The Tampa Bay Rays are a major-league success story. They consistently contend for the playoffs in baseball's toughest division. They spend their money wisely, play like a team, and smartly develop their own young stars. Less than 300 miles to the southeast, their Sunshine State cousins, the Miami Marlins, represent the Rays' polar opposite. Plagued by player dumping, cynical strategizing, and corporate profiteering, the once-proud Marlins are among the league's worst-run and consistently disappointing teams.
Over the last month, Florida's two baseball teams have once again demonstrated with crystal clarity the extreme gulf between their baseball philosophies. The Marlins gut and gamble with their roster, while the Rays invest in players and take the long-game approach.
The Marlins began the 2012 season full of hope. They had a brand-new stadium in downtown Miami and aggressively recruited Florida's Latino fan base by snagging high-profile Latino stars like Jose Reyes and signing outspoken manager Ozzie Guillen. The season ended in disaster. The Marlins spiraled to an awful 69-93 record — good for last place in their less-than-stellar division. They shipped third baseman Hanley Ramirez out of town. They fired Guillen. And then just a couple weeks ago, they essentially dumped their remaining big-ticket players, including Reyes, Mark Buerhle, and Josh Johnson — all to free up some $163.75 million through 2018.
Quickly dumping players isn't a new tactic for the Marlins. In 1997, just four years after the team was founded, the club shocked the country when it won 92 games and its first World Series. Before the start of the next season, the club dismantled its championship roster, sending away 12 of its 25 players. Ownership cut the Marlins' payroll from some $48 million in 1997 to about $33 million in 1998. The philosophy was clear: Pay big to win a championship, and then gut the entire team to save money.
In 2003, the Marlins found themselves stacked with talent once again. They returned to the World Series and won. Shortly after, management announced a fire sale of players' contracts. Aces Josh Beckett and Derek Lee were soon gone, along with many other Marlins stars, and the team was once again quite mediocre. By 2006, the Marlins had the lowest payroll in baseball — an unbelievably scant $15 million.
It seemed that 2012 would offer a peak on the Marlins' chronic roller coaster, with the franchise spending a record-high $118 million on payroll. But the season was a bust, and now the 2013 payroll has been pared so close to the bone that the team is expected to shell out a measly $36 million. By contrast, 2012's lowest-paying team — the woeful San Diego Padres — had a payroll of $55 million.
Three player dumps in 15 years, two of which immediately followed a World Series win, have alienated fans and enraged the league. Fans don't want to feel like their club is simply renting stars. They don't simply want to cheer for laundry. They want players to stick around, but the Marlins just aren't interested. As a result, the Miami ball club is quickly becoming just as reviled as the New York Yankees — but for very different reasons, of course.
Across the state, the Tampa Bay Rays seem to do everything right that the Marlins do wrong. In recent days, the young team doubled down on slugging third baseman Evan Longoria, offering him a 10-year guaranteed contract, which he eagerly accepted. Longoria is a perfect example of how Tampa's management makes smarter decisions than the Marlins'. Very early in his career, the team offered Longoria a 6-year, $17.5 million contract. That was overpaying for an unproven player, but a bargain if Longoria turned out to be good. The Rays bet right — and won Longoria's loyalty in the process.
Longoria has made it clear he wants to stay with one club for his whole career. He is the poster child for a young, developing team, and his growth has directly correlated with that of the franchise. The Rays are masterful at developing young talent like Longoria, and not just renting stars discovered elsewhere. Last year, the Rays spent just $64 million — sixth lowest in the league.
It wasn't always pretty for the Rays. From 1998 until 2007, the Rays floundered at the bottom of the American League East, ranking last or second-to-last every season. But in 2008, the year Longoria made his major league debut, the tides turned. That year, the Rays made it to the World Series for the first time.
The last five years have brought the five winningest seasons in the history of the franchise. Tampa has won 90 or more games in four of those five seasons, and played in the American League East Division Series twice. And they've done it all with a consistent roster, homegrown talent, and a manageable payroll. Eat your heart out, Miami.