When it comes to building a winner, Major League Baseball is unlike the NFL and the NBA.
In the NFL, teams can go from worst to first in the snap of a finger with a tinker here, an injury to a division foe there and a favorable schedule for last place teams every year.
Just check out this season's Kansas City Chiefs, who are 3-0 after hiring coach Andy Reid to a team with some decent talent already in the cupboard; or the 2012 Washington Redskins, who drafted quarterback Robert Griffin III and won the NFC East division title in the season finale against a team missing its five best run defenders due to injuries and who dealt with in-game injuries to their three best wide receivers.
In the NBA, a franchise's fortune can instantaneously turn with one key acquisition. Basketball is the only sport where one player can have a huge impact on wins and losses. The Chicago Bulls went from 50 wins in a strike-shortened season in 2011-12 to 45 wins in a full 82-game schedule in 2012-13 because of the year-long absence of star point guard Derrick Rose.
Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets went from being a lottery-bound organization to a playoff-bound team with the acquisition of James Harden days before the start of last season. Now, the Rockets hope the free-agent signing of Dwight Howard can transform them into a championship contender.
But in baseball, building a true winner takes time even though 11 teams have gone from worst to first in the last 24 years, according to MLB.com. However, in that same article, only twice has the worst-to-first team won a division a second year in a row—the Chicago Cubs in 2008 and the Atlanta Braves in 1992. The Braves went on to claim a professional-sports record 14 consecutive division titles.
Moreover, the 1991 Minnesota Twins are the only one, thus far, to go from worst to first to win a World Series. The 1991 Braves, 1998 San Diego Padres and 2008 Tampa Bay Rays lost in the World Series, while the 1997 San Francisco Giants, 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks, 2007 Cubs and 2011 D-backs were all eliminated in the best-of-five Division Series.
The Miami Marlins, a two-time World Series championship organization, are one of the few franchises that have mastered the blueprint on how to build a winner (see 2003). They also created the blueprint for how to quickly dismantle a winner better than anyone else, but that's beside the point.
While ESPN's Jason Martinez (subscription required) states 2016 as the optimal year for the Marlins to contend for a World Series title, that seems like a really optimistic projection. In fact, 2018 seems like a more realistic season for when the Marlins are ready to contend for a World Series title, and below are three reasons why that should be the case.
1. The development curve is never linear
In real life, no team's or player's development continuously trends upward like franchise/owner mode in a Madden NFL video game. There will always be bumps along the road. Heck, based on standings alone, the road to the Marlins' 2003 title is living proof.
In 1998, the Marlins won 54 games before improving by 10 wins the following season. In Year 3 of the rebuilding project, the Marlins won 79 games. Naturally, some might think the next stop for this franchise is 99 wins and a trip to the World Series. Well, that might be what ESPN and every other computer projection would want you to think. But that's not how the world works, unless it's a fairy tale.
In 2001 the Marlins dropped to 76 wins before rebounding to 79 wins the next season. Then came 2003.
Since baseball went to the three-division format in 1994, there have been six teams who have reached the World Series after missing the playoffs for six or more years. For the Marlins, the playoff drought is running on 10 years and it doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon.
Below is a chart of those six teams and what their records were in the preceding six years prior to their return to the playoffs and World Series run.
|Team||Last playoff appearance||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4||Year 5||Year 6||WS appearance|
|San Francisco||2003||91-71||75-87||76-85||71-91||72-90||88-74||92-70 (2010)|
|Tampa Bay||None||55-106||63-99||70-91||67-95||61-101||66-96||97-65 (2008)|
As you can probably tell by looking at this chart, there is no rhyme or reason as to why or how long it takes for a franchise to build itself into a championship contender. The only constant in this chart is every one of those teams always had at least two seasons where it won fewer games than the previous year (see italicized records) and there was an increase to 90 or more wins the year they made it to the playoffs and into the World Series.
2. Rome wasn't built in a day
It takes patience to build a championship contender in baseball.
When many think of the 2003 Marlins, they also think of how owner Jeffrey Loria immediately sold off all the parts to that championship team. But that's not exactly true because Loria kept the team intact as best he could for two more years before blowing it up in what he and team president David Samson called "a market correction." In essence, he had a championship contender who had lasting power if it was given the opportunity, not a flash in the pan as some might remember.
For instance, take the case of the Tampa Bay Rays. As an expansion franchise in 1998, Tampa Bay tried to fast-track its way to success by signing Jose Canseco on December 11, 1998 to join incumbent first baseman Fred McGriff after its inaugural season. Then, on December 13, 1999, Tampa Bay made a pair of bold moves by signing Greg Vaughn and trading for third baseman Vinny Castilla.
