Marlins Moneyball by President Michael Hill

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Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is praised for outsmarting the system in a small market. The Miami Marlins’ Michael Hill appears to have found his own way to outsmart the system…

Do the Miami Marlins have their own version of Billy Beane or Pat Riley? I’m starting to think so…

Even with league-low attendance and disastrous public sentiment, it would appear the Marlins have found a way to game the system for the good of the on-field product. Not with on-base percentage, but with another strategy that is so basic that it’s genius.

Service Time.

As background, Major League Baseball rules dictate that a player remains under the control of his organization for the first full six seasons of his career. They can’t go anywhere. But there’s more. The rules also dictate that every Major League player be paid the minimum allowed salary, which is approximately $500,000 (it increased to $507,500 for 2015.) Seasons four, five and six dictate the player and club must agree to a market-rate, one-year contract, but still far less than what a player would likely receive on an open market where the club that overpays signs the player.

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In English? It means you can have a player for the first six seasons of their career and the rules dictate a compensation structure that is extremely favorable for the club… especially a club playing in a low-revenue baseball market like South Florida.

In other words, load your team up with super-talented, super-motivated, super-young “first six year” guys and you have a 25-man roster that can compete at a very low price point. The 2015 Marlins will have a payroll near $65 million and by many accounts, have serious postseason aspirations.

The secondary, and quite ingenious, benefit? In the first six years of a player’s career, players are hungry. They are playing to earn their spot in the Major Leagues. Then they are playing to up their arbitration years’ salary. Then they are playing to get their big free agent deal. The motivation to work hard, to get that extra workout in and to skip that cheat meal, is just a tad stronger. How often do we see a player sign a huge free agent deal only to fail to meet expectations? Albert Pujols, Curtis GrandersonRyan Howard, Chase Utley, shall I go on? From a team financial standpoint, those heavy contracts for underperforming players are paralyzing!

The Marlins roster may be close to two-thirds full of “first six-year” guys who will be expected to contribute in a major way: Dee Gordon, Adeiny HechavarriaJose Fernandez, Marcell Ozuna, Henderson AlvarezMat Latos, Jarred Cosart, Tom KoehlerSteve Cishek, Mike Dunn, Carter Capps (somewhere down the line), A.J. RamosBryan Morris, and the list goes on. Hill has used these “first six year” guys as the keys to supplement his roster’s long-term core players (Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich). Then the strategic veteran pick-ups (Michael Morse, Ichiro Suzuki, Martin Prado, Dan Haren, Jarrod SaltalamacchiaJeff Baker and Jeff Mathis) fill in the gaps.

The safer money is spent on the draft and international scouting and the Marlins allocated the most funds in all of baseball to those areas in Michael Hill’s first year. Finding the next Ozuna, Fernandez and Yelich and having them for the first 6.5 years of their career is the blueprint – and it makes all the sense in the world.

Purely from an economics perspective, the Marlins are playing this game about as well as the Athletics and Rays, two organizations as respected for their baseball vision as any. It’s time to group the Marlins front office in that light. Michael Hill knows what he’s doing. And I’m pretty glad he’s a Marlin.

Next: MLB investigating claims that Jarred Cosart gambled on sports

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