Fire Sale Begins to Pay Off for Marlins, for Now

By Tyler Kepner

New York Times

Five major league teams lost at least 95 games last season, and four find themselves far below .500 again, a bystander to the pennant races. The Houston Astros, the Chicago White Sox, the Chicago Cubs and the Minnesota Twins are all but assured of another lonely October.

The Miami Marlins are a playoff long shot after finishing 62-100 last season. A winning record, which the team last achieved in 2009, is a possibility few saw coming because the Marlins traded five veterans to Toronto after their expensive flop in 2012.

“Our owner, Jeffrey Loria, took a lot of heat for that deal,” said Michael Hill, the president of baseball operations for the Marlins. “But we really felt we needed to reset who we were and who we were going to be moving forward.”

The Marlins had tried to be big spenders as they prepared to move into their new stadium in 2012, committing $191 million in free agency to shortstop Jose Reyes, starter Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell. The team quickly went sour, and now, after one year of pain, the deal with the Blue Jays makes more sense.

The Marlins shipped Reyes and Buehrle, among others, for seven players, including starter Henderson Alvarez, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and an outfield prospect, Jake Marisnick. Alvarez is having a good season, Hechavarria is the regular shortstop, and the Marlins included Marisnick in an intriguing trade last month.

Houston sent Jarred Cosart, a 24-year-old right-hander in his first full season, to Miami in a six-player deal for Marisnick and Colin Moran, a third base prospect the Astros had internally ranked as the second-best player in the 2013 draft. (Houston picked first in that draft and chose pitcher Mark Appel.) Cosart has been impressive in his starts for Miami. He cannot be a free agent until after the 2019 season, and he could help form a strong rotation for years to come with Alvarez, Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi and Tom Koehler.

Fernandez, last season’s National League rookie of the year, had Tommy John surgery in May. Hill said that Fernandez was proceeding as scheduled and that the team was optimistic.

“Next May, June or July, whenever the time is, you couldn’t ask for a better addition for your team than a healthy Jose Fernandez,” Hill said.

Fernandez and outfielder Giancarlo Stanton form a captivating attraction in a city that craves star power and just lost LeBron James from the Heat. The issue stalking the Marlins is how long they can keep their best players, especially Stanton, who could become the first player in franchise history to be the NL most valuable player.

Stanton is leading the league in homers, runs batted in, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He was stung by the Toronto deal, saying so publicly on Twitter, and when asked by Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports whether the team’s solid season had changed his view of the organization, Stanton said, “Five months doesn’t change five years.”

Stanton, 24, remains under club control through 2016, and Hill said the Marlins and Stanton had pledged not to negotiate an extension during this season. Hill said he was not concerned about Stanton’s comment.

“I’m with him every day, and I know how he feels and what he feels,” Hill said. “He’s having a great season and having a ton of fun. All he wants to do is focus on getting this team to the playoffs and winning another championship. That’s his sole focus, and I support him in that.”

Even if they lose him after 2016, the Marlins seem likely to stay relevant in the pennant race until then. They have an outfield to envy, with Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna.

A strong bullpen has also helped the Marlins, whose relievers’ ERA ranked 12th in the majors. The setup man Bryan Morris, who cam from Pittsburgh in a June 1 trade for a draft pick, has dealt with hip soreness lately.

Major league teams cannot trade draft picks except those assigned for competitive balance, a wrinkle in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Hill said he would like the chance to trade more picks.

“It’s tied to the basic agreement,” he said, “so there are larger issues, but hopefully in the next round, it’s brought up, because it’s exciting. It’s another way to access talent.”

The Marlins, who are making progress as they defy convention, would surely like to take advantage of it.