Jeffrey Loria deserves some love – and respect.

November 20, 2012

[B.A.B.E.S. member Marc Whyte challenged me to defend the Marlins’ blockbuster trade with TOR this week.  I am happy to oblige.  I welcome your Comments grading my persuasiveness.]

The headline this morning on ESPN.com was “Marlins salary-dump trade is finalized.”  This was  accomplished only after Commissioner Selig reviewed the deal under the “best interests of baseball” clause.  Anytime you see that analysis, you know that most people smell a rat.  Indeed, from the fans’ reaction in Florida and the commentators’ opinions still spewing forth nationwide nearly a week after the deal was first announced, we all know who they view as the rat:  Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.

The words used to describe the Loria-directed trade include “deplorable” (Parting Shot’s Jemele Hill), “betrayal” (Miami Herald beat writer) and “the ultimate con” (ESPN’s Buster Olney). I would like to know more about Olney’s “con” theory, but since ESPN charges money to read his column, I only know what is in the teaser (talk about a con job!) Grantland’s Jonah Keri did call Loria a “genius,” but it was not expressed in the best sense of the word.

Once again I find myself in opposition to most of the baseball media “professionals” who somehow view this trade as a crime against humanity – or at least against the good people of South Florida.  They could not be more wrong, and even Bud Selig knows it.  Here is his official statement issued in connection with approval of the trade:

This transaction, involving established major leaguers and highly regarded young players and prospects, represents the exercise of plausible baseball judgment on the part of both clubs (and) does not violate any express rule of Major League Baseball and does not otherwise warrant the exercise of any of my powers to prevent its completion….”

As a lawyer, I appreciate the “plausible baseball judgment” standard Selig applies (the “business judgment rule” is a beautiful thing).  But in my view, this trade is based on much more than plausibly good sports judgment, or whatever lowest-acceptable-standard you want to apply.  I won’t go into a detailed analysis of the players involved, but viewed solely in the context of the 2012 performance there is nothing to suggest that the players traded away (and the salary dumped) will result in the Miami Marlins winning fewer games in 2013.  Remember, these essential players that were just shipped off to TOR contributed to a grand total of 69 wins this season, tied for 25th out of 30 teams (but they were 7th in payroll).

Personally, I admire Loria’s blunt assessment of the deal: “We finished in last place!”  What did they expect him to do beyond firing Ozzie Guillen?  As one of the all-time great tennis players preached: “Never change a winning game. ALWAYS change a losing game.”  And this team composed mostly of 2d choice free agents (Reyes excluded) was way over-valued by most observers (including me).  It took only half the season to reveal that there was no chemistry between the players or with the manager – and of course the only chemistry Ozzie knows is chain-reaction-explosion. The team was not likely to be better in 2013 with the remaining nucleus and with WAS, ATL and PHI to compete with in the NL East.  Why not save $150 million and look for some better chemistry?  It’s not like it has never been done before, like about 3 months ago in BOS.

And why does Loria get vilified while John Henry and Ben Cherington get free passes?  The fact is that Miami’s trade is exactly the kind of reboot that BOS did with the Gonzalez, Beckett, Crawford trade with LAD.  Almost no one criticized that deal (at least not from BOS’ point of view) or called for John Henry to be expelled from the ownership ranks.  One blogger argues that the Red Sox’s Henry has “credibility” and Loria does not.  What?  Henry may have one more title than Loria, but he also presided over a monumental disaster since BOS’s last win in 2007.  He and Theo Epstein signed several bad-fit free agents, hired the wrong manager and finished in last place, just like the Marlins.  Why should they be allowed to dump their stars in a rebuilding effort, but the Marlins not?

There is clear a double standard at play here, and it is founded upon the constant and clearly erroneous belief that money buys championships.  BOS gets a pass on the deal with the Dodgers because everyone assumes that the Red Sox will replace these high-priced players with other high-priced players.  Cherington even issued a press release last week stating: “I know that we’ll have a very strong payroll, a large payroll. I know that we’re going to add to it this winter. I’m confident in saying that we’ll be amongst the larger payrolls in the game.”  The Marlins, however, all the experts assume, will sit on their hoards of money generated by the new stadium that Loria swindled out of the South Florida tax payers.

How many times do I have to say this to these “experts”:  A BIG PAYROLL DOES NOT GUARANTY WINS!  Supposedly John Henry knew this in 2002 when he tried to hire Billy Beane. If so, he clearly forgot it as he let his payroll balloon and his team ultimately swoon.  Ditto for the Yankees and the Angels and so many other teams I have mentioned here in years past, and again this year.  Just as I predicted in September, only 5 of the top 15 payrolls made the post-season in 2012.  (“Billy Beane for President” – 9/5/12).  SFO was #8, but their payroll was still only 55% of NYY’s.  The evidence is simply too compelling that you can’t buy a pennant or a World Series banner.

Loria may have felt obligated last winter to sign big names to appease the masses that were paying for his stadium, but that was PR not baseball smarts. He can’t be accused of conning the fans and taxpayers when these contracts were only signed after the stadium was built and the funds spent.  I haven’t read the bonds issued by Dade County, but I’m fairly certain they do not require a minimum Marlins’ payroll.  Only the MLB Basic Agreement requires that, thanks to our civic-minded MLB players association.   This is the same players association that is said to be incensed that Loria would trade these stars even though he expressly refused to give them a no-trade clause. No one seems to recall that the players agreed to take his money without the contract provision.

That he refuses to give players, even top free-agents, a no-trade clause is another reason to admire Loria, in my opinion.  Any organization must have its principles, and most should be built on maintaining control of its destiny.  Preserving the right to trade unproductive or cost-effective players is a foundational principle of the Miami Marlins, and I respect that.

So, I’ll close with a simple declaration that I admire Loria for his courage to admit that the front office made several mistakes and for taking aggressive action to change a losing game.  The power to make this trade was retained by the shrewd adherence certain principles such as rejecting no-trade clauses.   As you know, I believe the most admirable championship team is one that was constructed not with a checkbook but with research and determination and even courage to admit that you made some dumb free-agent signings and are happy to find someone willing to bail you out of them.

I am now officially a Miami Marlin fan again and am pulling mightily for them to be the surprise success story of 2013.   If it can happen in Oakland, it can happen in Little Havana.

(JSR) © 2012

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