accompanies a communist, dictatorial state, the laudatory comments about their nemesis was a fireable offense when he said it. The Marlins suspended Guillen, gave him another chance and it wasn’t his comments that were the impetus of his dismissal, but that the team didn’t respond to him on the field.

The Marlins are now examining what went wrong in 2012 and the first two things they did was jettison the two most prominent instigators, Heath Bell—who was traded to the Diamondbacks—and Guillen. After a second half full of rumors and innuendo debating who owner Jeffrey Loria was going to fire among the front office and field staff; which players would be next to follow Hanley Ramirez, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez, and others out the door, they got rid of Bell and Guillen and kept Larry Beinfest and his baseball staff.

In defense of the Marlins under Loria, they’ve had remarkable front office stability and treat the manager as a disposable entity that can be quickly replaced. Because the Marlins have made their managerial changes in a ham-handed fashion and made headlines with the decision, for example, to hire the 81-year-old Jack McKeon in 2011, there’s a perception that the firing of the manager is an inherent problem with the team. But if they were winning after doing it, there wouldn’t be the negative connotations. Loria had fired his friend Jeff Torborg in 2003, hired McKeon and the team won the World Series. The criticism is always in retrospect and contingent on whether or not the decision worked.

“What did they expect from Guillen?” is an unfair question to ask. Loria knew his new manager was controversial and would say things to generate headlines, but no one in their right mind could have foreseen the immediate uproar from pro-Castro comments for someone who’d just taken a job in Miami no less.

A 69-93 season amid the lavish outlays for star players and the talent on the club was unacceptable even if the team was injured and gutted at mid-season. Before they cleaned out the house, they were in mid-plummet and had widely become an industry-wide laughingstock. So yes, he deserved to be fired.

Guillen is young enough (48) and has a resume to get another managing job, but it won’t be in a new age situation where the GM is the boss and the manager is a mid-level functionary there to implement edicts coming from above. It would have to be a situation like that of the Dodgers where the front office is willing to take risks and wants to, as the Marlins did, generate buzz. Guillen is not an empty vessel designed to attract attention like a talentless sing-and-dance act that is created to sell a load of songs, records, and tickets, get the money and get out. He’s a good manager. We didn’t see that in Miami for a multitude of reasons, but most of those reasons were that the players didn’t perform.

The Marlins are rumored to be taking the young and cheap route when it comes to a replacement manager, probably with one of their minor league managers, Mike Redmond. Redmond was a member of the 2003 Marlins’ championship team and was also a respected backup to Joe Mauer with the Twins for a long time. He won’t take any nonsense, but with Bell gone the only nonsense he’ll presumably be dealing with will come from Loria himself and the speculation of when Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle are traded.

Even though they wound up 12th in the National League in attendance, the Marlins still drew over 2 million fans to their new park and experienced an increase of 700,000 in the number of people that came to watch them play. Had they been any good and contending, that number would probably have approached 3 million. If they’re retooling or rebuilding will determine what they’ll look like in 2013. Eliminating Bell and Guillen from the equation was a necessary first step back toward respect and respectability.

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What To Watch For Over The Final Month—National League

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I discussed the American League and what to watch for over the final month on Thursday along with a warning for those seeing the Wild Card as an oasis in the desert. It’s not.

Now let’s take a look at the National League.

The Nationals shutdown of Stephen Strasburg

I’m planning a more in-depth discussion of this in an upcoming post, but Strasburg’s imminent shutdown has become the dominant story for a team that should be talking about the positive aspects of their rise to a legitimate championship contender instead of this Strasburg silliness.

I’m beginning to believe that they’re not going to shut him down and as an organization, they’re coming up with alternatives to: A) keep his innings limit within reason and use him in the playoffs; and B) create a story to sell to the media as to why they fudged on their prescribed innings limit.

A really isn’t all that difficult. Their lead in the division is secure enough that they can give him extra rest in September. B shouldn’t even be a factor, but since GM Mike Rizzo has been so stupidly forthright regarding his plans, it is a factor.

