During the winter of 1996, the Florida Marlins shocked the baseball world and altered its financial landscape by spending almost $90 million on new players, including $18 million per season for Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, and Alex Fernandez. Fifteen years later, the now Miami Marlins are at it again.
Two days after signing Heath Bell to a three-year, $27 million contract, the Marlins also reeled in Jose Reyes, who was inked to a six-year, $106 million deal. The combined amount owed to both men in 2012 is almost 30% more than the team paid its entire roster just four seasons ago. And, if rumors are correct, the team isn’t done spending yet, with several impact names like C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle and even Albert Pujols reportedly still in play.
Wayne Huizenga’s lavish Hot Stove spending resulted in a World Series title in 1997, but the championship was largely overshadowed by the fire sale that followed shortly thereafter. Almost immediately after Edgar Renteria’s game winning base hit in game seven bounced past the outstretched glove of Tony Fernandez, the Marlins began slashing payroll. Huizenga cited mounting financial losses for his decision to dismantle a championship team, but subsequent analyses suggested the 1997 Marlins were profitable and the fire sale was nothing more than part of a plan to sell the team. It’s impossible to say how much Huizenga’s decision stunted the growth of baseball in South Florida, but the team’s attendance has never come close to the 2.3 million fans who watched the team in 1997.
As in 1996, there are some underlying financial motives to new owner Jeffrey Loria’s open-wallet policy. In 2012, the rebranded Miami Marlins will open up a new publicly-financed ballpark (which is currently be investigated by the SEC), and the goal is to field a competitive team during the inaugural season. Loria seems to be banking on the combination of a new ballpark and a winning team rejuvenating fan interest in the region, but what if he is wrong? The Marlins’ new stadium in Miami has been considered by some to be a big gamble for both the team and the municipality, and now, with an inflated payroll, Loria seems to be doubling down.
If the Marlins increase payroll to $100 million, but revenues do not increase as expected, could baseball be in store for another fire sale? Considering the long-term commitment to South Florida indicated by the new stadium, that doesn’t seem as likely, but it’s worth noting the team has so far refused to include no-trade clauses in their contract offers, as reported by the MLB Network’s Peter Gammons. The economics of baseball in Miami are impossible to forecast, but if the Marlins continue to add top-level talent, and can keep existing young superstars like Mike Stanton, Josh Johnson, and Hanley Ramirez, it wouldn’t take a crystal ball to predict long-term success on the field. Unfortunately, it’s also not hard to envision another fire sale.