By Jonathan Bernhardt
Last winter, something very strange happened in Dallas, though it mostly concerned the city of Miami: Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria…spent money.
He signed Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes and Heath Bell at baseball's winter meetings and he tried his damnedest to sign the biggest prize of them all, Albert Pujols -- and for a minute there, it almost looked like he had him, before Pujols slipped away to Anaheim. And we were shocked.
Perhaps it was not so unexpected a thing, some said; after all, the now-Miami Marlins were set to debut a brand new stadium in 2012 (built mostly, of course, with money harangued out of the city and state governments). It's not too much to expect a team about to see a windfall of publicity and new local interest spend money to try to capitalize. Never you mind the poor parking plan and dreadful mass transit situation; Loria had finally won his campaign to leave Dolphin Stadium -- maybe he'd turned over a new leaf.
Over the course of the next calendar year, the Marlins have now traded away Edward Mujica, Gaby Sanchez, Hanley Ramirez, Randy Choate, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Emilio Bonifacio, and John Buck, constituting a salary dump of over $80 million off of next year's books. The last six names on that list they traded last night in a reported deal to Toronto (that, in fairness, has yet to become official). That team that Jeffrey Loria seemed so eager to spend for has been obliterated. Give the Marlins credit, they changed it up -- this time they held a fire sale without even bothering with the World Series part.
And the thing is, it's not a bad baseball move, all things considered. Reyes is valuable, but overpaid; Johnson is an ace, but has had substantial health issues and is a year from free agency; Buehrle is old and making too much money next year, and if the Marlins are not a contending team in 2013 -- and even with all the men on the team last night returning next year, there's almost no chance they are -- there is no reason not to get the best value possible for them instead of playing (and paying) out the string. None of those pieces are particularly useful to the Marlins anymore; none of them would have played on the next good Marlins team except maybe the 29-year-old Reyes, but Jose Reyes was traded the moment he signed a contract that was backloaded and devoid of trade protections, and Reyes knew it.
In return, the Marlins got a couple warm bodies for what is still nominally a major-league team and a couple prospects to dream on: Outfielder Jake Marisnick, 21, and pitcher Justin Nicolino, 20, are the prize pieces, with the latter's ceiling in the middle of the rotation and the former's somewhere way up in the sky -- if he can put together his offense, and there's a good chance he can since he's still so young, Marisnick could be a five-tool centerfielder, and those are very valuable to have.
That's not really the point though, is it? Yes, it was a smart move to reclaim value from the lost pieces of the 2011 spending spree, but was blowing the team up like this necessary? Was it a good or even rational idea to spend the way Miami did last offseason if ownership has so little stomach for expensive failure that it can't give a team more than one year to gel? And what does it say to all those Marlins fans out there, who expected that winning the offseason would translate into winning during the regular season?
But there's not too many of those out there anymore, are there? Marlins fans, that is. After the first month or so, attendance faltered, then fell, then plummeted. It was the worst new stadium attendance bump in recent memory. Loria probably wonders where they are sometimes; wonders where the few of them that were there before have gone, but he probably already knows the answer, too. They're leaving, slowly but surely, because that's what people do when you insult them as he has for almost a decade running: they curse you and they leave you and they try to forget they ever met you, until all that's left is an empty tax-money theme park with its pools and luxury boxes and ridiculous monolith out past the left-field wall designed by someone trying to depict what he suspects something "fun" looks like -- until the only players left are those that want to be anywhere else in the majors but can't leave, and those that shouldn't be playing anywhere in the majors but came cheap.
From where Loria's sitting in the owner's booth, though, this is his field of dreams: a cascading, wavy sea of television and revenue-sharing money, unburdened by the inconvenience of baseball. And out in right field, Giancarlo Stanton knows his days in Miami are numbered.
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Bernhardt is a freelance sportswriter who has contributed to Baseball Prospectus, The Classical and ESPN's Sweet Spot blog network, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jonbernhardt.