On August 25th, the Boston Red Sox, a team which would finish the season in last place at 69-93, traded away two recently acquired big-ticket stars, along with their highest-paid pitcher. They received in return several well-thought-of minor-leaguers and a major leaguer whose potential always exceeded his performance.
On November 13th, the Miami Marlins, a team which had finished the season in last place at 69-93, traded away two recently acquired big-ticket stars, along with their highest-paid pitcher. They received in return several well-thought-of minor-leaguers and a major leaguer whose potential always exceeded his performance.
The Red Sox and their ownership were immediately praised throughout baseball for their skill in escaping such onerous contracts, and their savvy in committing to a homegrown youth movement. The Marlins and their ownership were immediately pilloried for an unprincipled salary dump. How could two such similar trades produce such completely divergent reactions? One reason, of course, is that the Marlins acquired Jeff Mathis in their trade, and any team that trades anything for Jeff Mathis deserves at least some mockery. What it truly comes down to, however, is credibility. Red Sox ownership has it, and Marlins ownership doesn't.
Imagine you have two friends. At a dinner party, each friend tells you that they've decided to quit their job and open a brewpub. The first friend has been a lawyer for ten years and has a fine home with a reasonable mortgage. The second friend has bounced from job to job for the last five years, and currently rents a one-bedroom. Are you going to react to their respective decisions the same way? They've both done the same thing, certainly. But knowing what you do about them, you'll assume that the first friend is taking a calculated risk and hoping it works out, and the second friend is making another foolish decision that he'll abandon in six months.
The same is true of these two franchises. Conveniently enough, John Henry sold the Marlins to Jeffrey Loria just before buying the Red Sox, so the timelines even work out. So let's look at the last decade.
From 2003-2012, the Red Sox won 908 games, a .560 winning percentage, and made the playoffs six times. Over that span, Boston's payroll averaged $137.6 million. The Marlins won 798 games, a .493 winning percentage, and made the playoffs once. Over that span, Miami's payroll averaged $45.9 million ($36 million if you discount last year's now-worthless spending spree). In 2006, the Marlins' Opening Day payroll was under $15 million. It got bad enough, in fact, that the MLB Players' Association had to officially warn the Marlins that they weren't spending enough money on players, to which the Marlins responded by reluctantly extending Josh Johnson and agreeing to a deal in which the MLBPA would be able to monitor their finances. If right now you're guessing that said deal ended about ten minutes before they traded their entire roster to Toronto, then congratulations.
Now, the reason that the MLBPA was able to swing that finance-monitoring deal is that the Marlins were receiving revenue-sharing payments. Revenue-sharing, for those who don't know, is actually not a terrible idea. Since it tends to get boring when the Yankees, Red Sox, and other big-market teams are able to buy all of the players and win all of the championships, MLB implemented a system in which the big-market teams subsidize the small-market teams. It's not foolproof, of course, the small teams still need to spend the money competently (just like the big teams), but it is useful in terms of competitive balance. Or, if your interest is less in competitive balance and more in squeezing out every last dime of possible profit, you can trot out minimum-wage rosters, claim desperate poverty because of an unengaged fanbase, and pocket the revenue-sharing checks.
Clever, right? What makes it all the more profitable is if you can tell your home city that the major obstacle to your team's competitiveness is a lousy stadium. Sure, the Marlins won championships at their old park on two occasions, but if the team had extra luxury boxes and a kickass bar, the turnstiles would really start spinning. After all, it worked for Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook. So Miami threw almost half a billion dollars into a new stadium (everyone's been calling it gaudy, but I mean, this is Miami we're talking about, the damn thing's positively understated), eagerly awaiting the powerful team that would follow. And thus we saw last winter's free agency splurge. It was a new Marlins franchise, everyone said.
But it wasn't. People don't change, and grifters change even less. The contracts were backloaded, and no one got a no-trade clause. Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell... Didn't matter how good the player, or how important they could be to Miami's contention. They had a sell-by date on them from the moment they signed. Just like Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Cody Ross, and every other Marlin who had the temerity to become expensive. (And all this doesn't even touch upon Loria's ownership of the Montreal Expos, about which see every fifth Jonah Keri tweet.)
The point of that long digression into the Marlins' organizational history is that it should be stunningly clear to everyone that Jeffrey Loria sees his franchise not as a sports team, or a community obligation, but as an asset ripe for squeezing. Wins on the field are entirely secondary to extra millions in a Cayman Islands account. Now, we can freely argue about how committed Boston's ownership is to the quality of the team. Hell, much of this season was spent in loud arguments over John Henry's possible preference for the Liverpool soccer team, and Larry Lucchino's manipulation of MLB's sellout rules. And certainly the guys ringing up ticket sales this year weren't in the least bothered that the three million fans that came through the Fenway gates came to see a losing team. But I don't think John Henry signed $175 millon in paychecks this year without caring whether the team won or lost, nor do I think ownership signed off on the Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez acquisitions on the assumption that they'd be flipped as soon as things went bad.
That's why when Ben Cherington pulls the trigger and sends Crawford, Gonzalez, and Beckett to Los Angeles as add-ons in the Nick Punto trade, everyone grants Boston the benefit of the doubt. Between two World Series wins, a revamped farm system, and a committed renovation of the greatest venue in pro sports, the current ownership group has built up a solid level of credibility. More importantly, they seem to understand that credibility isn't a permanent thing. You have to earn it every single day.
A baseball team isn't simply an asset that you can strip down and profit from through clever manipulation. It's a sacred trust, a pact with the citizens of your community. We agree to buy tickets from you, watch your cable coverage, buy your merchandise, and pay eight dollars for halfway decent beer. In return, you promise to put the best team you can afford on the field, and do everything in your power to give us the exultation of a championship. For all the easy jokes we can make about the size and interest of the Miami fanbase, somewhere in southern Florida there's a six-year-old kid in a Giancarlo Stanton jersey who deserves a better franchise. MLB has the power to make that happen, and whether they decide to use that power will say a lot about the future of the sport we love.