2013 preview: Miami Marlins


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Miami Marlins.

The Big Question: Can the Marlins recover from their latest fire sale?

A little over a year ago, the Marlins opened up the season with a new, reinvigorated outlook. Their Opening Day payroll increased from $57.7 million in 2011 to $101.6 million thanks to three big free agent signings: Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. They had also acquired Carlos Zambrano, bolstering a core that included Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, and Anibal Sanchez.

On July 22, the Marlins found themselves at 44-51, 12.5 games behind the first-place Washington Nationals. Feeling a second-half surge too improbable, they traded Sanchez and Omar Infante to the Detroit Tigers, then sent Hanley Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers two days later. The Marlins went 25-42 the rest of the way, but they weren’t done selling.

On November 19, the Marlins and Blue Jays pulled off one of the biggest trades (in terms of number of players involved) in baseball history. The Fish sent Reyes, Johnson, Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck, and cash to the Toronto Blue Jays. In return, they received Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez, Jeff Mathis, prospect Adeiny Hechavarria along with three other Minor Leaguers. As a result, the roster the Marlins will be opening up 2013 with looks nothing like their 2012 iteration. Those getting their first attempts at an everyday job include shortstop Hechavarria, center fielder Justin Ruggiano, second baseman Donovan Solano, and catcher Rob Brantly. Steve Cishek, with 18 career saves, will start the season as the closer.

Even for a roster that is infused with so much youth, the Marlins took some gambles as well. Logan Morrison, who can never seem to stay healthy, is taking over at first base while injury-prone 37-year-old Placido Polanco will patrol third base. 35-year-old Juan Pierre is the everyday left fielder.

Frankly, it’s tough to see what their game plan is. Despite a payroll that has shrunk below $40 million, they are not entering a rebuilding phase and they do not lay claim anything better than an average farm system, at least according to Keith Law. One year after opening up a new stadium which cost $634 million — $376.3 and $132.5 million of which was paid for by Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami, respectively – you have to wonder what, besides retaining Giancarlo Stanton, they are doing to draw fans to games.

2013 is going to be ugly in so many ways for the Marlins and what little remains of their fan base.

What else is going on? 

  • Ricky Nolasco is eligible for free agency after the season. It will be his last opportunity to strike it rich. The 30-year-old right-hander has failed to live up to lofty expectations throughout his career, owning a 4.49 ERA in over 1,100 innings. His ability to miss bats has fallen precipitously in recent years: his strikeout rate was 25 percent in 2009, but was only 15 percent last year. Don’t think the other 29 GM’s in baseball haven’t noticed because the Marlins have had ample opportunities to move him and simply couldn’t. If he can 1.) stay healthy; 2.) post good results; 3.) with an improved strikeout rate, there may be a team or two willing to pay for his services after the season.
  • How good can Giancarlo Stanton be? Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system sees a .973 OPS with 41 home runs. He was at .969 with 37 dingers last year, so it is certainly realistic. That would put him around a 160 adjusted OPS. If achieved, he would join Mike Trout (2012) and Albert Pujols (2003) as the only three players in the 2000’s to post a 160 or better adjusted OPS at the age of 23 or younger. Two things to keep an eye on: 1) will the Marlins trade him, either mid-season or during the off-season? 2) will he surpass his MLB-leading (according to Hit Tracker Online) 494 feet on an August 17 home run against Josh Roenicke at Coors Field? Never forget.
  • Steve Cishek has a chance to become a decent closer. He posted a  2.63 and 2.69 ERA in 2011 and ’12, respectively, fooling hitters with a funky side-arm delivery. He still needs to work on his control – a ten percent walk rate won’t cut it in high-leverage situations over the long haul. But the potential is certainly there.
  • Ugh. Seriously, the Marlins roster as a whole is depressing and ugly with very few long-term prospects. Let’s be honest, Jeffrey Loria and David Samson are bad for baseball.

Prediction: Fifth place, National League East.

Congress to pass bill depriving minor leaguers of minimum wage rights

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We saw this coming and wrote about it last weekend, but now it’s official: the new spending bill from Congress contains a gift for Major League and Minor League Baseball in the form of a provision classifying minor leaguers as seasonal workers, exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Practically speaking, this means that minor leaguers are not required to be paid minimum wage or have other basic protections to which even part-timers at fast food restaurants are entitled.

The relevant provision — buried on page 1,967 of the 2,232-page spending bill, which will get almost zero time to be read and processed by most people before it’s ultimately passed signed into law by tomorrow — is farcically entitled the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” It exempts from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 people who fit this description:

[A]ny employee employed to play baseball who is compensated pursuant to a contract that provides for a weekly salary for services performed during the league’s championship season (but not on spring training or the off season) at a rate that is not less than a weekly salary equal to the minimum wage under section 6(a) for a workweek of 40 hours, irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities.

It may be news to you that the multi-billion baseball industry, run by a few dozen billionaires and billion-dollar businesses, needed to be “saved” in such a fashion. Congress knew though. Maybe because Congress is so benevolent and wise. Or, maybe, because baseball’s lobbying operation spent millions plying Congressmen for this special law to keep it from having to pay workers a living wage.

Based on the response to our past writings on this topic, I suspect most of you won’t care all that much. You either believe that all or most of these players are wealthy via six or seven-figure signing bonuses or will make serious money in the big leagues one day. That’s not true, but many of you believe it. Or, alternatively, maybe you view minor leaguers as a bunch of kids farting around with a hobby until they start their “real life,” so why should they make a living wage?

To the extent you believe that and to the extent this does not bother you, I’d simply suggest that you ask how much money minor league and major league organizations make via the playing and marketing of minor league baseball and how much Major League Baseball benefits by having its training and development system costs legislatively controlled. Ask yourself whether the company that gave you your first entry-level position would’ve loved to have a law allowing it to pay you less than minimum wage and how you would’ve felt if that was the case in your situation. Ask yourself if anyone else would have cared all that much about the job you had when you were 22 and whether that would make a difference to you as you made the equivalent of $5 or $6 an hour for a multi-billion dollar business.

Maybe that still doesn’t sway you. But it doesn’t change the fact that this is a greedy cash grab by baseball which now, thanks to specially-requested government intervention, institutionalizes and legitimizes the exploitation of young men with very little power and even less money. That you may be OK with it doesn’t make it right. In fact, it’s very, very wrong.