The Large-Market Florida Marlins

Billy the Marlin

Winning in baseball has more to do with running an efficient organization than it does operating a team in a large-market.

The most recent example of this observation surfaces with the blockbuster trade of former Florida Marlins Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera to Detroit for six top prospects in the Tigers’ organization.

Looking at the bigger picture, both Florida and Detroit have shown us historically that choosing efficiency over small-market excuses pays in the win column.

Although the Marlins’ and the Tigers’ organizations run an efficient front office, these two clubs couldn’t be farther apart in its successful business philosophies. While the Marlins shape its roster by penny-pinching, the Tigers splurge in molding its roster.

This trade explains why the Marlins justify parting with a 24-year-old hitting sensation and the always coveted top-of-the-rotation left-hander. Both Cabrera (.320, 34 HR, 119 RBIs) and Willis (career 3.78 ERA) were arbitration eligible and both looked to receive large pay raises before next season.

Now, it’s the Tigers who will foot the bill for these two All-Stars. Then, after the 2009 season Detroit can look forward to forking over another large chunk of money if it intends to keep the services of both players. Meanwhile, should any of the new Marlins prospects develop into major league talent, Florida will certainly reward them with league-minimum salaries.

Is one of these baseball business philosophies more right than the other? That’s debatable. What is not up for argument is the efficiency at which both organizations achieve winning success on the field of play.

Winning ways in Florida

The Marlins went from expansion team (1993) to World Champions (1997) in a matter of five years. Then, they repeated the entire process over again completing the transition with another championship in 2003. Yet, the baseball world recognizes Florida (Miami) as a small-market.

After learning of the recent trade, even Dontrelle Willis suggested in an interview with ESPN that he and Cabrera’s talents are largely overlooked in Major League Baseball because they play in small-market Florida (Miami is the sixth largest market in the MLB).

Despite conventional baseball wisdom, Miami is and will continue to be a largely populated US market.

The fact that the Fish draw about 10,000 fans per game (well below the league’s attendance average) is a direct result of the organization’s decision not to spend money on retaining its star players.

This is not to say the Marlins are a mismanaged operation, rather they are a frugal organization. The Marlins front office works efficiently through its good scouting system and player trades that have led to two World Championships in the last ten years.

Teams such as the Dodgers, Mets and even the Yankees have tried to buy championships but failed in their attempts.

However, the Marlins turned this trick before the 1997 season signing the game’s top free agents like Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, Darren Daulton and manager Jim Leyland. They ultimately won (purchased) the World Series only to quickly dismantle the ’97 World Championship team and begin warehousing talented young players headed by Miguel Cabrera.

Under GM Dave Dombrowski, the team was active in the trade market swapping veteran players for multiple prospects (Kevin Brown for Derek Lee and A.J. Burnett for Al Leiter), developed young pitchers like (2003 World Series MVP) Josh Beckett and not surprisingly put themselves in position to win another championship.

So let’s review. Not only did the Marlins win by effectively piecing together a very expensive veteran star-heavy club but, it also developed a young, talented and cheap championship team as well.

One theory why the Marlins are so tight in the wallet is the thought that this organization is trying to under spend on its roster as a ploy to get a publicly financed stadium built in Miami.

And, I have to say that while the Marlins shout small-market excuses it appears baseball fans believe them. Those poor, small-market Marlins, how do the Milwaukee Brewers (baseball’s smallest market) even exist?

Sure, the Marlins could only benefit from a new stadium. I don’t think another baseball ballpark is more football friendly than Pro Player Stadium, not even the Metrodome in Minnesota.
Dolphins Stadium
If anything, Miami is an awesome market for baseball. The climate is warm, it has a large Latin population that can identify with the many Latin professional ballplayers, and it’s a heavy corporate and media market. Besides, the Marlins would not campaign for a new stadium if they thought the market was hopeless for baseball.

Also, the idea that the Marlins can’t compete against the college football crazies of the south is baloney. The Miami Heat survive as does a winless 2007 Dolphins organization. Even the no-name Panthers of the NHL live well in Miami.

The Tiger way

While the Marlins pretend to be small-market, the Tigers are currently rebuilding from being small-minded. Poor front office decision making kept the Tigers in a losing rut for 12 straight years (1994-2005), not its market size.

As the eighth largest market in the MLB, Detroit finally righted the ship with the hiring of former Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski (prior to the 2002 season). Under his watch the Tigers jumped from rock bottom in the standings (119 losses in 2003) to AL Pennant winners in four years.

Again, the Tigers resurrection in the win column has everything to do with its change in baseball philosophies and not its market size.

What this eight player deal between the Marlins and Tigers show us is that no matter what baseball market your team plays in it can win with front office efficiency.

Yes, it’s true that larger market teams have a financial advantage over smaller market clubs. Teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers have considerable more money to spend on players than Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Milwaukee or Kansas City.

Conversely, none of these small-market teams listed above have even shown a minute amount of front office efficiency with the revenue sharing money they’ve received in the last decade. Only Cincinnati and Kansas City have recently begun to shy away from calling small-market fowl.

I believe this financial advantage allows large market clubs to recover more quickly from a poor front office player decision than it does guarantying a world championship or even a winning season. This is how the Yankees can afford to take on tremendous salary at the July trade deadline whereas a small-market team can not afford such moves.

Nonetheless, if market size solely dictates the win columns, how are successful small-market teams such as Cleveland, Oakland, Minnesota, Colorado and Milwaukee explained? Simple really, they get the most bang for their bucks

How “small-market” Florida wins with efficiency

• Outstanding scouting system (Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera)

• Smart trades such as: Acquiring Willis in 2000 from the Cubs in exchange for Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement.

• Sending Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett to Boston for Hanley Ramirez (the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year) and Anibal Sanchez (he threw a no-hitter against Arizona).

• Excellent use of the reserve clause (paying players the league minimum salary before they’re free agents).

• At one point the Marlins had a roster that included star players Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Delgado and Josh Beckett all for less than 11 million dollars.

Delgado for example, signed a four-year deal worth $52 million in 2005. However, the Marlins structured the contract so that Carlos was paid only $4 million the first year with the salary increasing in each of the following years.

Following the 2005 season, Florida dealt Delgado to the Mets for three prospects and in doing so saved them from having to pay the high end of his salary. Again, another smart move by the Fish.

• The one glaring weakness I see in the Marlins’ efficiency was firing the 2006 Manager of the Year, Joe Girardi.

Relationships spell efficiency in Detroit

When Tigers owner Mike Ilitch finally decided to change organizational philosophies, he hired GM Dave Dombrowski. The success Dombrowski had with Florida was no fluke. And, it’s no surprise he’s had continued success in Detroit.

I give a lot of credit to Dombrowski for maintaining his relationships. MLB is still a good ol’ boys league and the more friends you have the further you’ll go.

Take a close look at the current Tigers roster and you’ll see a couple of players Dombrowski has already shared a relationship with during his stay in South Florida, including manager Jim Leyland, Edgar Renteria, Ivan Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield.

The Tigers have also put more emphasis on scouting which in turn has produced players such as Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson.

Detroit also spends money to make money. By occasionally overpaying to keep its star players and free-agents, the Tigers organization has shown its players, free-agents and more importantly its fans that they’re in it to win it.

And as a result, fans have flocked to the beautiful Comerica Park to watch the talented bunch on the field.
Tiger Stadium
Large market failures like the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs should take notice. Money talks, but efficiency walks in professional baseball.


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