In the 1959 Vincent Price horror film House on Haunted Hill, a menacing rich man invites a group of young strangers to survive the night at an enormous, ghastly estate he has co-opted for his own nefarious purposes. Price excelled at this role, playing the eccentric, affluent villain who uses his fortune to manipulate others to his will.
In the early 1960s, Price helped the Sears company begin the sale of original works of fine art. A young art history graduate named Jeffrey Loria got his start with Sears and the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art. In his short time at that job, one could be forgiven for assuming Loria learned a bit too much from Price, as he has spent most of the last 20-plus years using his fortune to toy with the lives and fears of baseball cities, players, and fans.
We, as fans or as a culture or whatever, generally want baseball to be about the glory of competition, authenticity, and equality. Young, virtuous athletes giving it their all, managed by men of good moral standing who expect the best of them, and ultimately controlled by ownership who wants to win championships and improve the community: That’s what baseball is supposed to be about, in a sort of “Linus explaining things to Charlie Brown” kind of way.
Another thing, besides the Price connection, that helps explain Loria: as a 26-year old, after that job with Price at Sears, Loria wrote a book about what Charlie Brown can teach the world. By all accounts, it is the book of a dull capitalist explaining in dull capitalist ways all the way the kids should get off his lawn.
While we might assume Vincent Price’s influence led Jeff Loria down his path to eventual baseball villainy, Loria could just as easily have been influenced by Price’s frequent director William Castle. Castle favored making movies cheaply, and filled with gimmicks, with a P.T. Barnum-esque level of disdain for the audience’s intelligence. The thing about horror movies that Hollywood has long known is that people just want to get that emotional reaction — edge of the seat fear and an eventual jump of surprise — and will pay good money for a bad product to get it. We might call this approach mercenary or cynical, but in the end Castle and Price gave audiences what they were promised: quick, reptile-brain thrills for relatively cheap. Jeff Loria is not the sort of man, it would seem, who falls for Linus’s idealism. He’s more of a Snoopy, crassly winning a lights and display contest while his blockhead owner bemoans the decline of authentic values to the altar of materialism.
All this to say: perhaps Loria is not a villain so much as an opportunist. He infuriates the baseball fan because he is so honest about the motivations that lead him to maintain one of the two or three lowest payrolls in baseball for most of the past decade-plus, while having a new stadium built on the public’s dime and obstinately dealing any contract away before he has to deal with it. He’s in stark contrast to the values we espouse to prize in baseball, while making no secret that his focus is on money, and baseball is one way to realize that focus. He runs the Miami Marlins the same way you read glowing writeups about how some CEOs run Fortune 500 companies: skimp and save every penny, don’t pay for anything you don’t need to, maximize value at all costs.
When Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, Billy Beane’s genius was identified as one that could apply the principles of finding value from Wall Street to the baseball diamond. Loria has, somehow, found a way to pull a nega-Moneyball: focusing not on the way the players can bring value to the “team” on the field but how the whole baseball system can bring value back to the team as a business. That many in the baseball-fan community lionize Beane as a genius while decrying Loria as a cancer on the game says more about us as fans than either of them, as Loria is simply playing the same part that baseball owners have played since William Hubert formed the National League as a way to centralize control of the game at the ownership, rather than the player, level. What makes Loria so crass and villainous is the degree to which he has been open about his goals and desires, compared to the ownership groups and families and corporations who exercise their profit-margin-counting measures in secret for most of the other 29 major league clubs.
Baseball is a business, in the simple ways in which most of us participate in it, and Loria has mastered many of the business world’s tricks. It used to be a person could work his or her way up the corporate ladder, as Dan Jennings did in order to go from scout to cross checker to scouting director to VP to Assistant GM to, finally, General Manager for the Marlins in 2013. But Jennings was victim to one of the most unexpected corporate restructurings this side of an AOL-Time-Warner deal, going from General Manager in the front office to Manager of the clubhouse in June 2015 before being unceremoniously let go from the organization at the end of the season. It was a head scratching move from a baseball point of view, but in today’s modern economy many corporations frequently consolidate roles–especially among middle managers– as a cost saving measure.
