In Defense of Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins

The Marlins aren't perennial contenders, and that's OK (via Roberto Coquis).

The Marlins aren’t perennial contenders, and that’s OK (via Roberto Coquis).

For two years now, I’ve held an opinion that conflicts directly and dramatically with the consensus (if not unanimous) opinion of the world of baseball. I suspect that I stand so brazenly alone in holding this opinion that I fear it places me in the same lunatic fringe as a conspiracy theorist. Nonetheless:

I believe the Miami Marlins have been executing a good team-building strategy.

Two very important caveats here:

  1. The Marlins’ team-building strategy has been “good.” It hasn’t been “great,” nor “revolutionary,” nor would it necessarily be a good idea for other teams to replicate. I do contend, however, that it is far from villainous or cynical or apathetic, as is so often portrayed to be the case.
  2. I know next to nothing about the decidedly shady scenario involving the financing of Marlins Park and how taxpayer money was perhaps mis-utilized in said financing. Dave Zirin and his readers are welcome to chide me for my lack of good-citizenry awareness on this point.

The thing is, I like to read things that are about sports, and when this topic has popped up ’round the sporting parts of the Internet, there’s this little governor in my brain that causes me to space out and scroll on to the next thing, because it’s a story about politics, not about sports. Consider it a personal area of improvement.

It is totally true that the Marlins’ stadium financing must be given serious weight when considering the holistic value and worth of the franchise’s total history. I intend to limit the scope of this article strictly to the factors that have affected the Marlins’ ability to compete for the World Series, and the address and construction of their home field contributes very little impact toward this competitive quest.

It is, however, impossible to discuss the Marlins’ competitive situation without discussing their owner—and resident premier villain of the MLB—Jeffrey Loria. Loria is one of the few characters across the majors who unites both pundits and online commenters, who happily concur with one another as they voice their collective disdain for Loria’s meddlesome methods.

The collective assumption is that Marlins general manager Dan Jennings operates more or less entirely underneath the boot of his intrusive boss, being allowed no freedoms as he dials up one of the other 29 GMs to deal away valued Marlins prospects for pennies on the dollar, all at Loria’s bidding. Loria strips his own roster of any and all sizable contracts (and talent) in order to push his team down the standings, personally reaping the profits while his fans watch a non-fictive iteration of the Bad News Bears from their own personal row.

Are these assumptions about Loria true? Does he really treat the major leagues as a competitive farce? How do Loria’s teams compare against the teams of the other 29 present owners in MLB? Compared against the other owners, how often does Loria win regular-season games, get into the playoffs, or win a World Series? The chart below lists the comparative performance of all current major league owners, ordered by the date they acquired the team:

