Jose Fernandez’s death cited to head off criticism of the Miami Marlins teardown

Getty Images

*See below for an update to this article 

There are certain facts about the Miami Marlins that are basic and clear. Among them:

  • Jose Fernandez died in September of 2016;
  • Marlins owner Jeffery Loria, who was by all accounts very close to Jose Fernandez, took it hard;
  • Despite losing the ace who was supposed to anchor the staff for years to come, Loria decided against a teardown that offseason because there was a lot of talent on the roster and trying to patch holes and compete made sense to him;
  • During the ensuing offseason, the Marlins signed a number of players;
  • Those players failed or got hurt and now the Marlins are engaged in a total rebuild and have traded away players in an effort to slash payroll.

Those things cannot be disputed. Nevertheless, I do not think it’s unfair to say that this framing off all of those facts, via anonymous sources speaking to Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald, is totally bogus:

The death of pitching ace Jose Fernandez in 2016 triggered a series of costly roster decisions that the Marlins’ new owners are having to contend with now.

There is no shortage of ‘what ifs’ with how it all played out.

But this much is clear: according to sources with knowledge of internal discussions at the time, a number of players with prohibitive salaries wouldn’t be on the Marlins now if previous owner Jeffrey Loria had listened to the advice of his top baseball people back then.

Given that these were people on the scene as these moves went down, it’s fair to say that this is both historical account and spin. It’s a tack that could, if the Marlins powers-that-be felt so inclined, be used as a means of deflecting fan anger at their decisions this offseason by holding up the tragic death of Jose Fernandez as a shield against criticism. “Hey, we know you don’t like that we traded away our best players and continue to look to slash talent,” the sources for the stroy are basically saying, “but, please, blame God and fate and Jose Fernandez’s poor decisions and Jeff Loria’s emotions and anything else! Do not blame the baseball operations department of the Miami Marlins!” To the extent it’s a tack that is employed, however, it’s emotionally manipulative crap.

The emotional components aside, whatever the advice these sources gave to Loria at the time about the need to rebuild then and to not sign players heading into 2017, it was rejected. Once that occurred, like all subordinates, they were required to go out and make good decisions with their overarching marching orders. To the extent they are claiming that extending Martin Prado, signing Edinson Volquez, Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa and trading for Dan Straily were bad moves, they hold responsibility for that too. Loria was a lot of things, but he was not out there handling the day-to-day transactions. If the Marlins signed bad players to bad contracts, the people now looking to be excused of that hold a great deal of responsibility.

Even if we put THAT aside this is a crap line of reasoning. Spencer clearly notes that the idea to give Martin Prado his three-year, $40 million extension was agreed to in principle before Fernandez’s death, even if it was officially signed after. For another, Volquez only cost the Marlins $9 million last year, which should not be bank-breaking for an average pitcher, which Volquez basically was before his injury. He’s on the hook for $13 million this year, much of it presumably covered by insurance. Ziegler and Tazawa are owed a combined $16 million. Given the injuries and ineffectiveness of these guys, no, they are not good contracts, but they also amount to less than $30 million in commitments, again, offset by insurance. They should not break the back of a competently-run organization, even if it’s a low revenue one like the Marlins.

The Marlins new owners have mandated that payroll be slashed. That has brought forth all kinds of hell and no one likes catching hell. But (a) the mandate has way, way, way more to do with the new owners’ debt service obligations from their highly-leveraged acquisition of the team than it does the death of Jose Fernandez; and (b) the decisions Marlins officials made in the wake of Fernandez’s death are their responsibility. They don’t get let off the hook via some emotionally manipulative appeal.

Do better, guys.

UPDATE: I made an alternation to the headline from its initial form, which said “The Miami Marlins are using Jose Fernandez’s death . . .” The sources cited in the Miami Herald story where characterized as “sources with knowledge of internal discussions at the time” the various post-Fernandez death transactions mentioned in the article were made. While such sources were clearly Marlins officials at the time, and while many of the Marlins baseball operations staff at the time are still with the club, including the president of baseball operations, the Herald article did not cite current Marlins officials as a source, so saying the Marlins are “using” Fernandez’s death is putting it too strongly.

My personal view remains that the Miami Marlins have sought to excuse their many unpopular transactions on questionable grounds, and I believe that the vast majority of the club’s moves cannot be understood without reference to new ownership and the financing model it used to acquire the club, which the Marlins have not cited as a factor. It is not, however, the official position of the Miami Marlins that the current rebuild is a function of Jose Fernandez’s death and it is not accurate to say so.