Fishing for Answers in Miami

Giancarlo Stanton

Maybe it’s for the best that we really don’t know where the money came from to build Marlins Park, or what really was said to Jose Reyes before he went to Dubai and was traded. Maybe it serves no purpose to know why none of the free agents, like Reyes and Mark Buehrle, who were the splash signings for the ballpark opening got no trade clauses, which facilitated their landing in Toronto before the second home opener in what some have called an artist’s view of a baseball stadium.

Which by the time they were able to trade Ricky Nolasco to the one team, the Dodgers, who would swallow the remainder of his contract, slashed the 2012 Overture Year payroll of $102M well down below $35M, with their longest and largest commitment to Adeiny Hechavarria. Which, further, has taken the attendance from an average of 27,400 a game to 17,416, lowest in the major leagues, lower than the 2012 average of 19,007.

All this and more have made Jeffrey Loria a somewhat controversial figure from South Beach to Indiantown, which we all get. He defends himself by stating, “I saved baseball in South Florida,” which he did, and he found a way to get a ballpark fit for the cover of Ocean Drive Magazine built, which the Dolphins couldn’t do, and neither can the Tampa Bay Rays despite arguably the best ownership-to-clubhouse organization in baseball.

What I do know about Loria is that he is a man who when his former first draft pick, Jeff Allison, overdosed on drugs in 2004, and was actually dead for minutes and in a Boston-area hospital, flew in to be at his bedside. Then when Allison relapsed and ended up in a North Carolina jail, Loria went to try to help. And now that Allison is six years clean, Loria is contemplating signing him to throw an inning in September, so that having overcome his demons, Jeff Allison can walk up a major league mound one time and have a place on the left hand column on Baseball Reference.

Snapshot: Offensive Comparison
G AVG SLUG OBP OPS WHAV HR H K BB Runs
Miami Marlins 110 .231 .334 .290 .624 .142 63 856 797 276 354
Toronto Blue Jays 112 .253 .418 .319 .737 .200 138 973 782 360 513

And what we now think we know is that after trading Reyes, Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio to the Blue Jays and hearing calls for the Commissioner to intercede, demands that he sell the team (if anyone were interested) and a two month start to the season that barely snuck under the radar of the Houston Astros, Loria’s Marlins are reaching August with what probably is a clearer future than the Jays, whose followers were taking victory laps before they flew out of Dunedin, Fla. “It’s not how much you spend,” says Loria, “it’s how you spend. We learned the hard way that quick fixes don’t work. We got out of a predicament, we now have the makings of a very, very good team, a young team that will begin to reap benefits in 2014 and 2015.

“I do not run scared, and because of the very good, talented baseball people we have in the organization, I am very happy with where we are. I feel very good about what we are building, and what it will be for the long haul. The real fix comes when you have really good pitching, and we may have the best young pitching in the game today.”

Loria is unabashed in his pride in his ballpark, the roof, the decks, the concourse, the art, mahi-mahi tacos, the Home Run Sculpture, the Clevelander, the change from Ozzie Guillen to Mike Redmond.

Do not underestimate the long-term impact of having the retractable roof. “No more rain delays is our motto,” says Loria. A lot of us have friends in Dade and Palm Beach Counties who gave up going to Pro Player/Whatever because the summer rain delays. No batting practice. One hour delays. Get home at midnight to one a.m.

Pro Player/Whatever was simply bad business. Was it the reason the Marlins drew 3M once, their opening ’93 season? Or that before the 2.2M in 2012 with the new stadium, the only time they drew two million was ’97, when they won it all? Wayne Huizenga told one and all that they were going to lose $35M, and as the postgame parties rolled all night long he made it clear he was getting out of the baseball business.

Drive North, through Yeehaw Junction, and the Rays draw pitiably for a team that with the lowest payroll in the American League over the last six years will be the only American League team to win 90 games five times in those six years. Is Florida a major league baseball state?

“We’re going to get the fans, with the stadium and with our priorities in place,” says Loria. In all fairness, Stu Sternberg and the Rays folks believe that if they could get to the waterfront area of Tampa or some place on the East side of The Bay where people from Orlando wouldn’t have to cross a bridge and go to a questionable neighborhood, it might work.

Loria has a lot of work to do. The first priority is to rebuild bridges to Giancarlo Stanton, a great player, a better person, and that will not be easy to do. Convincing Stanton that there is a long-term commitment to excellence may be next to impossible. “We have to get Giancarlo to understand our plan, and we believe he will have fun playing with other talented young players,” says Loria, a plan that includes outfielders Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick, who both have chances to be impactful everyday players. That plan includes 2013 number one pick Colin Moran, who might well be in The Show in 2014, bringing patience and a high on base ability to the lineup while filling the void at third base. The plan also includes 22 year old Marcell Ozuna (whose season ended last week when he dove for a fly ball in Colorado and tore up his left thumb) who showed both talent and flair during his rookie season.