Results During Tenure, Current MLB Owners
Playoff Appearances World Series Championships
Owner Team Purchase Year # #/Year (Rank) # # /Year (Rank) W/L% (Rank)
Jerry Reinsdorf White Sox 1981 5 0.15 (19) 1 0.03 (T-7) .512 (10)
David Montgomery Phillies 1981 8 0.24 (15) 1 0.03 (T-7) .503 (T-12)
Jim Pohlad Twins 1984 8 0.26 (T-12) 2 0.07 (5) .491 (T-17)
Mike Illitch Tigers 1992 4 0.18 (18) 0 0 .465 (24)
Bill Neukom Giants 1992 6 0.27 (11) 2 0.09 (3) .524 (8)
Nintendo Mariners 1992 4 0.19 (17) 0 0 .491 (T-17)
Charlie Monfort Rockies 1993 3 0.14 (T-20) 0 0 .471 (22)
Peter Angelos Orioles 1993 3 0.14 (T-20) 0 0 .472 (21)
William DeWitt, Jr. Cardinals 1995 11 0.57 (4) 2 0.11 (2) .541 (6)
Robert Nutting Pirates 1996 1 0.05 (25) 0 0 .440 (T-27)
Ken Kendrick Diamondbacks 1998 5 0.31 (10) 1 0.06 (6) .498 (15)
Stuart Sternberg Rays 1998 4 0.25 (14) 0 0 .461 (25)
Larry Dolan Indians 1999 4 0.26 (T-12) 0 0 .503 (T-12)
David Glass Royals 2000 0 0 (T-26; last) 0 0 .426 (29)
Rogers Communications Blue Jays 2000 0 0 (T-26; last) 0 0 .493 (16)
John Henry Red Sox 2002 7 0.58 (3) 3 0.25 (1) .564 (3)
Jeffrey Loria Marlins 2002 1 0.08 (T-23) 1 0.08 (4) .483 (20)
Fred Wilpon Mets 2002 1 0.08 (T-23) 0 0 .485 (19)
Arte Moreno Angels 2003 5 0.45 (6) 0 0 .548 (5)
Robert Castellini Reds 2005 3 0.33 (T-8) 0 0 .503 (T-12)
Mark Attanasio Brewers 2005 2 0.22 (16) 0 0 .506 (11)
Lewis Wolff A’s 2005 3 0.33 (T-8) 0 0 .516 (9)
Lerner Enterprises Nationals 2006 1 0.13 (22) 0 0 .460 (26)
Liberty Media Braves 2007 3 0.43 (7) 0 0 .539 (7)
Thomas Ricketts Cubs 2009 0 0 (T-26; last) 0 0 .440 (T-27)
Hal Steinbrenner Yankees 2010 3 0.75 (T-1) 0 0 .574 (1)
Ray Davis Rangers 2010 3 0.75 (T-1) 0 0 .570 (2)
Jim Crane Astros 2011 0 0 (T-26; last) 0 0 .333 (30)
Mark Walter Dodgers 2012 1 0.5 (5) 0 0 .549 (4)
Ron Fowler Padres 2012 0 0 (T-26; last) 0 0 .469 (23)

All through end of 2013 season. (Includes Wild Card single-elimination games as playoff appearances.)

Intriguingly, it appears that the most reliable way to win a World Series as an owner is to own a team for a very long time. Only eight current owners have won a World Series, but of the five longest-tenured owners, four of them have won a World Series.

Out of the seventeen owners to purchase a team in 2000 or later, only two of them have won a World Series. One of those two victorious modern owners is John Henry, famously at the tip of the spear of the sabermetric revolution in Boston. The other is Loria.

How to interpret Loria’s 20th-overall finish in winning percentage? It’s certainly an uninspiring mark, and it doesn’t take a giant leap of imagination to picture Jim Crane’s Astros, Thomas Ricketts’ Cubs, Stewart Sternberg’s Rays, Lerner Enterprises’ Nationals, or even Ron Fowler’s Padres all in the near future surpassing the Marlins’ .483 mark under Loria.

But Loria, even with the one scarce playoff appearance in his 12 years of ownership so far, has still consistently overseen the assembly of competitive teams. Robert Nutting’s Pirates, David Glass’ Royals, and Mike Illitch’s Tigers (even with their recent elite performance) all lag significantly behind Loria’s winning percentage, and Charlie Monfort’s Rockies and Peter Angelos’ Orioles are behind as well despite an additional decade of experience. Perhaps with the exception of Angelos, these men are not lampooned quite so often.

Another variable that’s important to consider is that Loria is working in a baseball market that presents as many challenges as attempting to establish a luscious farm in the middle of the desert. After a short (and relatively unimpressive) honeymoon period following the Marlins’ inception in 1993, neither victory nor new ownership nor a new stadium has reaped the Marlins anything but league-worst attendance:

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.
The Marlins Built It, They Did Not Come
Year Fans/Game NL Rank Marlins Win% Significant Event
1993 37,837 5 .395 Brand-new team
1994 32,838 6 .443 Players’ Strike
1995 23,950 8 .469 Players’ Strike
1996 21,565 10 .494
1997 29,189 5 .568 World Series Champions
1998 21,362 13 .333
1999 16,906 15 .395
2000 15,041 15 .491
2001 15,570 15 .469
2002 10,038 15 .488 Loria assumes ownership
2003 16,089 15 .562 World Series Champions
2004 21,272 14 .512
2005 22,871 15 .512
2006 14,372 16 .481
2007 16,919 16 .438
2008 16,482 16 .522
2009 18,075 16 .537 Finished five games out of Wild Card
2010 18,825 16 .494
2011 19,494 16 .444
2012 27,400 12 .426 New stadium
2013 19,584 15 .383
2014 21,453 15 .519 Through May 27