Don’t be shocked when Strasburg is standing on the mound and starting in game 2 of the NLDS.

Chipper Jones’s farewell tribute from the Mets

I gotta see this thing.

Jimmy Rollins’s behavior

He’s being selfish and setting a terrible example for the rest of the team with his lack of hustle, embarrassing for the supposed “heart and soul” and clubhouse leader. Manager Charlie Manuel’s benching of Rollins and Rollins’s subsequent apology isn’t worth much since he’s definitely going to do it again over the final month, probably multiple times.

Rollins is guaranteed $22 million for 2013-2014 and he has a vesting option for 2015 that he won’t reach based on the contract kickers of plate appearances (the Phillies won’t let him), but if the contract doesn’t vest, the club has an $8 million option that they won’t exercise and Rollins has a $5 million option that, at age 36 and with his performance declining and his reputation soiled, he very well might exercise to get one last paycheck. So the contract actually calls for him to make $27 million through 2015.

The “everything is hunky dory” tone of the Rollins apology story glosses over the facts that he’s declining as a player, is signed for several more years, and the Phillies on the whole are old, expensive and not good.

The Marlins attendance

They’re currently 12th in attendance which is a step up from finishing last every season, but in context with a beautiful, brand new park and a team that had spent money to try and win, one would think they’d have been better than 12th—a position they’ve held steady from the beginning of the season until now.

They’re in last place and traded away most of their stars. They’re not likable, nor are they fun to watch. Football season is starting next week. No one’s going to pay attention to the Marlins and no one’s going to go to the games.

I’m not sure where they, as an organization, go from here. The fans just don’t care.

Dusty Baker’s contract

It’s not right that Baker has the Reds steamrolling towards the playoffs, has done a fine job in handling the club from top-to-bottom, and is functioning without a new contract. One would assume that he’s safe, but he also led the Giants to the World Series in 2002 and was out of a job that winter in a contract-based dispute that turned ugly. I would say he’ll definitely be back, but in 2002 I would’ve said the same thing.

The Dodgers playoff push

With all the headline-blaring moves they made, their playoff spot is far from guaranteed. Now they may have lost closer Kenley Jansen for the season with a heart ailment. He’ll find out on Tuesday if he can pitch again this season. If they lose Jansen, they have two options: 1) use someone they already have on the roster like Brandon League; 2) trade for someone for the month of September to make the playoffs and use Jansen when he’s able to pitch again.

Considering the moves they’ve made this season, I’d say they’re going to lay the foundation to trade for someone who can do the job if League falters and Jansen’s out. GM Ned Colletti is probably making calls now to that end.

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Figures of Attendance, Part I–the Mets, Rays and Marlins

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In today’s NY Times, amid the accolades doled out on R.A. Dickey for another superlative performance, the attendance situation surrounding the Mets is discussed. GM Sandy Alderson all but said he’s keeping veteran outfielder Scott Hairston in spite of his attractiveness on the trade market as a power righty bat off the bench and as an occasional starter because wins help credibility and he might help the team win a few extra games.

It’s very easy to criticize the decision and say that once a team is guaranteed of missing the playoffs that there’s no difference between winning 76 games, 66 games of 56 games. Apart from the requisite jokes of a team being so terrible that they lose over 100 games, there’s some logic in the theory. Specifically, in his book The Extra 2% about the Rays, Jonah Keri said that the Rays new ownership and management team knew they were awful and shunned the idea of wasting money and resources to bring in players that would likely have helped them win 5 or so more games, but wouldn’t have done much of anything to help them in the long term.

The Rays could do that because they were such a perennial laughingstock and no one knew what to make of the financial guys who’d taken over the team. Given the moves they did make—changing the name, appearing to be afraid of making a mistake in trades to the point that they were frozen in time—there was much to ridicule. But bolstered by the high draft picks; some truly savvy trades; clever long-term contracts and service time sleight of hand; and more than a little luck, the Rays have become the case study of building a winning team under a strict budget.

