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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National League Ticking Tempers Of Ownership

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Earlier I looked at the American League’s ownerships that are (or should be) getting antsy.

Now, let’s look at the National League.

Miami Marlins

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

Put it this way: in spite owner Jeffrey Loria’s past decisions that have been seen as running the gamut from unethical to outright illegal, he spent money on players and a manager this past winter.

With his pro-Fidel Castro comments, the manager they hired, Ozzie Guillen, put the organization in an embarrassing position and almost sunk the ship just after it had been christened. The new Marlins Park is located in Little Havana and they’re trying desperately to cultivate the baseball-loving Cuban-American crowd to bolster their attendance. That attendance is flagging. Guillen’s personality has appeared somewhat subdued following his suspension and apology. They didn’t hire Guillen-lite; they hired outrageous Ozzie who can manage players, win and draw attention to himself.

Clearly praising Castro didn’t fall into that mandate.

On the field, they’re 8-13 and 15th in the National League in runs scored. Two of their big-name free agents, Jose Reyes and Heath Bell, have been terrible. Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton and Gaby Sanchez aren’t hitting. Ace Josh Johnson has gotten rocked in three of his five starts.

They’re not getting what they paid for.

What should be done?

Maybe that should be phrased: What could be done rather than what should be done.

They could demote Bell from the closer’s role, but won’t.

They could put the word out that they want to get rid of Hanley Ramirez, but won’t.

They could fire a couple of coaches, but won’t. (It would make Guillen look bad if his coaching staff was messed with in his first month on the job.)

There aren’t many “shoulds” that would help them more than the players and manager they signed/traded for doing their jobs and earning their paychecks.

What will be done?

Loria’s George Steinbrenner side has been evident since he bought his way into baseball.

He’s not going to jump out front and center yet. Within the next week, if the Marlins keep playing like this, Loria’s son-in-law/hatchet man/flunky/team president David Samson will utter a few choice comments in the media that will generate attention. There might be vague threats of looming changes or random, stream of consciousness demands that the manager and coaching staff “do something”.

If that doesn’t work, by May 20th or so, Loria will have his own explosion. Something—a demotion of a Sanchez or Stanton; a benching of Ramirez or Reyes; Bell being relegated to the seventh or eighth inning—will happen.

I can’t say he’s wrong either.

Chicago Cubs

Does ownership have a right to be upset?

No.

I’m quite sure that when Theo Epstein was anointed (not interviewed, anointed) to take over as team president, he told owner Tom Ricketts that the entire farm system needed to be rebuilt, he’d have to clear some dead weight from the big league roster and unless they got some above and beyond the call of duty returns to glory from the likes of Alfonso Soriano, they were going to have a lean year or two. Since Ricketts hired Epstein and let him bring in Jed Hoyer as GM and surrendered actual players to the Red Sox and Padres to get both, he accepted this analysis and is willing to deal with the fallout.

It helps that the Cubs’ fans’ loyalties are such that they’ll support the team whether they win 70 games or 90s games. In 2012, it’s going to be the former.

What should and what will be done?

Under Epstein, the Cubs will do what they should do.

They’ll get rid of Soriano at some point. Even with the remaining $54 million from 2012-2014, the money’s gone; he’s untradeable. Cutting him makes sense.

Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, Matt Garza and even Geovany Soto will attract interest on the market and the Cubs can and should explore every opportunity to get multiple pieces and shave payroll to make themselves better for the year they’re planning on making a legitimate run: 2014.

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