Not Saying Derek Jeter is a Genius, but….

Trading away your team’s best players is never going to make you popular. You’ve probably read plenty about how the return for Marcell Ozuna was pretty good for the Marlins, while the return for Stanton was pretty thin. But savvy baseball fans understand that when you trade players, you’re not only trading their production, but also their contracts – so offloading an insane 13-year $325M contract might not return as much as a team-friendly contract for a lesser player. Add in the fact that Stanton had a no-trade clause (thus, a ton of leverage over to whom he was traded) the fact that the Marlins got anything in return for Stanton is actually impressive. The Yankees took on practically all of Stanton’s remaining contract; so in context, this was a fine deal for the Marlins. Dee Gordon, though contact-and-speed types typically don’t sustain a lot of value into their 30’s (as Gordon enters this year at 30), has put together 3.8 WAR/162 across his last 4 seasons, so maybe they could’ve gotten a little more out of that deal, but again – they were able to get rid of Gordon’s entire contract, which is guaranteed until his age-33 season of 2020.

The trade that stuck out most to me was the one for Christian Yelich. Yelich is an established star in the league who is still very young and has lots of upside, won’t be a free agent until 2023 (accounting for a team-friendly option in 2022), and seems like the type of player you might want to keep, even in a rebuild. They did receive top prospect Lewis Brinson and others in return, but of all the deals they made this one was, to me, the most indicative of “holy crap Jeter has no idea what he’s doing.”

And then, I realized, maybe he’s a genius.

Well, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that Yelich is a future star, if he isn’t rightfully considered one already. It takes some genius (and perhaps a few gift baskets for your fans?) to say tear it all down. The Marlins could’ve kept any or all of Yelich, Ozuna, and even Stanton, but they’d still have been bad for the foreseeable future. The past four seasons they won 77, 71, 79, and 77 games. It’d have been easy to continue to toil in mediocrity, maybe even make a wildcard or two. But mediocrity is pointless in a business that overtly rewards losing.

You’re saying you want us to lose? No, we’ve BEEN losing. What I want is for us to finish dead last.
-Derek Jeter (probably).

It’s not a secret that tanking is now an actual strategy employed by “rebuilding” teams. I was surprised to learn in my research that tanking is probably not a new phenomenon (the percentage of teams who win 70 or fewer games is fairly consistent over the past several decades) but the game has changed so significantly in the era of free agency, “service time,” and revenue sharing, that the financial benefits of tanking should probably not be legal (but that’s for the CBA to determine). 2018 could be the worst year ever in terms of the number of teams not trying to compete.

Is that wrong? “Tank and bank” isn’t a purely theoretical exercise anymore. As you probably know, the past two World Series winners were responsible for some of the most blatant, disgusting, glorious middle-fingers-to-the-league you could ever imagine – and their paths coincide almost directly.

2008: the Cubs were an aging but solid team that led the NL in wins, with a dangerous lineup and a restored version of Kerry Wood, now a closer. They were bounced early in the playoffs however, in the same year Joe Maddon came up just short of an unlikely World Series title with the Rays. That same year, the Astros were competitive – winning 86 games – but came up short of a playoff birth.

Both teams achieved Marlins-esque mediocrity in 2009 and 2010, and that’s when the tanking rebuilding began. The Astros were the most aggressive and flagrant in their process, and many people forget just how bad they were. They won just 56 games in 2011, followed by campaigns of 55 and 51 wins (that’s three straight seasons of 106+ losses). Their payroll went from $77M in 2011 to $67M in 2012 to $25M in 2013 and then – somehow – cut it in half during the season by shedding even more salary. Notably, and not coincidentally, the Astros got a new owner in 2011. That historically bad 2013 for the Astros was actually historically great: they had the most profitable season in MLB history.

While the Cubs also lost a bunch of games during that same time period, they had a pretty big advantage over the Astros: they hired Theo Epstein (all due respect to Jeff Luhnow, whose roundabout career path is worthy of its own article). I’m not going to try and give Jeter or his staff a current/future grade as it pertains to winning lopsided trades but let’s just assume the Marlins are more like the 2011 Astros than the 2011 Cubs. Their “competitive advantage” over teams who may have better guys in analytics/baseball ops is that they can lose lots of games.