Even a 91-game winner in 2003 (Loria’s eventual World Series winner—this chart only includes regular-season attendance) and a legitimate Wild Card race in 2009 were unable to lift the Marlins off the attendance-ranking floor. Marlins attendance was a critical problem even before Loria’s tenure, it dropped significantly in each of the first four years of franchise history, even while the team improved its winning percentage with each subsequent season.

A near-total lack of attendance creates a confounding and cascading series of disadvantages for a revenue-strapped team. One solution, executed famously and near-flawlessly by the A’s and the Rays, is to hire a group of totally transcendent analytical minds to shift all of baseball’s paradigms on their ear until money is no longer one of the game’s most valuable resources.

But let’s say that you can’t find a totally transcendent analytical baseball mind. (They are, I hear, quite rare.) One plausible but high-risk strategy is to decide to pursue cyclical—not sustained—success. That is, for most seasons, keep your focus on developing young (low-cost) talent, and then push all of your chips and saved-up shekels to the center of the table when you feel there is an opening for your team to succeed.

The steps that a team in pursuit of cyclical success could take might look something like this:

  1. Nail your draft picks and international signings. Acquire an ace like Josh Beckett, sluggers like Miguel Cabrera, slick gloves like Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez.
  2. Conduct a ton of trades, swapping established veterans with known ceilings in exchange for a multiplicity of minor leaguers. Not all of them will work out. Not all of them have to. You trade Kevin Brown but you get Derrek Lee. You trade Matt Clement but you get Dontrelle Willis. You had to trade three prospects to get Mike Lowell, but it’s okay. (All three of them will bust anyhow.)
  3. You sense your team is ready to compete. In the offseason, you trade major leaguers for major leaguers now. You trade Cliff Floyd, which hurts, but you get Carl Pavano. You trade Preston Wilson—who is going to get MVP votes the year after you trade him—but you get Juan Pierre, who will get MVP votes in the next two years. Sign a marquee free-agent to a short-term deal: Ivan Rodriguez for one year, $10M.
  4. Your team is competing, but you need help at the trade deadline in order to get over the top. The time is now! Trade Adrian Gonzalez—he’s just a prospect now, it’s fine—for Ugeth Urbina. Trade for Jeff Conine.
  5. Win the World Series.
  6. Look, you can’t do this again next year. You can’t spend that sort of money on free agents every offseason, and you sacrificed some real talent in the trades of the last 12 months. Lee and Juan Encarnacion are traded. Rodriguez is allowed to walk. The retooling must begin.

In the winter of 2011, the Marlins thought that they were at Step #3. They pushed in all of their chips to the center of the table—an essential part of cyclical success—and ran wild over the free-agent market, signing Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle and pursuing Albert Pujols. When the Marlins ran aground the following season, finishing 69-93 in 2012, with no additional attendance or revenue to show for their spending, they had to change course, and quickly, because paying superstars was not sustainable for a small-market team that drew in fans like they played in a minor-league market.

In winter of 2012, the Marlins hit reset and went back to step #2, swapping major leaguers in exchange for minor league talent—a large quantity of minor league talent. Their blockbuster deal with the Blue Jays was despised from the moment it happened. But now, a medium distance away from the trade, we can see that the major league veterans Toronto acquired in the deal have produced at about the same dollars-to-WAR efficiency as the very green prospects Miami acquired. (Justin Nicolino is still in the minors, and Anthony DeSclafini just made his debut this month.)