That the Rays have made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 years and have a chance to make it again this year doesn’t alter the fact that their attendance is 13th out of 14 AL teams in 2012; was 13th last season; 9th in 2010; 11th in 2009 coming off their pennant in 2008; and were 12th in 2008. In 2007, they lost 96 games and were last with almost 1.4 million fans coming to Tropicana Field. They’ve gained around 400,000 people a season since they started winning. That’s not good.

The Marlins have a new ballpark and went on a spending spree to try and win. Non-baseball-related amenities and attractions were installed in Marlins Park with the undertone of ownership not caring why people were coming to the park; whether they were there to watch the game, go to a restaurant or nightclub, get a haircut or just look at women mattered little. Attendance hasn’t risen to the levels they desired and the 51-61 Marlins are 12th in the National League. That’s after being last from 2006-2011 and next to last in 2005; 14th in 2004 (coming off a World Series win); and next to last in 2003 when they did win the World Series.

If the Rays think a new park in St. Petersburg or wherever else in Florida they can find the space and get the approval to build one is going to help, they need only to look at the other Florida franchise to see the truth. And good luck after the way the Marlins ballpark was built with the subsequent investigations into the shady practices that were its genesis.

With mercenaries; corporate entities; team bosses who think their installation was based on merit and not on marrying someone; and questionable ethics and morals, the Marlins are getting what many think they deserve. It gets worse from here.

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Hanley Ramirez’s Brother From Another Mother…And Father

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Hanley Ramirez and Manny Ramirez are basically the same person with Hanley never putting up the numbers that Manny did to justify his self-centered and petulant behaviors.

Hanley, like Manny, forced his way out of his playing venue and wound up with the Dodgers. Manny did it with years of abuse and borderline acts that would’ve gotten him put into jail had they been perpetrated in society and not in the insular world of baseball. Hanley did it with constant tantrums and long stretches of lackadaisical play. Also like Manny, Hanley is going to the Dodgers and will go on a tear for the rest of the season, playing the part of the good teammate and leaving the team, fans and media members to wonder why such a wonderful, hard-working individual was so misunderstood by his prior employer.

Neither player has been misunderstood.

Let’s look at the trade of Hanley Ramirez and what to expect going forward.

Pennies on the dollar

Given his talent and that the Marlins were so resistant to trading him for this long, getting Nathan Eovaldi and a minor leaguer in exchange for Hanley and Randy Choate is a letdown and the equivalent of tossing their hands in the air and saying, “Get this guy outta here already.” Eovaldi has good stuff and that the Dodgers traded a member of their starting rotation is indicative of the confidence that Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti feels in getting a starter (Ryan Dempster?) in the near future. Hanley was once a top ten player in baseball. Now, he’s not.

The problem a player has when he has a toxic reputation is that when he doesn’t play as well as he once did, the ancillary aspects are no longer explainable. With Manny, the phrase “Manny being Manny” was a term of endearment for those who didn’t have to deal with him on a daily basis; once he became unproductive and still behaved like it was his divine right to be an obnoxious, entitled jerk because he could hit, nobody wanted him around.

I didn’t think the Marlins were going to trade Hanley in-season and wrote that. That they did move him says there are serious structural changes coming to the Marlins and that they felt they had to get rid of him, period.

For all the incidents with Hanley (the ones that we know about), there was a constant circuit breaker in any attempts to discipline him: owner Jeffrey Loria. Loria treated Hanley like his son, enabled him and sabotaged his managers, front office people and advisers who either wanted to get rid of Hanley or do something significant to rein him in. Former players who confronted Hanley like Dan Uggla were dispatched while Hanley was the one Marlins star who was rewarded with a lucrative contract. Like Mike Tyson was coddled by Cus D’Amato with the refrain to Teddy Atlas, “This kid is a special case,” Hanley did what he wanted, when he wanted. Like Atlas, the Marlins had quality people tossed overboard in the choice between Hanley and anyone else.

When Loria had had enough and sent Andre Dawson and Tony Perez to discipline him, Hanley knew in the back of his mind that even if Dawson did as he threatened he would do and knock him out if he said the wrong thing, nothing was going to be done because he had the owner in his corner.

