J.T. Realmuto deal continues stunningly sad Marlins tradition

1. The first J.T. Realmuto[2] trade rumors started to show up in September 2016, like this one[3]:

The Marlins are frequently asked about Christian Yelich[4] and J.T. Realmuto but are loath to part with either rising star.

Doesn’t look like much, but for two key facts. The first is this had come roughly two and a half months after Realmuto got good. Before that — say, through June 17, 2016 — he’d been OK, but nothing special: “Perfectly adequate is probably his ceiling,” Baseball Prospectus’ prospect team wrote before the 2016 season[5], and through June 17 that’s what he was, a contact hitter with little power and not much plate discipline.

But on June 18, 2016, he got hot and never cooled off. His plate discipline got better, and that continues. His power on fly balls got better, and that continues:

He has led all catchers in WAR over the past two seasons, he has the fastest “pop time[6]” of any catcher[7], he runs faster than any other catcher[8], and he hits like a right fielder. You wouldn’t have known it was happening right away, but by September 2016 you’d have been convinced he was legit. He was making the major league minimum and had more than four years until his free agency.

The second key fact is he was a Marlin. For the Marlins, a trade rumor denial is the official certification of the player’s value, and when that fact is officially certified it doesn’t matter what else they tell you: He’s getting traded. By June 2017[9], the Marlins were “listening.” By the next winter, the other half of that original denial, Christian Yelich, was gone. And now, Realmuto is too.

Of the Marlins’ all-time top 25 players, by WAR — Realmuto ranks 16th — 23 have now been traded away, rather than held onto until they reached free agency. The other two truly are the exceptions that prove the rule: A.J. Burnett and the Marlins hated each other by the end, but Burnett made it to free agency because the “much-discussed” deal to send him to Baltimore “hit a snag[10]” when the Marlins kept trying to throw more of their players into the swap. The other, Jose Fernandez, died in a boat crash before reaching free agency. The Marlins had tried to trade him too, according to former team president David Samson[11]; it was the other team, Samson claimed recently, that stopped the deal.

This is not normal. The Rockies, who debuted as a franchise the same year the Marlins did, have held onto nine of their all-time top 25 through free agency or retirement, and an additional four of those 25 are still on their roster. The expansion Diamondbacks have traded only 14 of their all-time 25, and even the notoriously proactive Rays have kept seven of their all-time top 25 through free agency. The Marlins are genuinely weird. They trade everybody.

Every trade tells a story. But these 23 trades together tell three bigger stories. That’s the first one: The Marlins are weird, all the time. In their own way they’re the most stable franchise in baseball, because their weirdness is a permanent state. Each of these trades, on its own, could be justified for baseball or financial reasons, but none of these trades any longer stands on its own. They’re all part of the ongoing story of the Marlins: Whoever owns them, whoever runs them, becomes, by definition, Florida Man.

2. It is a bit more complicated than that. The reasons the Marlins give when they trade their players has changed.

Go back to the first wave of Marlins trades, right after their first World Series title, in 1997. The famous Wayne Huizenga fire sale that winter included trades of Jeff Conine (No. 11 on the franchise WAR list) and Kevin Brown (No. 20). The moves were justified entirely as financial necessities: Huizenga claimed to have lost $34 million the previous year, he claimed there was no way to increase revenue in Florida without a new stadium, and he was cutting payroll so he could sell the team. The Marlins were open about the fact they were making a good team worse. They just claimed they had to. It wasn’t the Marlins’ fault, it was Miami’s.

That story carried through the trades of Gary Sheffield (No. 15) and Charles Johnson (No. 18) the next spring, and for more than a decade of Marlins cheapskatedness to come. When they traded Luis Castillo[12] (No. 3) before the 2006 season, it was “a tough trade to make but necessary given the market correction to our payroll,” said Larry Beinfest, their president of baseball operations. When they traded Josh Beckett (No. 19) and Mike Lowell (No. 9), Beinfest said “this trade is difficult, but necessary because of the payroll market correction.” They claimed they really, really wanted to keep Dan Uggla (No. 7) but they couldn’t afford the extension he was demanding. After trading Miguel Cabrera[13] (No. 5) and Dontrelle Willis (No. 10) the next year, owner Jeffrey Loria said in a statement, “We cannot ignore the economic realities we face, which will change the moment we are in a new facility.”

That was the story: Economic realities. They liked all these guys. They wanted to keep them. They just couldn’t pay for them without more support from the fans, without more support from the region, without a new stadium. Sad :(.

3. But the taxpayer-funded stadium opened in 2012, and the way the Marlins talked about these trades changed. Here’s what they’ve said after trading franchise players since then:

  • Of trading Hanley Ramirez (No. 2 all time): “I don’t know how you would call it a fire sale to trade players of [a] team that’s underperforming so spectacularly. … When we put the team together, none of us had any idea that we would be underperforming en masse.”

  • Of trading Anibal Sanchez (No. 22): “Let’s face it. The current group that was here was not winning. We’re not winning as it is, so we might as well try something else.”

  • Of trading Josh Johnson (No. 4): “We finished in last place. Figure it out.”

  • Of trading Marcell Ozuna[14] (No. 14): “We’re going to build this thing the right way from the ground up.”

  • Of trading Giancarlo Stanton[15] (No. 1): “We’re trying to fix something that is broken.”

Those are five different executives — Samson, Beinfest, Loria, Michael Hill and Derek Jeter — representing two different ownership groups but telling the same story. No longer “there’s not enough money here,” but rather “the players are not good enough here.”

One way to get better players is to help the players you have get better. That’s what that big organization of coaches, analysts, nutritionists, physical trainers and front-office executives are theoretically there for: They’re part of this big collaborative effort to help players get better. Hundreds of major leaguers overperform expectations every year, and an optimistic view of baseball says that’s more than enough reason to hope.

This is not the story about baseball that the Marlins have told over the past decade. Their vision of baseball has been the guys they hired are bad, and the franchise should just start over. And over. And over. Yelich was under club control for five more years when he was traded. Dee Gordon for four, Stanton for at least three, Ozuna for two and Realmuto for two. It’s an astounding lack of imagination that can’t consider any way out of that scenario other than a teardown.

It’s too bad, because a lot of the Marlins’ all-time top 25 players are fantastic examples of how unpredictable baseball is, and what incredible things can happen when a player works hard, has good coaches, gets some opportunities and some good breaks and unexpectedly develops into something nobody really saw coming. Realmuto, for example.

References

  1. ^ Close (www.espn.com)
  2. ^ J.T. Realmuto (www.espn.com)
  3. ^ this one (www.mlbtraderumors.com)
  4. ^ Christian Yelich (www.espn.com)
  5. ^ before the 2016 season (www.baseballprospectus.com)
  6. ^ pop time (www.espn.com)
  7. ^ any catcher (baseballsavant.mlb.com)
  8. ^ runs faster than any other catcher (baseballsavant.mlb.com)
  9. ^ By June 2017 (www.mlbtraderumors.com)
  10. ^ hit a snag (www.washingtonpost.com)
  11. ^ according to former team president David Samson (nesn.com)
  12. ^ Luis Castillo (www.espn.com)
  13. ^ Miguel Cabrera (www.espn.com)
  14. ^ Marcell Ozuna (www.espn.com)
  15. ^ Giancarlo Stanton (www.espn.com)