Snapshot: Pitching Comparison
G W L SV BS ER ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 AVG BABIP
Miami Marlins 110 43 67 25 10 407 3.66 1.295 7.27 3.10 .253 .299
Toronto Blue Jays 112 52 60 24 13 489 4.36 1.358 7.39 3.16 .260 .295

The plan is to keep Stanton, who is working with doctors to find a way for his body to take the stress of a 255 pound man with less than four percent body fat who always plays flat out. This is going to require Loria to invest in some veteran presences to buoy the young players, and those presences often cost $3-5M apiece, not the minimum. They cannot wait for Moran to establish himself, they have to find some players around Stanton and Logan Morrison who get the concept that plate discipline is not simply a chapter in the Baseball Prospectus Annual. The Marlins go through three and four game stretches where they look like baton twirlers, and the fact that they are last in the National League in runs scored and OPS begins—and often ends—with a team on-base percentage of .290.

Speed is wonderful when it’s functional, but as Gene Mauch once said of the immortal Larry Lintz, “he’s the best player in the game from first to home, but he also might be the worst player in history from home to first.” At one point in his career, Lintz’s speed was good enough to sit on Charlie Finley’s bench with Matt (The Scat) Alexander and remix Finley’s dreams of Herbie Washington.

That is all for Beinfest, Dan Jennings and Mike Hill to figure out, and Loria seems to grasp it all. “Now,” he says, “we are back on the track to winning because we’re back to what we always did well—develop young talent.” Remember, even when this season ends with a losing record for the third straight year, the Marlins will have had winning records five times in the last decade, including a world championship in 2003; the Mariners, Padres, Rockies, Senators/Rangers, Astros, Nationals and Rays have never experienced that World Series victory that the Marlins got in 1997 and 2003. Not even Livan Hernandez was born the last time the Dolphins won a Super Bowl.

Beinfest, Hill, Jennings, Jim Fleming and Stan Meek have all been major parts of what cost contained stability the Marlins had, stability that has been shaken by quirks like the decision to hire Ozzie Guillen. Ozzie had a great run on the South Side of Chicago and is a very smart man, but he was thrown into a reality TV show in Miami that superseded his managerial duties. Loria may have learned that quick fixes don’t work, and he also learned that baseball is not a sitcom, and that development takes precedence over reality television; the fact that Loria often calls Perry Hill “the best infield coach in baseball” and heaps praise on Chuck Hernandez for his work with the young pitches says enough after a season in which Guillen often had to call coach Joey Cora with the lineup from a shoot.

Understand, Loria is not alone in his enthusiasm for his pitching. A few weeks ago, after the Padres were shut out by Jose Fernandez, Bud Black, some coaches and veteran players had a fascinating discussion about the power arm future of the National League East, beginning with one of those “who would you take” chats between Fernandez, Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg; Fernandez, for what it’s worth, won that day’s discussion, but, remember, it was the afternoon after being shut out by the 20-year old. Mark Kotsay, one of the sport’s most intelligent persons, said he thinks “Fernandez is the second coming of Felix Hernandez.”

When Loria decided to begin the dismantling of the mercenary Marlins, Hanley Ramirez was moved to the Dodgers for Nate Eovaldi; Black noted that Eovaldi “sat at 96” in his start against San Diego. Anibal Sanchez brought them Jacob Turner and catcher Rob Brantley; Turner’s velocity has crept upwards the last two months with mechanical adjustments. Henderson Alvarez, who came in the Toronto deal, has begun to get back to where the Jays thought he was in April, 2012. They have 2012 top draft pick Dan Heaney, the lefty out of Oklahoma State, who will be in Jacksonville all August. In the Toronto trade they also got polished lefthander Justin Nicolino, and two scouts think the last pitching piece from the Jays, hard-throwing right hander Anthony DeSclafani, can be in the power starter category. Loria pledges to hold onto closer Steve Cishek to try to insure that those young pitchers win the games they pitch well enough to win.

One scout covering that organization thinks “Miami will have one of the best rotations in the National League by 2015.” With the power arms in New York and Washington, that power may be a necessity, especially in Marlins Park.

In order to sell the Marlins future to the fans, and Stanton, it is important for that pitching to be good the rest of this season. Can it get them into a wild card race? No. But with 10 games remaining with the Braves and Nationals, six with the Pirates and Phillies, four with the Dodgers and three each with the Indians and Tigers, they can impact several races and can at least plant the seed in the minds of fans and players that they can play with good teams, and that this whole youth movement isn’t a shell game.

There were many a public suggestion that when the Marlins made the Toronto trade that it was the prelude to Loria selling the team. “That never was the case,” he says, and talks of the long run with a young team that will eventually develop acceptance in his art deco stadium. He adamantly insists the mistake was trying to buy a billboard team, not ridding the franchise of huge back-loaded contracts. “We weren’t going anywhere with what we put together in 2012,” says Loria.

Fernandez was one of the show pieces of the All Star Game, and he, Eovaldi, Yelich, Hechavarria, et al may well have bought the Marlins time to rebuild a start over base for their dream park.

OK, 2012 was a misfire, but if the Marlins are really going to be something more permanent than snowbirds, they are going to have to convince their base that Stanton, Fernandez and Yelich are long-term residents of Marlins Park, not building blocks for the next round of dreams out on the horizon.

We don’t know how that will happen, we obviously don’t know if it will. What we do know is that Jeffrey Loria got his park built against great odds, conceded he made mistakes, and now faces an equally difficult task; that of making these present hopes a South Florida reality.

Comments

  1. I want to see the contend again. No fan of the FIsh here, but I love young teams with talent to win. This is a great article.

  2. them* (contend)