Of course, making your General Manager into your Manager and then firing him is pretty bad PR. Luckily, for all their flaws as a well-run organization, the Marlins have some of the smartest PR in baseball. Sometimes when a corporation is floundering under bad press, they bring in exciting famous names in figurehead roles to help change the conversation. For the Marlins, they needed a manager and Don Mattingly needed a job, and he’s the sort of recognizable, media-savvy guy who the Marlins love to bring in to usher in a new dress code/facial hair policy and whip the department into shape. They also brought in Barry Bonds as batting coach, which is basically the “External Process Consultant” or “Marketing Guru” of roles in a baseball team. While Donnie and Barry will get the press, they quietly restructured and made their President of Baseball Operations, Micah Hill, back into their General Manager– the same title he held before Dan Jennings took it over in 2013.
In addition to the PR three-card-monte in the front office and clubhouse, the Marlins did add Jim Benedict as Vice President of Pitching, which is both the most corporate-HR-person-assigns-a-baseball-job-title role imaginable, and an acknowledged step forward for an organization that is infamous for moving prospects through its system quickly while having very little “system” to speak of in terms of talent. In some ways it is not at all surprising that the Marlins have traditionally had a hard time recruiting talent into their front office, since no middle manager particularly LOVES the idea of the owner coming in and telling him to shake up his department on a whim, and Loria is the type who might do that on occasion. On the other hand, coaches and managers cost very little compared to players, and Loria seems the type who knows paying for good managers/consultants/corporate retreats can help morale on the factory floor and good morale can boost productivity and productivity means more black ink at the bottom of the ledger.
|Mia||Record||wRC+||SP ERA-||RP ERA-||DRS||UZR||BsR||Pay – $M|
|2013||.383 (29)||73 (30)||104 (16)||92 (15)||-56 (26)||-29 (24)||-5 (18)||30 (29)|
|2014||.475 (18)||93 (19)||110 (24)||91 (11)||-5 (18)||-3 (17)||-6 (22)||51 (30)|
|2015||.438 (24)||88 (25)||109 (21)||94 (15)||37 (3)||18 (8)||0 (16)||64 (30)|
The Marlins could use a boost to on-field productivity. Like most big-name corporations, they have a fair amount of turnover every year as they shakeup one department in order to focus energies in another. Heading into 2015, the Marlins had leveraged their long-term holdings, in the currency of their top prospects, to exchange them for high-risk reclamation projects. In that sense, buying Mat Latos and Dan Haren in 2015 was a lot like deciding to start a house flipping business right before 2008, but the Marlins never met an investment they couldn’t sell low on and they head into 2016 with a pitching staff that includes Jared Cosart and Tom Koehler as the only common links between opening day rotations.
The rotation that is left looks to be improved from 2015, but we said the same thing about 2015’s rotation compared to 2014 and ever and ever amen. Jose Fernandez is undeniably exciting, potentially the second best pitcher in baseball long-term, and still just ridiculously young to be this good. Behind him, Wei-Yin Chen provides an ability to eat innings as one of the most underrated number 2-SP’s in the game, and is exactly the kind of player the Marlins can offload the second moving his contract to another team makes better business sense than letting him continue to start for them. Cosart and Koehler are fine, serviceable even, and the addition of Edwin Jackson to fulfill the role of “Marlins pitcher who will let the Phillies and Braves win a couple more games this year” makes perfect sense given that he is essentially free for them to employ. They have a handful of arms at the upper levels of their farm, the most interesting ones probably being Justin Nicolino and Adam Conley, and while none of these arms project to provide the team much impact, they should slot in right alongside Koehler and Cosart as being able to list “Strike-throwing Coordinator, Miami, Current Position” on their LinkedIn profiles to get attention from recruiters.
