LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The tear-down-and-rebuild model — sometimes referred to indelicately as tanking — has become an accepted and frequently successful strategy in baseball in recent years, whether it was the woeful late-2000s Washington Nationals turning back-to-back No. 1 overall picks into Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper or, more recently, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, with meticulous care and long-term planning, each going from 100-plus losses to World Series titles in four-year cycles.
Last year, the Chicago White Sox traded perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale and coveted leadoff man Adam Eaton for prospects, then dealt away lefty Jose Quintana seven months later, and they were widely praised for their decisive, realistic pivot to a teardown phase, with its promise of a future rebuild and a potential return to contention a few years down the road.
But this winter, something about the way the Miami Marlins have conducted their own version of a teardown has rankled plenty of people in baseball.
“We’ve seen one of our major league jewelry stores become a pawnshop,” superagent Scott Boras said Wednesday, outside of the media center at baseball’s annual winter meetings, when asked about the Marlins.
On Wednesday, the Marlins reportedly completed in principle a trade that would send outfielder Marcell Ozuna to the St. Louis Cardinals for a package of four prospects headed by 22-year-old right-handed pitcher Sandy Alcantara. Ozuna, a two-time all-star, is just 27, is coming off a breakthrough season (37 homers, 124 RBI) and is still two years from free agency.
With a relatively sleepy winter meetings nearing its end Thursday — with free agent markets, outside of the one for middle relievers, beset by inaction — the Marlins have almost single-handedly kept things interesting this week, though not exactly in a positive way.
The Ozuna trade came just five days after the Marlins sent Giancarlo Stanton — the most prolific slugger and the owner of the largest contract in the game — to the New York Yankees in a blockbuster deal that brought back second baseman Starlin Castro and two prospects. And it came just a week after the team shipped second baseman Dee Gordon to the Seattle Mariners for three prospects. With those deals done, speculation has turned to whether the Marlins might trade away 26-year-old center fielder Christian Yelich.
By the end of last year — when the Marlins, at 77-85, finished a distant second to the Nationals in the National League East division — Yelich, Ozuna and Stanton composed arguably the best outfield in the National League, and now two of those players are gone (the Ozuna deal is pending physical exams), with the third possibly on his way out.
The Marlins’ extreme version of a teardown comes in the aftermath of the sale of the franchise from Jeffrey Loria to a group headed by businessman Bruce Sherman and legendary former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. The Sherman/Jeter group paid $1.2 billion for the team and assumed $400 million in debt — in the form of salary commitments — some $300 million of which has been wiped out through the trades of Gordon, Stanton and Ozuna.
The Marlins say the moves, while painful, were necessary to undo the mistakes of the previous regime, to get the 2018 payroll down to around $90 million, to rebuild a neglected farm system and to stabilize the franchise to pave the way for a rebuild. But the owners are also reportedly seeking $250 million in investment capital, raising concerns about their financial wherewithal to compete.
“There may be some unpopular decisions at times, but we are trying to fix something that is broken,” Jeter said this week in a conference call with reporters. “We are going to invest in building this organization the right way so we can, year in and year out, be able to compete.”
But as the (very famous) face of the Marlins’ new ownership group, Jeter has been widely criticized for his stewardship of the franchise during this tumultuous phase — including a series of clumsy firings, such as that of a scout who was reportedly dismissed while in a hospital recovering from cancer surgery.
The Stanton trade itself — while perhaps a necessary step on its face for a franchise that needed to be stripped down to survive — was a monumental series of missteps, with its false starts, clumsy threats and embarrassing twists that infuriated Stanton himself. And to cap it off, Jeter decided not to show up for this week’s winter meetings, where he would have faced intense media scrutiny over the Marlins’ direction and methods.
“Derek may be the first to admit, ‘Hey, I would do some things maybe a little differently,’ ” Marlins Manager Don Mattingly said, comparing Jeter’s growing pains as an executive with the ones he faced as a player, when he made 56 errors his first year in the minors. “We know what happened after that. . . . He’s got a lot on his plate, a lot going on, a lot happening very fast. I have to make adjustments as a manager. [General Manager] Mike Hill has to make adjustments. I’m sure Derek, in his own mind, will make the adjustments that he has to make.”
In the Marlins’ 25 years of existence, no other franchise’s fan base has been put through such extreme highs and lows. The World Series titles of 1997 and 2003 still mark the Marlins’ only playoff appearances, and the first of those titles was followed by a fire sale that led to a 108-loss season in 1998.
The Marlins haven’t had so much as an above-.500 finish since 2009, and despite the opening of a gleaming new stadium, Marlins Park, in 2012, they have finished last in the NL in attendance in 12 of the past 13 seasons.
Trading away most of their best players certainly isn’t going to help the Marlins in either the standings or the attendance rankings, at least not in the short term. And long-term success, of the sort witnessed at the end of rebuilding processes in places such as Chicago and Houston, depends largely upon smart, clear-eyed management.
It’s still early in the process, but at least so far, the Jeter regime hasn’t inspired much confidence that it is capable of steering the Marlins safely to the other side.