In a recent piece for Grantland, Jonah Keri speculates whether the Miami Marlins are in a stable position for the first time, perhaps ever. To that point, back in October, Marlins President David Samson told MLB.com: “We finally have an opportunity to grow and have continued and sustainable growth. That’s something the franchise never had before I got here, or since I’ve been here.”
Sustainable – that’s an interesting word around Marlins circles.
These 22 Marlins seasons have been eventful – in both great and bad ways – but they have absolutely been eventful. What they have not been is consistent. Consistency and success don’t necessarily have to go hand-in-hand at all, but it’s traditionally been a hallmark of some of the great franchises.
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The Marlins have had three owners, two stadiums, high and low payrolls, World Series wins and 100-loss seasons. They have had some of the very highest peaks and some of the very lowest valleys. Being a Marlins fan is certainly never boring, and it’s produced two World Series championships that many South Florida fans understandably take completely for granted – mainly because of just how painful the valleys have been. Either under H. Wayne Huizenga, John W. Henry or Jeffrey H. Loria, and either in Joe Robbie Stadium or Marlins Park, South Florida fans have experienced some terrible lows, and as a result, have just never supported the team in big numbers (other than the inaugural 1993 season); and it’s likely due to that lack of consistency and that lack of a sustained approach. The downs are just so brutal. And unfortunately each ownership group the Marlins have had has been guilty of similar activities.
Are there reasons to believe this is actually changing now in this ownership group’s 14th season at the helm?
Let’s take a look at six factors that could explain the Marlins’ optimism and that could indicate the Marlins may actually be in a position like never before:
6. Location: Until Josh Johnson threw that first pitch at Marlins Park in 2012, the first 19 seasons of Marlins baseball were marked with constant chatter about non-baseball issues, local politics and distracting questions about the prospects of a baseball-only facility. With the facility now in place, that noise is now gone and the Marlins are guaranteed to be in South Florida for a long time. They are staying in this market and therefore, the organization ought to be (and appears to be) committed to trying to make baseball (and the associated economics) work here, in this unique, challenging sports market. In other words, the focus of the organization can shift solely to making this work; not getting a building paid for and built.
5. The Television Deal: The importance of the new broadcast deal cannot be understated. Low ticket revenues may be a constant in this market for years to come, but the revenues generated from a new television deal may be a game-changer for the economics of the Marlins organization. The Marlins’ current television contract with Fox Sports Florida provides just $18 million to the organization, tied for the worst contract in the business. The Marlins can renegotiate the deal for the 2020 season, at which point, a new deal could potentially provide double or triple the revenue. Looking around at recently-signed television deals, it would not be unreasonable for a new deal to bring in $40-$60 million a year. It’s clear the TV deal played a part in the Giancarlo Stanton contract, given the design of the back-loading of the dollars. 2020 could clearly mark a new dawn for the organization.
Call to the Pen
4. Sales, Marketing and PR: Public relations have always been an issue for the Marlins, but in the past year, the Marlins actually managed not to put their foot in their mouths. They introduced the “Jose’s Heroes” $499 season ticket offer, they launched a loyalty program and sagging ticket prices seemed to stabilize on StubHub. They had engaging social media initiatives with the #JOSE4ROY campaign and the #VoteHitsMcGehee campaign. Their community efforts continue to be very visible and frequent with the “Marlins Ayudan” program. Though none of these changes and initiatives translated to sell-out crowds or break-through TV ratings, they do appear well-positioned to take advantage of the anticipated on-field improvement toward the goals of winning fans back and building stability on the business side of things.
3. Stanton’s Contract: Some point to the opt-out clause Stanton requested as an “out,” but from the Marlins standpoint, they have put themselves on the hook to guarantee a bona fide MLB superstar plays for the Miami Marlins until the 2028 season. That’s putting their money where their mouth is, and along with the associated no-trade clause, is a more clear demonstration of intent and potential to be sustainable as any they’ve ever made. It’s a signal that they anticipate increased revenue streams in the future and from Stanton’s standpoint, it’s a signal that what he was hearing from ownership was aligned with a vision for the future that he found intriguing.
2. New Leadership: One of the bolder moves Loria made was releasing long-time leader Larry Beinfest and promoting Michael Hill to the helm. All reports seem to indicate he is an intelligent (a Harvard class president) and capable leader. The changes he has made have been noticeable. Hill has added several well-respected scouting executives to his team, he has expressed a commitment to locking-up the “core” players, and he’s stressed the important of “team” and culture. Talent comes and goes, players come and go, but culture, leadership, talent development and philosophy are sustainable. Michael Hill appears to understand that in a way Beinfest didn’t.
1. A Plan: The A’s have Moneyball, the Rays had “The Extra 2%,” and it seems like the Marlins now have their own plan – call it “Michaelball,” for lack of a better name. In small revenue markets, the A’s and Rays found it possible to maintain low payrolls *and* have an enviable roster of talent with serious and consistent playoff possibilities. Is this possible in Miami as well? The Marlins now seem to think so.
From the outside, the “Michaelball” plan appears to consist of:
- Culture, Culture, Culture – Stressing the values of a positive clubhouse culture, a supportive “team first” atmosphere and acquiring players and coaches that align with those values.
- Sign the Core – Signing the 5-6 “core” players to long-term deals. Besides Stanton, Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Adeiny Hechavarria have reportedly also been offered long-term deals.
- Fill the Roster with “First Six” Guys – Exploiting the baseball loophole where players in their first six seasons are paid under-market rates. Evaluating talent effectively to acquire youth with star-caliber talent to complement the “core” players at low payroll compensation levels, (i.e. Mat Latos, Dee Gordon, Steve Cishek, Jarred Cosart, Carter Capps, Tom Koehler, Bryan Morris, A.J. Ramos, etc). Given the small market, these guys are likely the ones that will be churned through and moved when they hit free agency in exchange for comparable players in their first six years.
- Fill the Holes with Veterans – Signing short-term strategic veterans to complement the core,€ (i.e. Ichiro Suzuki, Michael Morse, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Martin Prado, Dan Haren, Jeff Baker, Jeff Mathis, etc). These guys will naturally come and go as well.
If that is indeed the new “Michaelball” plan, then that’s something Marlins fans should be excited about. That’s new. That’s different. And that’s sustainable. That’s a payroll of $60-$70 million with legitimate playoff hopes. The core 5 or 6 guys will stay; the other players will change over time, but that is a sustainable approach to have a winning product.
Is sustainability on the business side and the baseball side really imminent? As David Samson told The Miami Herald in November: “There’s no question that in the next two years we will be back to where we were in 2012 [in attendance], and then we expect it to grow from there. Now we have stability and sustainability, which is something this franchise has not had in the past. It’s time for some good days in a row.”
Time will tell, but these six signals seem to indicate the Marlins organization may be on the cusp of a new era; an era that isn’t marked by peaks and valleys, but one marked by consistency and sustainability.
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