The lack of starting pitching depth is one of the bizzare, nega-Moneyball strategies the Marlins have consistently taken not just in the rotation but across the entire roster. A few years ago, when the A’s were finding platoon partners for every position in their lineup and giving at-bats to Sam Fuld and Eric Sogard on the regular, it was popular to say that depth was the new Moneyball. The Rays and Dodgers have also illustrated how roster depth is one of the most popular tools to the “smart” front office, while the Marlins have steadfastly held firm that depth doesn’t make good business sense. In this way, they are right: if the goal is to waste as little money as possible, paying extra players who aren’t even going to play every day is bad economics, especially if you have to pay those guys a minimum salary. If the goal were to maximize wins, rather than dollars, then perhaps the pros outweigh the cons and “stars and scrubs” becomes a less reasonable strategy. Loria’s Marlins have no contractual obligation to provide wins to their stakeholders, though. They are required to play 162 baseball games, maybe fewer if the weather breaks right. They will fulfill their contractual obligation, and if you attend in person you will get to eat a cuban sandwich, drink a light beer, and watch a giant fish statue sing and dance when Giancarlo hits a home run over the recently-moved in walls.
Stanton’s home runs and those newly-closer walls should be one of the brightest baseball spots in 2016’s lineup, so that statue should get plenty of opportunity to do its little show. Entering his age-26 season with a guaranteed pay-day waiting when he inevitably opts out of his record-shattering backloaded contract in a few years, Stanton has nothing left to prove but his health. Should his body allow it, Stanton will join what was, last year, an exciting young outfield and what is, this year, a still young outfield that has shown its floor.
Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna both had seasons on opposite ends of the “disappointment” spectrum, with Yelich failing to deliver on his 2014 promise but still showing tons of room to continue developing into a potential All Star, and Ozuna pissing off the boss enough that it is a surprise to all of us, Loria likely included, that he remains on their roster heading into Spring Training. We can think Mattingly for Ozuna’s continued inclusion on the team, as reportedly he was able to talk Loria out of trading Ozuna away this winter. Ozuna hit his floor early in 2015, and bounced back a little bit by the end of the season. He can still play fine in center, although he profiles better in longterm corner, and he’s the sort of player for whom big exciting PR move hitting coaches can generate talks of a rebound.
In the infield, the Marlins extend the stars and scrubs concept to its logical extreme, wherein the star is Dee Gordon and a number of guys who could be pretty good for stretches. Justin Bour plays the role of Rule 5 pick made good with a decent enough bat. Martin Prado plays the veteran who is somehow the highest paid member on the payroll for 2016 at $11 million, but they still got New York to pay $3 million for this year. Adieny Hechavarria plays the glove-first shortstop whose name your favorite team’s color commentator will fail to pronounce correctly regardless of how frequently they play against each other. Chris Johnson is now a Marlin, and that’s a thing that will for sure continue to be true for a good portion of the year.
So who is left? The bullpen, with A.J. Ramos and Carter Capps at the top of it, will continue to be a great thing for baseball analysts to write about when they remember needing to write about the Marlins. The bench is Derek Dietrich and Jeff Mathis and Ichiro’s hunt for his 3,000th Major League hit. The farm system is Tyler Kolek’s question mark of an arm. The fan base is defined primarily by a visored gentleman who attends other teams’ playoff games.
The Marlins, then, appear to be perfectly suited for another middling year of contractually obligated baseball games. Baseball being what it is, the difference between the near certainty of a 73-win season and a lucky stretch leading to 85 wins or a dumpster fire decline into 60 wins isn’t much. The Marlins are good enough to be interesting unless they aren’t.
Which brings us back to Loria, and what we think of them. Plenty of teams are good enough to be interesting unless they aren’t. We’ve written about a number of them here in the past week, and there are a number more still to write about. The Marlins are different to us, as fans, because of Loria. His strict adherence to his team’s bottom line, rather than the authentic sportsmanship and smell of the grass and perfect symmetry of sixty feet six inches yadda yadda, offends our Ken Burnsian sensibilities.
We want Loria to the villain, the horror movie evil genius with a master plan that destroys all that is good on his own road to eventual comeuppance and failure. We want him to be Vincent Price.
Instead, though, maybe Loria is the sort of shrewd baseball mind looking for every advantage in order for the team to meet its stated goal. That goal is to entertain, in a way that is as profitable as possible. We just need an excuse to sit at the edge of our seats, and we’ll suffer through whatever terrible quality is handed to us in order to justify the sweet release of the thrill.Next post: It’s Always Sunny for the Los Angeles Angels: 2016 Season Preview
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