Before this season, I thought that the 2010 season for the Florida Marlins would be represent a franchise turning point. With players like Dan Uggla, Cody Ross, and Ricky Nolasco closing in on an expensive third season of arbitration, the Marlins would have an interesting decision to make. On the one hand, the team had enough of a nucleus and a successful enough 2009 campaign that they could have competed for a Wild Card berth. On the other hand, with those expensive salaries piling up in the near future and those players getting older, the team could have transitioned from the 2006-era Fish to the new era of Marlins baseball headlined by top prospects such as Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison.
Every instinct told me that the Marlins would go for the former option. Notoriously despised owner Jeffrey Loria almost fired Fredi Gonzalez for not making the playoffs last season, even though a playoff berth wasn’t expected of the team to begin with. I felt that the team would botch their opportunity to adopt the youth movement in order to pull off an average season overall and save face with the critics who say that the Marlins are cheap and unwilling to retain players.
Though the team may have been forced due to injury or ineffectiveness, I will still give them credit for going forward with the transition to a new era for the Marlins, the “new stadium” era, if you will. It was a compromise with going all in with this mediocre core through 2011 or moving forward in a new direction, and the Marlins did a solid job of taking the best of both worlds.
With a core of players the team liked, players like Jorge Cantu and Cody Ross, I expected the Fish to take their chances with the playoff hunt and play through the season. When the team was just treading water by the trading deadline, I did not expect a deal to be made. At around July 31, the Marlins were 53-51, an average mark, but “just” 6.5 games back of the division leading Atlanta Braves. Surprisingly, the Fish decided to deal Cantu, who was heading to free agency, even though he was a fan favorite, netting the slightest of returns. The Fish took a similar route with Cody Ross, letting him go on waivers to the San Francisco Giants.
These two moves combined with the struggle of Cameron Maybin allowed for the promotion of Stanton and Morrison to full-time play in the majors, a move the Marlins did not regret. This was as much of a signal as this team has ever sent in promoting the future of the organization. That may sound odd, given the fact that the Fish regularly host fire sales to transition themselves into new eras. However, this was a sign that the Marlins were making decisions about their future without the constraint of a league-low budget. In other words, this season the Marlins did not keep their core and fire-sale everyone, but rather selectively decided who would remain a part of the team for the future and who was expendable amongst the old core.
This kind of move is exactly what successful organizations do, especially those that are on a small budget. Take a look at how the Tampa Bay Rays have been run the last few years. They too had veteran players who contributed well while they were there but were expendable when their price did not met their value. Mainstays like Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena were given what they deserved during their time in the organization, while filler like their relief corps was kept only as long as they worth their weight. This year, the organization will likely have to part ways with Crawford and make a looming decision about B.J. Upton, but these decisions are going to be made critically, with an eye towards the future and not towards next year necessarily.
The Marlins are beginning to show signs of that type of decision-making. The team has already selected Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson for their long-term plans, and may be looking to do so with Uggla and Nolasco as well. Meanwhile, players like Ross are being jettisoned at the right time in order to slowly make room for the new generation of Marlins. This has never been done before in Marlins history. The Fish retained just two players from a decent 2005 team for the 2006 year, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Even then, there was little hope for those players being retained for the long haul. Now, the Fish have two studs locked in for at least three more seasons at reasonable rates, with little chance of either being traded. The Marlins did not shy away from using Morrison and Stanton until they had to via a fire-sale; rather, the club pulled the trigger on them early in order to have them contribute to the team.
Next year, the Marlins will be entering a new era in their short history, the 2011+ “new stadium” era. The team did the right thing to transition this year rather than wait until next season or fire-sale everyone in the organization. Maybe change is indeed coming thanks to the stadium. Time will ultimately tell.