November 19, 2012 — The Toronto-Miami Megadeal
Player New Team WAR Salary (2013 + est. 2014 YTD) fWAR $ – Value w Team Net Value
Emilio Bonifacio Blue Jays 0.3 $1.5 $1.8 $0.3
John Buck* Blue Jays
Mark Buehrle Blue Jays 4.3 $14.1** $22.6 $8.5
Josh Johnson Blue Jays 0.5 $11.25** $2.7 ($8.55)
Jose Reyes Blue Jays 3.0 $12.4** $15.3 $2.9
Blue Jays Totals 8.1 $39.25 $42.4 $3.15
Justin Nicolino Marlins
Henderson Alvarez Marlins 2.7 $0.66 $14.0 $13.34
Anthony DeSclafani Marlins 0.0 $0.1 $0.1 $0
Derek Dietrich*** Marlins 0.8 $0.6 $4.5 $3.9
Adeiny Hechavarria Marlins (2.0) $2.91 ($10.1) ($13.01)
Jake Marisnick Marlins (0.2) $.5 ($1.0) ($1.5)
Jeff Mathis Marlins 0.0 $1.98 $0.5 ($1.48)
Marlins Totals 1.3 $6.75 $8 $1.25

*Buck would not appear for the Blue Jays, as he was traded to the New York Mets as part of the deal that brought R.A. Dickey to Toronto. While he did contribute to the Blue Jays as an asset in that package, I’m not sure how to represent that value here.

**Per stipulation of the trade, the Marlins paid the following sums of each player’s 2013 salary: $3M of Buehrle’s , $2.5M of Johnson’s , and $3M of Reyes’ . The numbers included in this chart already have subtracted the Marlins-funded portions of these salaries.

***Yunel Escobar was originally included in the trade between the Blue Jays and Marlins. However, weeks later, in the same offseason, the Marlins and Tampa Bays Rays traded Escobar and Dietrich in a one-for-one swap. Thus, Dietrich is represented here.

If not for Hechavarria’s calamitous performance—which, it is worth noting, came mostly in the consequence-less, low-leverage depths of last year’s Marlins season—the Marlins already would be significantly ahead of the Blue Jays in acquiring wins per dollar. Despite Buehrle’s fantastic start to this 2014 season, it would not be surprising to see the prospects acquired by the Marlins surpass the Jays’ haul in net value by the time September rolls around and perhaps also in WAR a few years down the line.

And what did Loria and the Marlins lose with their disaster of a 2013 season? A vicious tongue-lashing in the court of public opinion, yes, but it’s not as if he lost any potential ticket sales—Miami crowds weren’t going to come to the games to see a winner anyhow. Instead, the Marlins received a ton of salary relief and, more importantly, a ton of prospects to develop alongside their potent nucleus of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Jose Fernandez. While Loria may never receive respect in baseball until he leads an annual 90-game winner, it may be unrealistic to expect a perennial contender to exist in Miami.

What the Marlins are is a cyclical contender. What it means, amongst other things, is that when this generation of Marlins inches closer to true playoff contention, Loria and the front office will push all of their chips to the middle of the table.


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Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.
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MikeS
Guest
MikeS

You make a reasonably good case, except that leaving out the stadium deal is sort of like saying “Yes, yes, Mrs Lincoln, but, apart from that, how did you enjoy the play?”

SouthFL
Guest
SouthFL
The Marlins are not revenue strapped. You can’t cry poor when your payroll is lower than the revenue sharing dollars you get from the teams that actually try. The players had to actually threaten a grievance against the Marlins to use the revenue sharing at least on players+player development. Jeffrey Loria makes more $ the more he pisses off the local fans. Trick the locals into paying for a stadium that, turns out, is purposely engineered to make football impossible sell off all MLB caliber players that aren’t under team controlled small salaries, piss off all fans, get no local… Read more »
Jason
Guest
Jason
I’ve had similar thoughts about a cyclically successful team. There are 26 or more teams that would love a world series win every decade or so, even if it means lean years in between. However, I think you are understating the effect this has on attendance. You talk about the ‘unimpressive initial honeymoon’ and declining attendance in the first few years, but gloss over the strikes. ’94-’95 were terrible years to be trying to start and build a franchise, and not good indicators at all for the potential size of the Miami market. Sure attendance dropped to 23950/game in 95,… Read more »
Mike
Guest
Mike

Decade? The Cubs would settle for one per century.

tz
Guest
tz

“Cyclical contention” is a fairly successful mid-major college basketball strategy. With a limited of 13 total scholarships, smaller schools can use redshirting to develop a core of say 5-7 rotation players who will graduate in the same year. The junior and senior years become the opportunities to make the NCAA tournament and perhaps play Cinderella. Once that core graduates, their scholarships free up and allow the school to start the cycle all over again.

