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January 5, 2009

Prospectus Today

Too Much Sun

by Joe Sheehan

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Bear with me for a moment. I recognize that this is a relatively small issue I'm about to get into, but it's Monday, and I'm a little under the weather, and there's not much else going on other than 40,000 Manny Ramirez rumors. I understand he's accepted a sponsor's exemption to the FBR Open, and will be guesting on a three-episode arc of "House" during the May sweeps.

Last month, the Florida Marlins non-tendered right-handed reliever Joe Nelson. Nelson was the Marlins' best reliever last season, leading the team's pen in strikeouts, strikeout rate, K/BB, and ERA. That he doesn't show as well in the context-adjusted stats-he was just sixth in WXRL-points to how he was used, but inning-for-inning, he was their best reliever. The Marlins, apparently concerned about Nelson's eligibility for arbitration, declined to offer him a contract and allowed him to become a free agent. Nelson subsequently signed a one-year, $1.3 million contract with the Rays. It seems fair to say that the free-market salary Nelson got represents an upper bound on his potential cost, so the Marlins probably could have kept him for that same $1.3 million. Again: their best reliever last year, and they'd already traded away Kevin Gregg and cut loose Doug Waechter. Non-tendering him was a pretty questionable decision at the time.

Fast forward to last week, and the news emerges that the Marlins have reached an agreement with Scott Proctor on a contract for 2009 worth $750,000, and another $250,000 in incentives. Now, the Nelson decision looks so bad you might think it makes cars for a living.

The Marlins had a reliever coming off of a healthy and effective season, with some history of success in his past, who they could have retained for a minimal investment. Instead, they cut him loose and brought in a pitcher who, although two years younger, is a much higher risk, is coming off of a brutal season curtailed by injury, and who looks for all the world like a pitcher broken by a two-year stretch of overuse. Proctor is 26 months younger than Nelson, but his elbow is much, much older than 32.


                 IP     RA   BB   SO   HR
Proctor 2008   38.2   6.98   24   46    7
Nelson 2008    54.0   2.67   22   60    5

For want of $550,000-probably less than that-the Marlins traded the guy on the bottom for the guy on the top. Those lines don't reflect that Proctor will be coming off of elbow surgery, or that he made 83 appearances in both 2006 and 2007 before the elbow went bad in '08. Moreover, it's not like Scott Proctor has any upside. He's 32, and we know what his career years look like. He's never had a season like Nelson's 2008, and while it's a lot to expect that Nelson would repeat that performance, the gap in the two pitchers' upsides is significant. The Marlins don't have a slew of young arms they're making room for, as is made clear by their need to sign Scott Proctor and his sling. They simply wanted to save what amounts to a rounding error in the overall team budget.

Why am I making such a big deal over this? Well, I got in trouble last month when the Marlins non-tendered Nelson, for calling the team "a blight on the face of the American sports landscape." I stand by that statement. I'm certain there are Marlins fans, and I'm certain that there is an argument to be made that their approach to success cycles has some merit. However, you have a sports organization that has, for more than a decade, had exactly one goal, and that goal has not been "to win a championship." That the Marlins fell into a title in 2003 happened, but the real goal of this franchise has been to get its hands on hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local tax revenues in the form of a new stadium. They haven't cared how much of an embarrassment they've become, haven't cared that their payroll falls below the central fund revenues they get from the rest of the league, haven't cared that the actual attendance at their games often falls below five thousand people. They can turn a profit, and they can continue to make a reach for that $300 million jackpot.

That makes you a blight on the face of the American sports landscape. It makes Jeffrey Loria an abomination as an owner. It does not, I should emphasize, reflect upon Larry Beinfest or the baseball operations staff, who have done yeoman's work under awful circumstances. That doesn't mean that the franchise should continue to exist though, because it exists solely and entirely to steal taxpayer money.

The Marlins made themselves appreciably worse for 2009 so they could save a half-million bucks. Just go away already.

One other thing...the Associated Press story on the signing included this gem:

The Marlins needed bullpen help after the departures this offseason of right-handers Kevin Gregg to the Chicago Cubs, Doug Waechter to Kansas City, and Joe Nelson to Tampa Bay.

There's absolutely no context presented for that paragraph, so let me fill it in. Those pitchers are gone, but they're gone because the Marlins dumped them. Gregg was traded (in a great deal), Waechter was outrighted to the minors, and Nelson was non-tendered. The above implies that the Marlins have been decimated by the loss of their best relievers to free agency, when in fact it was the Marlins who cut ties with each and every one of them. The noun isn't "departures," it's "dumping." Read the sentence with that one word change and decide for yourself which is factual.

We know that columnists aren't going to comment on the truth-that the Marlins have become an embarrassment to MLB, sucking up industry dollars through the welfare program and tax dollars through other means-but it would be nice if the reporters would make an effort to get the facts right, so that it didn't look like a complete and total cover-up.

Sorry, Doug. We're still trying.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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