Currently, the Marlins are projected to win the fewest games in baseball which would of course net them the #1 overall pick. Picking first is certainly no guarantee of success (ahem, Kris Bryant went #2 to the Cubs in 2013 while the Astros picked up Mark Appel at #1) but it’s objectively better to pick in the top 2 or 3 than, say, outside of the top 5. There is also the correlated benefit of turning a bigger profit by fielding a lower payroll. To put it simply: if you’re going to miss the playoffs anyway, make as much money as possible while getting the best draft pick you can. It’s easy to say “I wouldn’t have traded Yelich/Ozuna/Stanton” in an attempt to appease your fan base (who aren’t coming to games anyway) while not having personally invested hundreds of millions of dollars into a team; but when your expensive team has little chance of even making the playoffs (never mind winning a World Series) the business side of things becomes even more important.

Based on the aggressive trades the Marlins have made to shed payroll, expect them to mirror the ’11-’13 Astros financially: they have about $80M committed this year, about $50M in 2019, but only $23M in 2020; 22M of that is to Wei-Yin Chen who I’m sure the Marlins hope can stay healthy long enough to generate a little interest from a contender. Righty-specialist and all-time home run preventer Brad Ziegler (making $9M) should have enough appeal to anyone who gets tired of giving up homers to the right-handed heavy Yankees or Angels lineups, and Junichi Tazawa (making $7M) might have a few buyers as well. Justin Bour (age 30, $3.4M, arb-eligible) should find a home with a competitor  – possibly best fit with the aforementioned Angels or even Yankees depending on how Greg Bird recovers, given their respective needs for some left-handed power options. Perhaps they can package the no longer desirable Martin Prado (2yr, $28.5M) with the very desirable J.T. Realmuto (age 27, $2.9M, arb-eligible) to shed some more salary.

By year 5 of their rebuild, both the Cubs and Astros blossomed into legitimate competitors, before winning their World Series in years 6 and 7 respectively (and being in great position to compete for years to come). Marlins fans probably don’t want to year “2022” as the best case scenario for their team to begin competing…but competing for a World Series doesn’t come easy. And as I’m sure Astros and Cubs fans could attest, it’s worth the wait.





Sports and Data nerd. Triple Digit Speed Pitch, LLC. STATS data stringer. @RealCarlAllen or https://www.linkedin.com/in/realcarlallen. If you've come this far into Fangraphs we can be friends.

newest oldest most voted
Geebs
Member
Geebs

I imagine between the transient nature of Florida citizens and the consistent alienation of the fan base in Florida the Marlins are going to require more then a rebuild, this fan base may need their own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Dominikk85
Member
Member

I have no problem with the marlins rebuilding, needed to be done. I think the return they got is ok, not a haul but also not bad. Problem is that the marlins are 4-5 years too late, now teams look at surplus value and aging curves so there are no longer dave stewart like +50m surplus value deals. Other problem is that with more teams trying to build around hitting the market currently is valuing pitchers higher since teams want to develope hitters and buy pitchers. I’m still not optimistic about the marlins due to money. Reportedly they have 400m… Read more »

Dominikk85
Member
Member

Don’t forget the marlins already did build a winner twice. Problem was they couldn’t keep it up for more than a year or two. Now the two ws were great but to be fair there is a lot of luck involved, they could have easily won no ws. A successful rebuild IMO means that you are competetive for 4-6 years. The nats are a good example for this even with their post season failure, they rebuild and then had a 6 year window (still going but might end soon) were they averaged 90 wins. That is a looong window that… Read more »

attgig
Member
attgig
Richie
Member
Richie

Very interesting, attgig. Thank you for sharing it!

attgig
Member
attgig

the marlins have done this a couple of times already… build a champion and then tear down the team….
let’s hope this time Jeter can do that first part and skip the second part…