Peter Gammons: Loria remains patient as Marlins focus long-term

Loria Marlins Long Term

No one knows what Fernando Rodney will mean to the Marlins. A.J. Ramos has been successful in his last 33 save opportunities, David Phelps has blossomed into a prime setup man throwing 98 mph, Mike Dunn will be back soon.

But Don Mattingly will worry about how Rodney and Ramos are used over time. The bullpen is extremely important to this team because the starting pitching gets spotty after Jose Fernandez, who has an innings restriction, as the entire starting staff has 27 wins, 23 losses and a 4.27 earned run average. And by getting Rodney, there are now two experienced relievers for the back end to allow their allow Brian Ellington (who hit 101 MPH Thursday) and Kyle Barraclough (56 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings) to develop without eighth inning responsibilities.

Do the Fish need Wei-Yin Chen to pitch better than a 5.11 ERA? Of course. Do they hope Jarred Cosart gets straightened out in triple-A? Yes. Can they see Justin Nicolino’s command improve to the point that he can navigate through lineups? Yes. Do they continue to scour the shores for a veteran starter? Yes again.

But on the first day of July, the Marlins are qualified for a wild card play-in game, albeit narrowly ahead of the Cardinals. They are a half-game behind the Mets in third place in the NL East, their run differential is just eight worse than the Mets, and the only division rival with more runs is the Nationals. Giancarlo Stanton is beginning to rumble. Dee Gordon will be back in four weeks.

The Rodney acquisition underscored a deep-rooted change in the Marlins. A big reason the Marlins are in the post-season scrum? Center fielder Marcell Ozuna is now an all-star-caliber player, third among all major league centers in WAR behind Mike Trout and Ian Desmond, leading National League center fielders with a .920 OPS.

And why is Ozuna important? Because when things go awry in Miami, the perception is that all short-circuits lead to Jeffrey Loria, and at the end of last season, after a battle with Scott Boras over sending Ozuna’s struggles and being sent down to the minors, the media story was that Loria wanted Ozuna traded. However, in the off-season, Loria decided to make Mike Hill the president of baseball operations and build a board of directors. Hill essentially became the baseball CEO, like Billy Beane and Dave Dombrowski, and hired Don Mattingly, who he calls “our CEO of the clubhouse.”

Loria, Hill, and Mattingly then put the board structure together, everyone given a voice. While Stan Meek remained scouting director, Mike Berger was named VP and assistant GM. Jeff McAvoy was named VP of player personnel. Loria signed them to long-term deals, then allowed Hill, Berger and McAvoy to hire away two fulcrums from the Pirates organization on long-term contracts; Marc Delpiano, a major force in the Pirates’ system, and Jim Benedict, Pittsburgh’s pitching doctor, were lured away for considerable raises. Scout David Keller was promoted to director of pro scouting.

It is an infrastructure Loria understands. “Put it this way—Phelps is throwing a lot harder since Jim Benedict got here.”

Loria made a long-term investment in infrastructure. “What I think we were able to do was assemble that board of directors in whom I had tremendous trust,” says Loria. “We wanted everyone to be free to offer opinions, and those opinions would be respected. I wanted Don Mattingly’s voice involved (unlike his days in Los Angeles, that voice has carried).” Loria also invested capital in an analytics department and added to pro and amateur scouting budgets.

“What we have tried to do is have a baseball operation with vision, vision of smart baseball people,” Loria says. “I can’t tell you where we’re going to end up, or what the attendance will be for the year. But I want baseball to succeed in Miami, and it’s clear we need a long-term plan. Am I passionate? Yes, of course, but I’m a passionate baseball fan. I can honestly say this is the best I’ve felt about the Marlins since 2003. There are times when I think this team is as good as that 2003 team, but now’s not the time for comparisons. Now is the time for very smart people to work hard to constantly make us better, and that includes the coaching staff Donnie has put together.” On that staff, of course, is Barry Bonds, a Loria choice, and it has worked, especially with Barry’s collaboration with Frank Menechino.

Loria is still a fan. One person he interviewed for the vacant managerial position last summer told him, “start by not poking your head into the dugout,” something easier remembered because of his relationship with Mattingly. It was Loria who wanted Ichiro Suzuki, both because of Loria’s fondness for Ichiro as a Hall of Fame baseball player, and what he brings to the clubhouse. “Through my art business, I have done a lot of business in Japan and studied the culture,” says Loria. Ichiro has impacted the Marlins, not only because of his play, but in his preparation and reliability. Stanton says “it doesn’t matter what he’s asked to do, starting or coming off the bench in the 14th inning, Ichiro is always prepared to do what he needs to do.” Bonds and Mattingly are fascinated by Suzuki. “He is a very important figure on this team,” Loria says.

Reputations do not die easily, and Loria’s reputation through the game for his quirkiness and finances aren’t always complimentary, and he is not about to beat Marco Rubio for the senate. “Those people don’t know me,” says Loria. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Those who know him see him differently. I remember the summer of 2004, when former number one draft pick Jeff Allison ended up in the hospital because of drug issues. Loria spent days at the Salem, Ma. Hospital at Allison’s side. When Derek Dietrich was beaned in Atlanta and spent the night in a hospital as the Marlins flew home, Loria diverted his flight, picked up Dietrich in Atlanta and flew him to Miami. The day after Miami journalist Juan C. Rodriguez was diagnosed with brain cancer, Loria arranged to fund Rodriguez’s daughter’s entire college education.

Near the end of this spring training, he arranged a dinner at Donald Trump’s National golf club for club officials involved in spring training. When he heard the pro scouts were in town, he invited them. And by the time the dinner began, he had all the clubbies, grounds crew members and more than 100 people. As he mingled with some of the scouts, he told them they could go back to Trump National, eat and sign it all off to Loria.

There haven’t been any implosions, no 10 game losing streaks, no investments gone bad, any public squabbles. But when the board of directors hashed out the pros and cons of trading a pitching prospect for Rodney, there were yeahs and nays heard for nearly a week, and the trade was the consensus of opinion laid out to Loria by Hill, Mattingly, Berger, McAvoy, et al.

Rodney is an add-on to the far greater investment Loria has made in a restructuring of the longtime Marlins organizational model. It is fascinating because it isn’t about show or South Beach or the moment, but about the longterm vision successful baseball teams maintain.

“I’m not talking about making the playoffs,” Loria says. “I’m thinking about the longterm viability of baseball in Miami.” And respecting the scouts like Paul Ricciarini, the coaches like Perry Hill, Juan Nieves and Frank Menechino and the thought process of Berger and McAvoy are major steps towards that viability.