The following was originally published in the 2014 edition of Baseball Prospectus. In a departure from established practice, this year's edition features contributions from a wide array of outside writers, who came through with a series of essays that shows off the full stylistic diversity of contemporary baseball writing. They're funny and sharp and incisive, and make a great complement to the annual's usual mix of esoteric statistical analysis and informed inside scuttlebutt. All of this is to say you should pick up this year's edition—if you like baseball at all, you'll dig it.
The fate of the Miami Marlins, in 2014 and years to come, will not in any meaningful way depend upon Chris Valaika. This is also true of every other major-league team. It's true because Chris Valaika is Chris Valaika, a fringy owns-a-bunch-of-gloves infield type who has done some striking out and some playing-of-various-positions and not much else over small parts of three big league seasons, the most recent of which came in Miami in 2013.
But the statement above is also true, in a more immediate sense, because Chris Valaika will not be with the Marlins in 2014—he signed a minor league deal with the Cubs a couple weeks before Thanksgiving after earning a career-high 70 plate appearances with the second-worst team in baseball. But, for all the mostly negligible impact that Valaika made with the Marlins—16 strikeouts and a homer, a fifth of a negative win per WARP—his brief time in Miami says something about this team's immediate future, queasy present and cynical, cyclical, prototypically Floridian past.
Which sounds sweeping, but mostly means this: The Marlins are too messed-up a place to work for this particular minor league journeyman. Valaika is a special case, maybe. He was one of several Marlins players who went to ownership with complaints that first-time hitting coach Tino Martinez was sort of extremely forceful and sort of just a jerk to some of the young players in his charge early in the season, laying hands and dropping f-bombs on Valaika and Derek Dietrich after they were reluctant to pick up balls during soft toss sessions. This eventually led to Martinez resigning, and further led to Valaika and Dietrich—who figured to have a bigger role with the Marlins in the future than Valaika—being punished with demotions, and later having subsequent promotions personally vetoed by owner Jeffrey Loria himself. For short, baseball fans refer to this sort of thing as Some Real Marlins Shit.
This would seem to be no way to think or talk about a team that has won two World Series in the last 16 years, but the Marlins are a unique organization, and the 2014 Marlins, for all the talent and promise on their roster—yes, even without Chris Valaika—are screwed in a uniquely Marlins way, and for some thoroughly Marlins reasons. The Marlins have one of the better farm systems in baseball, and several of its best players—2013 Rookie of the Year and precocious swaggy super-ace Jose Fernandez and outfielders Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Jake Marisnick—have already shown varying degrees of promise in the bigs. There is reason, in that sense, for hope, and even reason to think the Marlins might be an interesting team to watch. But, finally and fundamentally, the Marlins are the Marlins—a team that has won and could win again, but which nevertheless exudes a specific type of willful, wanton hopelessness that no other big-league team can match.
When Valaika signed his minor league deal with the Cubs, his agent served up what seemed like a bit of transactional boilerplate—his client was, apparently, "excited to be with a first-class organization." The Miami Herald puzzled over whether this remark was a subtle dig at the Marlins; this was worth the parsing because Valaika's agent also represents Giancarlo Stanton, the best hitter in the Marlins organization and arguably the National League East, and a player the team would do well not to alienate.
But leave aside the hot-stove overparsing and pseudo-psychoanalytic Stantonian soothsaying for a moment—not to mention the reasonable question of why and whether Stanton, the one really good position player on Miami's roster, would want to play for this team any longer than he absolutely must—and look at what this resolutely minor Valaika transaction coldly and damningly is. The Miami Marlins are a big league franchise in a major American city, a place in which it is possible to have more or less unconscionable amounts of fun; they're a team with a splashy new facility; and they're lousy enough to offer opportunities galore for big-league playing time.
All inarguably true, and yet, all things considered, Chris Valaika decided he'd rather spend much of the next year of his life in Iowa City, waiting for Darwin Barney to strain an oblique. That's the Marlins, and that's the problem.
The 1998 Marlins lost 108 games; they're the only team in franchise history to post a worse record than 2013's 100-loss team. That '98 team was a strange one, mostly because it entered the season as a defending World Series champion and then willfully and very quickly turned itself into an expansion team. There was a poignantly brief Mike Piazza cameo, and a little bit of end-stage Donn Pall and a weirdly large amount of Todd Dunwoody, and 74 innings and 14 starts given over to Andy Larkin, who allowed 156 baserunners and 87 runs in that stretch.
Some bad teams are stranger than others, but all bad teams are weird in something like this way—lifers collect their last weary big-league passport stamps, randos and goofs seize their last best shots or GIDP their way towards a pension, and young players are sprung, too early and terrified, into actual counts-in-the-standings action. Your Andy Larkins are allowed to give up a home run every 20 or so batters over the course of a season because your Andy Larkins are honestly the best pitchers available at the moment.
This is why they're bad teams, and most every organization has this sort of season—a weird summer of bleary recess in which senior citizens and hobos and toddlers tear-ass ineffectually around the same shabby lot. For the 1998 Marlins, Jim Leyland was the lunch lady barking Winston-scented warnings against horseplay and waiting for management to get on the stick. When the Marlins won it all in 2003, just a handful of players remained from that '98 team, let alone 1997's champion. One of those alumni was backup catcher Mike Redmond, now entering his second year as Miami's manager.
Through the dim magic of post hoc ergo propter hoc, we can say—and maybe even be correct—that this sort of failure can lead to a certain kind of success. Bonds are forged and chops are established and learning is done on the job. We are mostly imagining this, but we could someday imagine it about the 2013 Marlins, which was very definitively that type of bad team.
