In less than a month, the Florida Marlins have traded away their starting catcher, first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, and center fielder; their primary setup man; and Josh Beckett, the starting pitcher who led them to their 2003 World Series title. In return, they've received several prospects, some magic beans, and Sergio Mitre.
The Marlins will likely field the majors' youngest, least-experienced team in 2006. The trades have alienated fans still smarting from the team's 1998 dismantling as well as the city of Miami, which is now less likely than ever to build the baseball-only stadium the team covets. In PR terms, the trades are colossal failures. In baseball terms, they're the smartest moves the team could have made.
The "fire sale"—a rapid sell-off of a team's established players—is the sort of disreputable tactic historically employed by baseball's cheapskate owners. Like a shoe company moving its factory to Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor, teams exchange albatross contracts for younger, less expensive players and/or cash considerations.
One early practitioner was Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack, who had no qualms about selling off the team's "$100,000 infield" to save some dough. (Mack needed the money to spend on high-backed chairs and collar starch.) After winning 99 games in 1914, the team went a putrid 43-109 in 1915 and didn't have a winning season for another decade. During the 1976 season, flamboyant A's owner Charlie Finley tried to sell Vida Blue to the Yankees and Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox for a total of $3.5 million. Although the deals were ultimately voided, Fingers and Rudi left via free agency anyway; Blue was traded two years later. The A's went 87-74 in 1976, then 63-98 in 1977; the team didn't return to prominence for a decade.
By the 1990s, MLB's desperation traders wised up. When the Padres traded Gary Sheffield, Bruce Hurst, Tony Fernandez, and Fred McGriff for prospects and no-names in 1992 and 1993, fans turned away in droves. They came back in 1998 when San Diego reached the World Series, with much of the credit going to Trevor Hoffman and Andy Ashby, two players they received via their desperation deals. (They also recovered with a little help from the Marlins' 1998 fire sale, which netted them Kevin Brown.) Likewise, the 2003 World Series champion Marlins relied heavily on Derrek Lee, A.J. Burnett, and Braden Looper—all players acquired in the team's late-1990s purge. And the Indians' 2002 sell-off, which got them Travis Hafner, Coco Crisp, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore, looks like it will bear fruit in a 2006 playoff berth.
In baseball, just like any other business, the goal is to buy low and sell high. The most competent MLB front offices—the Braves, the A's—do this year in and year out, dumping their overpriced, underperforming veterans for cheap, up-and-coming talent. Prudent yearly pruning means you'll never have to face the requisite years-long drought that comes along with a fire sale. It's also much harder to get equal value for your players after alerting the market that everyone's for sale.
But if you've screwed up and get saddled with a bunch of big contracts, the fire sale can be your best friend. For one, it forces your team to commit to rebuilding. When most teams talk about rebuilding, they really mean that they're going to play two rookies and a few "veteran presence" retreads like Todd Hollandsworth and Damion Easley. But nothing ever changes if you repeatedly half-ass your way through a season—you just keep on being the Pirates.
The key to a good fire sale is to get value in return for your overrated nonsuperstars. Three of the players the Marlins dealt—Paul LoDuca, Mike Lowell, and Juan Pierre—played pitifully last year, and only Carlos Delgado and Beckett likely have many good years in front of them. But because this year's free-agent crop was so lackluster, teams had a lot of money to spend and not enough players to spend it on. The Marlins were able to create a new, parallel market for teams that needed bodies. Step right up, Omar Minaya! For just a few pitching prospects, all these bad contracts can be yours!
For the contract-shedding team, the fire sale is a backdoor draft—one in which the general manager has a better idea what kind of players he's getting. Many of the prospects the Marlins acquired—Mike Jacobs, Hanley Ramirez, and Anibal Sanchez, among others—are major-league-ready guys who can step in and contribute soon.
The players gained from a fire sale can also become valuable as future trade bait when your team gets ready to contend. The 1998 Marlins got Preston Wilson in a deal for Mike Piazza; in 2002, they parlayed Wilson into Juan Pierre and Mike Hampton. You can also use your prospects to acquire other prospects—in 1999, the Marlins got Lowell from the Yankees for three mediocre pitchers they acquired in 1998. Stockpiling young talent in the present lets you deal from a position of strength in the future.
So, why don't more teams follow the Marlins' lead? The Tigers, for instance, could have received a bunch of quality players this winter for Ivan Rodriguez; instead, they signed Kenny Rogers and will miss the playoffs again. Teams like the Tigers are afraid to signal to their fans that they're giving up. The guys who run MLB's small-market teams are like the Wizard of Oz, frantically pulling levers behind the scenes—a new manager here, a José Hernandez signing there—to project an illusion of competitiveness. All the while, they're hoping that a house will fall on the Yankees.
The Marlins will suck this year, which will disappoint their 17 fans. But it will be a short-term badness. In two years or so, when the Las Vegas or Portland Marlins are ready to get back to spending, other clubs will still be saddled with the bad contracts that Florida dumped on them this year. As the Marlins have deduced, what goes around comes around.