Not long ago, the Miami Marlins were breaking ground on a new stadium. Now, they are breaking up their team. Yesterday, the Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays pulled off a blockbuster, 12-player deal that would make members of a fantasy league blush. No stranger to a fire sale, the Marlins again decided to unload their most expensive contracts, and the Blue Jays were more than happy to take the lot.
From a baseball perspective, the Marlins side of the deal is pretty simple. Over the remaining years of each respective contract, the team owed approximately $167 million to Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and John Buck. In 2012, that quartet posted a combined bWAR of approximately 10. For a team like the Marlins, who are coming off a disappointing 93-loss season, that math simply doesn’t add up. So, as it has done repeatedly over the course of its short history, the franchise decided to make an abrupt about-face (click here and here for foreshadowing of the Marlins’ fire sale from last December).
Not surprisingly, the Marlins, and particularly owner Jeffrey Loria, have drawn heavy criticism for their decision to throw in the towel on another season (and, perhaps, the viability of baseball in Miami). However, what chances did the team really have with its flawed roster? Although Reyes, Buehrle and Johnson are solid major leaguers at their worst, all three have red flags in their recent past, so, it’s not hard to understand why the team would wave a white one. With the recent trades of Heath Bell and Hanley Ramirez, last night’s blockbuster was really nothing more than a continuation of the mulligan the organization decided to take soon after realizing the folly of its spending spree last winter.
If not for the Marlins’ past reputation, this deal probably wouldn’t be viewed as critically. However, this most recent fire sale is different from the others because it isn’t coming on the heels of a World Series victory. In 2012, the Marlins were one of the worst teams money could buy, so by dismantling the roster, the organization isn’t pulling the plug on success. Having said, another bait and switch has been the cause of reasonable ire.
Even before the season went horribly wrong for the Marlins, there were concerns about the propriety of the financing used to build the team’s new ballpark. Perhaps to assuage those worries, Loria opened his wallet, signing several impact free agents during the offseason. Some have even suggested that Loria’s free spending was the fulfillment of a tacit promise to improve the team, one made as a quid pro quo for public financing. If true, the Marlins’ recent fire sale is more than just backing away from bad baseball decisions. It is also the betrayal of public trust at best, and a multi-million dollar fraud at worst.
Although it’s hard to distance the business ramifications from the baseball ones, the Marlins probably made a smart decision to shed nearly all of their long-term salary commitments. After all, if a blockbuster salary dump is smart business for the Red Sox, why should the Marlins take flack for doing the same thing? Granted, Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, Adeiny Hechavarria, Henderson Alvarez, and Anthony Desclafani don’t qualify as blue chip prospects, and the major leaguers in the deal, Jeff Mathis and Yunel Escobar, are basically roster filler. Still, the Marlins were able to escape from a mountain of back-loaded salary obligations. Could they have received more in return had Larry Beinfest and Michael Hill shopped each player to different teams? Perhaps, but the Blue Jays were willing buyers, and, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
If the Marlins didn’t get a boat load of prospects in return, then the Blue Jays didn’t give one up. Over the past five years or so, Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos has been patiently streamlining the team’s payroll and building one of the top farm systems in all of baseball. However, that effort has been slow to yield results at the big league level. With last night’s trade, the Blue Jays stepped on the accelerator. More importantly, they did so without significantly compromising their minor league depth, allowing the team to maintain a farm system capable of supplementing its major league roster, which, all of a sudden, appears set for Opening Day.
The centerpiece of the trade for the Blue Jays is Reyes, both in terms of talent and long-term financial commitment. Over the next five years, the Blue Jays will pay the short stop $92 million, so the financial risk is considerable. The reward is pretty high too. Even he if he performs at the same level of his 2010 and 2012 seasons, which paled in comparison to his career best performance in 2011, a healthy Reyes is worth the investment. Not many short stops have exceptional speed, play solid defense, and hit above average, so if he can avoid the nagging injuries that have sometimes dogged him, the 30-year old Reyes has a good chance of being a productive player over the next five years.
Heading into the winter, Anthopoulos was committed to upgrading a starting staff that was decimated by injury and disappointing performance. Enter Buehrle and Johnson. At times, Johnson has been considered to be among the best pitchers in baseball, but he has also been no stranger to injury. Compounding that concern is the significant drop off in the right hander’s performance last season. Are the Marlins getting the fireballer who dominated the National League in 2010, or the mediocre hurler whose fastball averaged only 92.8 mph in 2012? If the latter, there’s no guarantee Johnson’s stuff will translate to the American League East. However, if Johnson can return to past form, the Blue Jays would have themselves a bonafide ace.
Having spent most of his career with the White Sox, Buehrle is familiar with the American League, but life for a pitcher in the Central division is a little different from the East. However, while his performance can’t be taken for granted, what Buehrle is almost certain to do is pitch 200 innings. Following a year in which only two Blue Jays’ starters threw more than 125 innings and none more than 188, that kind of durability and reliability can’t be underestimated. Still, the Blue Jays will need quality and quantity, and Buehrle is not a lock to deliver both, especially not at levels commensurate with his $19.5 million salary over the next two years.
In addition to three three main components discussed above, the Blue Jays are also getting Emilio Bonifacio and Buck, two players who could either serve as useful components or trade bait. Either way, the success of the deal will depend on the level of production provided by Reyes, Johnson and Buehrle, as well as the franchise’s ability to absorb the cost. It’s important to remember that Toronto is a major North American market and the team’s owner, Rogers Communications, is a multi-billion dollar communications company with a burgeoning sports empire. As long as the organization’s commitment to spending doesn’t wane, the Blue Jays should have some leeway in the event the trade doesn’t work out as planned. However, if Rogers suffers from buyers’ regret or simply holds the line going forward, the team’s success will depend heavily on the production it receives from this deal. Are the Blue Jays going all-in for the long term, or is the trade with Miami the only hand they intend to play? At this point, it’s hard to determine Rogers’ long-term intentions, especially when you consider this time last year, the Marlins were the big spenders.
From a baseball standpoint, the Marlins and Blue Jays both achieved important objectives with their landmark swap. Still, that doesn’t take Loria off the hook. Because of his checkered past, both in Miami and as the former owner of the Expos, there’s every reason to be suspicious of his true intentions. Some have suggested that Commissioner Bud Selig veto the deal, but, for the aforementioned reasons, that wouldn’t serve anyone’s best interest. Instead, if this trade inspires any action from Selig, it should be to determine what exactly is going on in Miami.
Is Loria committed to building a first class baseball franchise in South Florida, or is he simply trying to boost the team’s market value? If the latter, Selig should use his broad power to force a sale, even if it winds up playing right into Loria’s master plan. As much as it would be loathsome to see Loria profit once again from his scheming, baseball and the city of Miami really have no one to blame but themselves. Both parties were well aware of Loria’s past business conduct, so they can’t claim to be victims now. Instead, the best course of action for both would be to cut ties with the owner as soon as possible, even if the immediate impact is to Loria’s financial benefit. Fire sale or not, baseball can not abide an owner with contempt for the market in which his team resides. If the situation is left unaddressed, the biggest loser in this trade won’t be either team, but the league itself.