If every franchise goes through some version of this rock-bottom rebuilding, it's worth noting that the Marlins, first under founding owner Wayne Huizenga and then under current owner Jeffrey Loria, seem to go through it more readily and ruthlessly than others. Miami's bad teams have gotten worse, and follow more closely on the good ones. In the decade since the team's last World Series, the bad teams have mostly just followed each other, with the team slipping off the old cycle of resounding bust and triumphant boom and settling into a wildly enervating sort of perpetual and intentional and vexingly profitable betwixt-and-between mediocrity.
The old brutal tear-downs have stopped giving way to significant build-outs, and the false dawn of 2012—when the team rather haphazardly spent six figures to append a passel of free agents to the team's young core—quickly fed another clammy, frantic cashing-out. The star-studded Marlins that very briefly existed—Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle and (um) Heath Bell, all with the team for only slightly longer than ur-punchline Piazza—didn't win, and didn't draw fans to the team's splashy new taxpayer-funded, human-unfriendly stadium that Loria built through frank and brazen white-collar criminality.
And so the general manager who built that team—the same GM who built the team's 2003 World Series winners—rapidly tore it down at his owner's behest, before that flawed roster was given a chance to reach anything like its level. And then, after the season, the owner fired the GM, whose name is Larry Beinfest and who had been on the job for 12 seasons. Beinfest restocked the farm system in deals that sent the erstwhile stars to Los Angeles and Toronto and Detroit, but the nauseous year that preceded his departure made it difficult to think much of the team's future, and to believe that the seasick present really does have a horizon. It is tough, in short, to believe that the Marlins will somehow stop doing Marlins things.
There could be another good team stirring under this newest coat of ash, but The Marlins Thing is not just an abstract problem. The baseball questions have prosaic baseball answers—the young players will develop or they won't; Greg Dobbs will play a lot, and play a lot like Greg Dobbs; new veterans will check into the Miami Marlins Hospice and ride out the last portion of their careers' shoulder in relative peace and quiet. The bigger question—how this greasy present could give way to a happier future, and whether the Marlins can be more than what they've been under Loria and his doof-junta—is a tougher one.
How many times can a team do this particular thing in this particular way, to itself and its employees and the people expected to care about the team, and for how long, before it becomes unsustainable and toxic? It is possible, scanning the farm system and the degraded National League East, to imagine the Marlins as a competitive enough baseball team. But it is also difficult not to see them as a bigger and sadder and more emblematic thing, the sort of towering crude pop art that wouldn't be out of place in Jeffrey Loria's esteemed personal collection—a garish crystallization of all the predatory, ravenously shameless pastel brutality at work in the Miamis of Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard and Michael Mann and Rick Ross; a bleak example of the dissolving social compact between teams and their communities; proof of the friction between longstanding community-oriented loyalties and the corrosive effects of impunity and vast profit.
None of which conflicts are, it should be noted, unique to this particular messed-up franchise. But the Marlins also really are unique. As they presently exist, the Marlins are baseball's most robustly haunted ghost-yacht, bobbing away far from land with the caviar still cool in the fridge, but the crew spookily absent and various creaks and silences alternating exactly as they ought not—a big glossy chunk of luxurious jetsam, with various leaks slowly weeping the whole gilded thing down to the bottom.
"We want to get out there and get going," Marlins President David Samson told Fox Sports Florida early in the offseason. "We're getting ready for another season, and we're going to win more. I promise you this: We're not going to lose 100 games next year. Not close."
Samson, Loria's stepson and a man who bragged in a speech to local swells about ripping off Miami's taxpayers on the $600 million funding for the team's stadium, is not an easy person to agree with. But he is probably not wrong. It is difficult to lose 100 games two seasons in a row, even for a team that's only faintly trying not to lose 100 games.
The young players already with the team will develop; Yelich, in particular, could be an All-Star. Others who have not yet arrived could do so during 2014, including lefty starters Andrew Heaney, Adam Conley and Justin Nicolino and ace defensive backstop J.T. Realmuto. Marisnick and Ozuna, despite their big league auditions in '13, may need more time in the minors, although possibly not much more. If there's a plan to speak of in Miami, this is it: graduate a class of prospects onto the big-league roster and let them grow up together into what could be a very good team if some percentage reach their potential. Most of those prospects don't quite project as stars—Heaney is the only top-of-the-rotation big league arm in the farm system by most rankings and Marisnick and Realmuto, for all their considerable tools and defensive chops, have not yet hit especially well, even in the minors. They will all, however, be exactly as cheap and exactly as controllable—and exactly as unpredictable and contingent on circumstance and likely to bust—as any other rookies.
Which brings us back to the haunted yacht. The Marlins' roster, as it stands, is mostly holes—the team got production below replacement level from every infield position besides third base in 2013, with shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria, another piece acquired in the Great Toronto Ship-Off, standing out as a Yuniesky Betancourtian disaster. By spring, the Marlins will find players to fill those positions, one way or another—either with the young players they develop or with the kind of castoffs the Marlins usually wind up rescuing. The team that results will do its best to win games under these circumstances. It happens every year.
But that's just it. If it is possible to look at the Miami Marlins and imagine an intriguing future and promising present, there is also the crucial, crippling contextual counterweight of The Marlins Thing. The team's goal is to have its young players grow up healthy and strong and productive, which is as reasonable a plan as any. But the environment in which those kids will grow up—subject to the weird whims of a meddlesome, bullying owner; playing in the pastel tomb of a stadium he built; working in an atmosphere of cheesy, chiseling disregard and towering uncommitment—is not a happy or nurturing or safe or healthy one. We might as well wish the kids well.
David Roth is a co-founder of and editor at The Classical, and a writer for SB Nation.