Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 16, 2014

No Cheer For Marlins Fans In Stanton’s Big Contract

The Great Game’s hot stove season has barely begun. Last Monday all 12 players who received qualifying offers from their clubs declined the one-year, $15.3 million contract extended by that offer. Instead all have chosen to pursue longer term contracts as free agents, knowing that their path to doing so has become at least slightly more difficult, since their current club is now entitled to an extra first round draft pick next June, and any other club they sign with will lose a pick in next year’s draft.

For some number of the dozen saying “no thanks” to a contract valued at the average of the top 125 player salaries the decision will prove costly. Last year Nelson Cruz, Stephen Drew, and Kendrys Morales paid the price for declining the then $14.1 million offer, as all saw their market shrivel because of the draft pick compensation tied to their signing. Still in the three years that the qualifying offer system has been in place not one of the 34 players who have received one has accepted it, so the dozen decisions announced last Monday scarcely qualified as news.

News is usually hard to come by in the early days of the offseason. Victor Martinez re-signed with the Tigers for four years and $68 million, Michael Cuddyer is moving from the Rockies to Queens after signing a two-year deal with the Mets, and A.J. Burnett is returning to Pittsburgh after a season in Philadelphia. There have been a few minor trades, notably the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson being shipped from Tampa Bay to Arizona for a couple of prospects. But Hellickson has never matched his first year numbers; so again, the announcement that he was being traded was hardly a “stop the presses” moment.

Most years the big news of blockbuster trades or premier free agent signings doesn’t come any earlier than baseball’s winter meetings, scheduled for December 7-11 in San Diego. Until then fans can only speculate about the eventual destinations of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, or Pablo Sandoval and David Robertson. But if the rumor is to be believed, and this rumor has been so widely reported that it’s impossible to ignore, the most dramatic and certainly the most expensive story of this hot stove season may not involve a big trade or any of the more than 120 free agents. From Miami comes word that the Marlins are negotiating a record-breaking contract extension with slugging outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. The numbers being reported are 13 years and $325 million.

If those numbers come to pass Stanton will be signing the richest contract in terms of total dollars in the history of the Great Game, baseball’s first $300 million man. The deal will put a fat explanation point on the recent trend of clubs to tie up their young stars with lengthy contract extensions while the player is still under team control, before their arbitration years have run their course and well before the star slugger or pitcher can be tempted by the lure of free agency. During last year’s offseason headlines were made by news of lengthy extensions for the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, the Angels’ Mike Trout, and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw.

In many ways Stanton, still two years short of free agency, is the prototypical long-term extension candidate. At age 25, he is already the face of the Marlins franchise. Since his first full season in 2011 only Cabrera and Toronto’s Jose Bautista have hit more home runs; but both of them are in their 30s. A two-time All-Star, Stanton topped the NL in home runs this season and has twice led the league in slugging percentage. While he also strikes out with monotonous regularity, modern analytics tend to view the K as just another out.

Because of his age, even with the reported length of the contract now being negotiated, the Marlins would stand at least a decent chance of getting value at the back end of the deal. In contrast, the five existing contracts valued at $225 million or more all extend past the player’s 40th birthday. How productive will Detroit’s Cabrera, the Angels’ Albert Pujols, the Mariners’ Robinson Cano, or the Reds’ Joey Votto be in the final year or three of their deals? As for the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, well that question has already been answered, and fans in the Bronx still have three more years to suffer.

But if everyone in south Florida hasn’t started celebrating the news of Stanton’s proposed deal (well, it’s probably understandable if Stanton is celebrating, so everyone except him), there is good reason. We’re talking about the Miami Marlins, a team that has finished below .500 five seasons in a row; a team just one campaign removed from a 100-loss season. Owner Jeffrey Loria has promised the team’s fan base great things before, only to shift direction dramatically when things didn’t work out the way he planned.

After receiving a huge dose of public financing to pay for the glittering Marlins Park, built on the site of the old Orange Bowl, Loria promised to field a competitive team and opened his checkbook. On Opening Day 2012 the Marlins payroll was $118 million, and included Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez. But that was the only year in the last seven that Miami has ranked higher than 24th in payroll. Three times in that span the team has been dead last in the majors. When the 2012 Marlins didn’t meet Loria’s expectations he quickly dumped all of his expensive contracts.

Last season the Marlins had the lowest payroll at $45 million and the lowest revenues as well. How can a team working with those kinds of numbers commit $25 million a year to one player, and expect to field a competitive squad around him? Perhaps Loria plans to open his checkbook once again, to more than just Stanton. But will he do so with no guarantee that fans will flock to Marlins Park? The team has sold over 2 million tickets just once in the last decade and a half.

What seems far more likely is that the Stanton contract extension, assuming it comes to pass, is just one more Loria gambit. Like wheedling a ton of public money for his stadium and like stocking one year’s team with big money free agents; now giving his team’s star hitter a record-setting deal is a way to draw headlines and maybe put some fans in the seats. But if that doesn’t happen, one can count the days until Giancarlo Stanton’s paychecks are being signed by some other owner in a far larger market.

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