It was eerily predictable that Hanley was not going to be happy with the shift to third base in favor of Jose Reyes. Simple on paper, it wasn’t taken into account the macho perception stemming from where Hanley and Reyes grew up; that it would be seen as an usurping of Hanley’s territory for Reyes to be installed and Hanley moved to accommodate him; that Reyes got the money that Hanley didn’t; that the financial and practical idea of Reyes being “better” than Hanley would eat at his ego.

The Marlins bought a load of expensive baubles to decorate their new home without an interior designer’s input. The gaudy and cold emptiness is evident in the lack of cohesion among the roster.

How does this affect the Marlins?

Yes, they have quality baseball people in their front office in Larry Beinfest, Michael Hill and Dan Jennings, but there was very little in-depth baseball analysis put into practice when the Marlins Scotch-taped this team together. It was buy this, buy that and hope the team wins and the fans show up. The team hasn’t won and the fans haven’t shown up.

It’s not easy to run a club when there’s a mandate to keep costs down one year; to buy players the next; to do things that aren’t predicated on winning, but on the owner’s whims and needs to validate a new park built on the public’s dime. Beinfest has done the best he can under the circumstances. Don’t be stunned when it starts leaking out that there were significant members of the Marlins’ baseball operations team that wanted to trade Hanley two years ago and were prevented from pulling the trigger on better packages than what they eventually got.

The admiration for taking decisive action when the “plan” isn’t working is tempered by fan apathy. The majority of those in Miami aren’t going to notice whether Hanley’s there or not in a manner similar to them not paying attention to what the Marlins are doing at all. It’s easier to clean house when you don’t have any guests and the Marlins’ 12th place position in attendance is bound to get worse because the fans that were going to see baseball—and not get a haircut, visit an aquarium or ostentatious Miami nightspot—aren’t going to the park to watch a team that’s soon to be ten games under .500 and is, for all intents and purposes, eliminated from contention.

Like the Rays and A’s, the Marlins operate in an ambivalent vacuum where their ability to trade anyone and everyone is linked to the disinterest they generate. Nobody cares therefore nobody notices therefore it doesn’t negatively affect the business.

It’s been reported that the Marlins aren’t tearing the whole thing down so I wouldn’t expect Reyes, Mark Buehrle or Giancarlo Stanton to be traded. They’ve gotten themselves two very talented young starting pitchers in Eovaldi and Jacob Turner. But Carlos Lee, Logan Morrison, John Buck, Carlos Zambrano, Ricky Nolasco and Heath Bell (if anyone will take him) should have their bags packed.

They’ve tossed in the towel on this season because it didn’t work and the “Hanley’s fine with the move to third; fine with the money others are getting; fine with the direction of the franchise,” turned out to be cover stories for the obvious truth: it wasn’t going to work. And it didn’t.

How does this affect the Dodgers?

The Dodgers traded for Manny and the Manny package. They got the good Manny and almost went to the World Series. In a mediocre, parity-laden National League, that could happen again this season. They re-signed Manny for a lot of money and watched as he got hurt and was suspended for PEDs.

Manny was being Manny.

They just traded for Hanley and the Hanley package. They’ll get the good Hanley from now to the end of the season and presumably for 2013 because he’ll be looking for a long-term contract. His current deal expires after 2014. By mid-2013, it he’s playing well, he’ll let it be known how much he “loves” Los Angeles and wants to stay there for “the rest of his career.” That’s player speak for “Give me an extension. Now.”

With their new ownership and that Hanley’s going to revert to the superstar he was three years ago, they’ll pay him and keep him. Whether he’s going to repeat the Manny-style downfall and the behaviors that got him dumped from the Marlins and cast out by his surrogate father—Loria—remain to be seen, but judging from his history it’s not hard to imagine Hanley wearing out his welcome with the Dodgers and being back on the trading block not because of his salary or that it would improve the team, but because the Dodgers will realize what the Marlins did and say, “We hafta get him outta here,” due to his overt selfishness and team-destroying antics.

It’s not difficult to foresee—like the failures of the 2012 Marlins.

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