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The Marlins just played “Moneyball.” So why are people so upset?

Editors note:  We haven’t strayed off the beaten path of Revolution baseball here lately, but we’re all baseball fans, and this time of year, the stove is piping hot, so to speak.  The Marlins-Blue Jays trade is the hot topic this week, so feel free to digest what’s below, and if you have an opinion or thought, please put it the comments.     

Paul Braverman

When news broke Tuesday evening that the Miami Marlins had traded Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and others to the Toronto Blue Jays, my predominately baseball-themed feed on Twitter was a mixture of (figurative) head shaking and outrage.  Any time something remotely controversial happens in baseball, the familiar accusations of “bad for baseball” and “no one cares about the fans” start to fly, and reaction to this news was no different.  Some even laughably compared this fire sale to the one the Marlins had after the 1997 season, key difference being that club won the World Series, and this one lost 93 games, and was 24 games worse than the upstart Baltimore Orioles.

Therein lies my confusion.  The Marlins took a calculated risk to improve their roster for the future and are getting crushed for it, while Billy Beane, who does this on a yearly basis, gets movies made about him.  Where was the outrage on behalf of Oakland Athletics fans and the bad for baseball accusations at this time last year, when Beane traded Cy-Young candidate Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals for young prospects who weren’t yet Major League ready, not dissimilar to what the Marlins did? (Albeit on a larger scale.)

MLB.com baseball writer Richard Justice has a great column on why the baseball moralist crowd should stop feigning their outrage about a team that few people outside of South Florida care about.  Read the column, but in short he wonders why people would be upset about a team re-doing their roster after losing 93 games, even if it has big names on it.  That’s what teams who lose 93 games do.  Justice points out that keeping all those big salaries likely wouldn’t have improved the Marlins in 2013.  They took some risks that didn’t translate to winning, so they’re starting over.  Says Justice:

So they followed the Billy Beane model. He’s one of the few executives in baseball who has had the guts to look at his roster and see it as it actually is instead of how he’d like it to be.

So the Marlins tried to be the Yankees, and it didn’t work.  As the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs can attest, spending doesn’t always win.  Spending smartly does.  But rather than doubling down on being a free spender, Miami will shift to the style that has earned Oakland so much unabashed admiration – trading Major League talent for minor league prospects that will reach the big leagues younger (cheaper) but capable, and finding free agent veterans likely to outperform what they make on short-term contracts.  While Oakland hasn’t won a World Series yet doing it this way on a shoestring budget, there’s no doubt they’ve done the most with the least.  Better yet, they’ve given the Kansas Cities and the Pittsburghs no excuses to cry poverty, you don’t have to be the Yankees to win.  Tampa Bay and Baltimore used to be in that crowd, but then the poverty cries disappeared as the winning came.

So why exactly are the Marlins so reviled for moving in this direction, and the A’s so celebrated? Certainly the reputation, fair or not, of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and team president David Samson plays into it.  To put it mildly, these men aren’t exactly thought of as modern-day Branch Rickeys. Some of that is fair, some of it’s not.  The current narrative that has unfairly become an assumption is that the Marlins fleeced tax payers into footing the bill for 80 percent of their new ballpark with promises of Yankee-style superstar collections of players, put up that facade for a season, and are now dumping salary only to help their bottom line, and not improve the club long-term.

While I’m not naive enough to think Loria and Samson have the fans best interests at mind above their own financial incentives, it’s hard for me to get on board with this theory.  If the Marlins had won 93 games, maybe.  But again, this roster experiment didn’t work.  They were one of the worst teams in the National League.  Regardless of who their owner is, the Marlins shouldn’t be held to some higher moral standard for trading big salaries for prospects when so many other teams do as well.  Other teams, including, until two days ago, the Toronto Blue Jays. (Anyone remember that Roy Halladay guy?)

To be sure, I am no Loria and Samson fan.  While I’m defending the trade, I’m doing it on the grounds that the Marlins are following a method used by others, thus making the criticism unfair.   But the scorched Earth campaign Loria and Samson conducted in Montreal was questionable.  As owner and team president respectively of the Expos in their dying days before they took control of the Marlins, the two put the nail in the coffin of a franchise that could’ve been saved, and, contrary to popular belief, had many fans and great fans at that.  If you need proof of this or any context on Jeffrey Loria and David Samson, and why hardcore baseball people “in the know” dislike them so much, read this great piece from ESPN the Magazine years ago by Zev Borow.  It’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of sports writing, a must read, if you will.

Finally, check out these comments from David Samson on why this move for the Marlins was done in hope of improving their team for the future, rather than the end result of bilking innocent and naive fans.  Take it with a grain of salt, I’m defending the man and I still am.  But ultimately, if they want people to come to their new stadium once the novelty of it wears off, the Marlins will need to win some baseball games, and this trade may give them a better chance of doing that in the future than hanging onto these huge salaries.  And Jeffrey Loria, even with his cons considered, does care about winning.  We seem to forget that he did deliver a Marlins World Series win in 2003. As it would turn out, that was the last World Series won in the House that Ruth Built.  At the time, Loria was so moved by the historical context of winning the series at Yankee Stadium, he ran the bases after in an empty ballpark to soak it all in.

Maybe I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate…

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