Mike Lortz
Guest
Interesting article. I keyed in on the attendance part as I run a site examining the much-maligned Tampa Bay market. As for the Marlins, I’ve followed them since they started – they used to spring train in my home town until Loria moved the spring complex. Fond memories of getting autographs from Charlie Hough, etc. But I digress. The Marlins are in a tough market. Especially since 2010. The Miami Heat run the Miami sports market. Tough to compete with that. Giancarlo Stanton does not have the pull LeBron James has for area dollars or fan interest. The Marlins also… Read more »
ColKiner
Guest
ColKiner

As a Royals fan, I’d take winning one World Series 7-9 years any day of the week.

SouthFL
Guest
SouthFL
ColKiner, you might take a World Series every 7-9 years, but when the team plainly only TRIES, for the most part, during that once every 7-9 years, why would fans even bother paying attention when they aren’t? Listen, I’m not a Marlins fan. I’m a Braves fan primarily (closest team growing up and on tv daily). The Marlins have more titles but I would rather watch the Braves on a regular basis. The Braves or other similar team is always trying. They have a chance to win and thats why we all are wanting. Every time the Marlins have won… Read more »
Rrr
Guest
Rrr

Reason #132456 why sports radio talk show hosts are powerless buffoons

Steve O
Guest
Steve O
As a 17 year old Marlins fan, I can tell you it’s not easy. I’d like to believe I know a lot as a baseball fan considering I’m commenting on this website and read FG daily. To Marlins fans, the winning percentages mean nothing. Miami hates Loria because he plays the role of GM too often. See last year when the front office wanted to demote Rob Brantly but Loria vetoed. Or signing Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle but not going all in by going after Yoenis Cespedes (I know hindsight is 20/20 but even I knew center field at… Read more »
Matthew Murphy
Member
I think one of the keys is that Loria didn’t seem to give the new stadium in Miami enough time to see what ticket sales and revenue would be like if the team attempted sustained success with a higher payroll. In the year they built the new stadium, the Marlins sold 8,000 more tickets than the year before, which would mean about $20M in extra revenue (70% of which would be kept by Loria). While they may not have kept that entire gain in 2013-2014, they may have been able to keep attendance in the 23-25,000 per game instead of… Read more »
Frigidevil
Guest
Frigidevil

Nice article, but you missed one big point. How can any players trust the Marlins management after the blockbuster trade with the Jays? Reyes and Buehrle were promised they wouldn’t be traded. Sure, they didn’t get a no-trade clause, but you don’t tell someone to ‘get a nice house in Miami’ and then imediatley get rid of them. It might not be agaisnt the rules, but I don’t see how the players association can have any respect for the organization after that.

FIFA World Cup 2014 Opening Ceremony Live Stream
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FIFA World Cup 2014 Opening Ceremony Live Stream, Any time FIFA in October 2011 given Brazil’s productive business center Sao Paulo as the Planet Cup’s cracking open match up location, these people did not that is amazing 11 times prior to kickoff this ground may not get ready.

ben
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ben
Except they didn’t push all their chips in. They traded a high pick for a replacement level reliever and signed another replacement level reliver with the money saved. If the marlins wanted to maximize their return they could have gotten much more than what they got. The market for free agents with compensation attached shows as much. Also the analysis is flawed by assuming that every strong year is a world series winner. At best you could say each strong year gives you a 1/8 chance of winning the world series, and Loria happened to hit his last time. I’d… Read more »
D
Guest
D

You may like to look and see what Bryan Morris is doing for the Marlins as a “replacement” level reliever!

