Monkey See, Monkey Do


By now you’ve heard of the mega-trade between the Blue Jays and Marlins that has drawn the ire of many a writer. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria dumped over $150 million in contracts in exchange for seven players, all with talent, but all with some questions.

April 14, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria before a game against the Houston Astros at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

In the context of Marlins history (and Loria’s as an owner), the outrage is warranted. It brings back memories of Wayne Huizenga selling off parts after the 1997 World Series win. In the present day, the Marlins have just asked for a hefty investment from taxpayers for a new stadium, went out and signed Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and promised to be contenders. Then they finished in last, which is the justification the Marlins are giving now for the salary dump.

It’s bulljive, of course. The Marlins are soaking up revenue sharing while slashing their payroll about as low as possible. I don’t think it’s cynical to see this as a purely financial decision.

On a recent episode of the Kansas City Baseball Vault, Jeff Herr made a good point about baseball and business. In any other business, your profits and revenues come from providing a good or service and you benefit by having a better good or service. In baseball, it’s possible for teams to make a profit just off of revenue sharing and their typical ticket sales if they don’t invest in player salaries.

But if this were any other owner or team would the outrage be the same? Think about it like this – Loria signed some big time free agents to big contracts and was able to move them for prospects and now sits with available space to sign more free agents. What’s to stop another owner from trying the same tactic? What’s to stop, say, David Glass?

September 21, 2011; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals owner David Glass watches batting practice before a game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE

Glass has said repeatedly that he’s willing to pay a bit more to improve the team, especially as they get to where they should be contending. He’s also said that he’s not looking to profit with the team but to break even (and let’s just assume that that’s both true and accurate). But what if he wants to make a big splash and goes after Zack Greinke with a six year $165 million offer, then goes and gets Anibal Sanchez for the seven year $100 million deal he wants, gets them to pitch in 2013 and 2014 then trades them off to some team willing to take on the money for a couple of post-30-years-old pitchers?

It’s a stretch, sure, but in theory, it could be possible. The Marlins moved Bell after a rough season where he lost his closer’s job. Buehrle has always been above average and consistently so, but he’s going to be 34 once the 2013 season starts. Reyes has battled injuries the last few seasons and turns 30 next year as well. Josh Johnson, another part of the deal, made just nine starts in 2011 after a shoulder injury and will make nearly $14 million in 2013. He looked fine in 2012, but injuries can lurk. The Marlins have payroll flexibility and may have dumped off some aging or high-risk players.

There are some traps in this plan, of course. For one, if you don’t find a trading partner willing to take on the salary, you’re stuck with a big contract that’s probably very pricey in the seasons when players aren’t still as valuable. Also once you trade one player, others may see what you’re up to and hesitate (or the Commissioner blocks the deal – Bud Selig is presently still reviewing the trade). There’s also the problem of signing free agents later on. That’s definitely a concern for Miami. How can they go out and pursue free agents this offseason if players just saw them pull this stunt? Buehrle moved to Florida with a rescued pet pitbull, a breed which is illegal in the province of Ontario. Can’t imagine he’s too happy about settling down, thinking he’d be with Miami for years, then have the rug pulled out from under him.

Marlins superstar Giancarlo Stanton voiced his displeasure on Twitter right after the trade. Is it worth upsetting a franchise player when you’ve limited your ability to sign other free agents, made your team worse (in the short term) and ticked off all of your fans? I’d say probably not. I doubt they’ll be bringing up the idea of a contract extension with him any time soon. He may even end up traded himself. They’ve made it known that Logan Morrison and Ricky Nolasco are both on the block. It’s a liquidation sale.

I don’t think Glass would do anything like this, but strategically, it’s a cagey move. Rent a player, move their big salary, get players in return (and by dumping a salary on another team, that’s money they can’t use for payroll for other spots. The team benefits by getting quality players, dumps the contract before it’s at it’s most expensive and gets players in return. With just that considered, it seems like a solid tactic. Maybe Glass won’t be the guy to try it next, but I bet someone else will.

(Note: Somehow, Josh Johnson’s inclusion in this deal slipped my mind – so many moving parts. He’s included in the mentions. I should also mention that John Buck was in the deal going to the Blue Jays, as well.)