Charles
Guest
Charles
Loria is meddlesome when he’s gutting the payroll, but also too when he’s expanded the payroll or kept it the same. His trades and signings for Stevens, Colon, Irabu produced new bills for the Expos, resulting in cash calls that the local owners didn’t fulfill. Then there was the meddling in the Delgado, Leiter, Pudge deals in which Loria personally courted and pressured the front office to act. At that point of 2003-2005 Forbes estimated the club was experiencing a loss of over 30 million. Of course by 2006 that had reversed that they captured in one year’s profits nearly… Read more »
Pirates Hurdles
Guest
Pirates Hurdles

Calling Bob Nutting the Pirates owner since 1996 is a misnomer. Kevin McClatchy was the Pirates managing general partner and leader of the group that purchased the team in 1996. He stepped down as owner in 2007 and former minority owner Bob Nutting took his place. Nutting radically changes the landscape in Pittsburgh, spending record amounts on the draft and latin america markets as well as increasing payroll to record highs. The change at the top fundamentally changed the organizations approach and on field production.

Jason
Guest
Jason
Pirates opening-day payroll: 2014 78M (27th) 2013 79M (20th) 2012 63M (26th) 2011 46M (27th) 2010 35M (30th) 2009 49M (28th) 2008 49M (27th) 2007 39M (28th) 2006 47M (27th) 2005 38M (28th) 2004 32M (28th) 2003 55M (18th) 2002 42M (24th) 2001 53M (19th) He may have increased his payroll to record highs, but that’s more a matter of inflation than anything. Relative to the other teams, there has been no increase. They have dropped salary relative to the league since 2006 versus the five years preceeding. I don’t see how any Pirates fan can look favorably on this… Read more »
Paul G.
Guest
Paul G.
While the cyclical strategy is defensible, when the team wins the World Series it should make a real effort to defend that championship the next season if at all possible. The Marlins failed to do that either time. It gives the impression that the team does not care, which is no way to build a fan base. The loyal fan base is how a team ensures decent attendance in the lean years and hopefully upgrades to something better than trying to compete once a decade. The latest talent dump was defensible as a baseball move, but given past history it… Read more »
Leon
Guest
Leon
A few things: 1) Marlins fans are evenly distributed across Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Building a new (or using an existing, god forbid) stadium makes way more sense than competing with Fins and Heat fans in Miami-Dade geographically and traffic-wise. The Marlins know this, but Miami-Dade offered the most public money in the short term, artificially decreasing attendance: http://tinyurl.com/mtr27k7 2) Selling off your team in this way also artificially reduces attendance. The article never addresses that this anomalous trend–low attendance despite championships–may be due to some of the worst PR imaginable from ownership and the front office, coupled… Read more »
jigokusabre
Guest
jigokusabre

“It is worth noting [Hech’s terrible WAR] came mostly in the consequence-less, low-leverage depths of last year’s Marlins season.”

Which is mostly the only time he’s played. He’s been equally bad in 2014, and show no sign of improvement.

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider
I lived in Miami for several years in the 1980s-before the Marlins or Heat were there. I have a friend in Miami who used to be a huge baseball (Cardinals) fan but who now refuses to go to see the Marlins because of Loria and the stadium. (Although, in fairness, I assume that the Marlins stadium is no more corrupt than the other new stadiums that have gone up.) He may be an outlier-he tends to hold grudges-but he can’t be the only person that feels that way. I understand the article addresses the team building aspect but, as other… Read more »
Jorge
Guest
Jorge
I am a Miami resident and I will not attend Marlins games for numerous reasons. Let’s start with my overall theory of baseball. When I was a kid, baseball was like the ugly girl that you liked because she had a great personality. She didn’t quicken your pulse (like her hot sisters football and basketball), but she had some undefinable charm that kept you loyal to her. I grew up in the 70s and early 80s. At some point in the 90s, either due to the strike or the steroid scandal, the ugly yet charming girl cheated on me, and… Read more »
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