Basically, the organization signed a pair of 34-year-old outfielders/designated hitters and dealt for a 32-year-old third baseman—sluggers who were past their prime—within a 367-day time frame.
When the initial plan failed, the Rays blew it up and built their organization from within. Canseco was claimed off waivers by the New York Yankees during the 2000 season, Castilla was released about six weeks into the 2001 season, McGriff was traded to the Chicago Cubs on July 27, 2001, and Vaughn's last full season came in 2001 before he was released during Spring Training in 2003.
The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays consisted of home-grown products such as Carl Crawford (drafted in 1999), Evan Longoria (2006), David Price (2007), James Shields (2000), Andy Sonnanstine (2004) and B.J. Upton (2002). Since that World Series run, Tampa Bay has continuously retooled around Longoria and Price, and it's looking to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in six years.
Looking at the Marlins, like the Rays, they are in their second rebuild as well. The initial rebuilding project saw the Marlins shape their organization around the likes of Josh Johnson (drafted in 2002), Ricky Nolasco (acquired in 2005), Hanley Ramirez (acquired in 2005), Anibal Sanchez (acquired in 2005), Gaby Sanchez (drafted in 2005) and Giancarlo Stanton (drafted in 2007) before they added high-priced free agents Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes in the 2011 offseason.
After numerous trades during and after the 2012 season, as chronicled here, the Marlins have started anew. Thus far, the 2013 season has introduced Marlins fans to sweet-hitting Christian Yelich and stud pitcher Jose Fernandez, whom ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick and Keith Law feel should win National League Rookie of the Year. However, Marlins fans have also seen the Marlins lose 100 games for the second time in franchise history, as well as the growing pains of youngsters such as Adeiny Hechavarria, Rob Brantly and Derek Dietrich.
The road back to World Series contender is never smooth. Heck, that road might never be completed. It usually takes two years to get the core players into the organization whether it be via the draft, free agency and/or trade. Then, it usually takes another two years for everything to gel. And, even then, the ETA for reconstruction to be complete might get pushed back because of...
3. Jeffrey Loria/Marlins ownership history
From Wayne Huizenga to John Henry to Loria, every Marlins owner has always kept an eye on the bottom line because of a lack of a new stadium.
Huizenga sold everything including the kitchen sink, as written here, when he realized taxpayers wouldn't build his Marlins a new retractable-roof stadium. Henry bought the team at the end of the 1998 season and kept it afloat while trying to get a new stadium built, before essentially trading the hapless Marlins for the curse of the Boston Red Sox prior to the 2002 season.
Between the end of the 1998 season until the beginning of the 2003 season, the Marlins completed 10 financially motivated trades aimed at reducing payroll.
December 14, 1998: Traded Edgar Renteria to the St. Louis Cardinals. Received Armando Almanza, Braden Looper and Pablo Ozuna.
June 15, 1999: Traded Craig Counsell to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Received a player to be named later. The Los Angeles Dodgers sent Ryan Moskau to the Florida Marlins to complete the trade.
July 8, 1999: Traded Matt Mantei to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Received a player to be named later, Vladimir Nunez and Brad Penny. The Diamondbacks send Abraham Nunez to the Florida Marlins to complete the trade.
July 25, 1999: Traded Livan Hernandez to the San Francisco Giants. Received Nate Bump and Jason Grilli.
March 28, 2001: Traded Cesar Crespo and Mark Kotsay to the San Diego Padres. Received Omar Ortiz, Matt Clement and Eric Owens.
March 27, 2002: Traded Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement to the Chicago Cubs. Received Jose Cueto, Ryan Jorgensen, Julian Tavarez and Dontrelle Willis.
July 11, 2002: Traded Ryan Dempster to the Cincinnati Reds. Received Juan Encarnacion, Wilton Guerrero and Ryan Snare.
July 11, 2002: Traded Cliff Floyd, Wilton Guerrero, Claudio Vargas and cash to the Montreal Expos. Received a player to be named later, Graeme Lloyd, Mike Mordecai, Carl Pavano and Justin Wayne. The Montreal Expos sent Donald Levinski to the Florida Marlins to complete the trade.
November 18. 2002: Traded Mike Hampton and cash to the Atlanta Braves. Received Ryan Baker (minors) and Tim Spooneybarger.
(Note: Bolded Marlins were traded because of salary)
Some of the players the Marlins received, such as Braden Looper, Brad Penny, Dontrelle Willis, Juan Encarnacion, Carl Pavano and Juan Pierre, became linchpins for the 2003 championship team. This goes to show the front office's ability to retool during the rebuilding process.
However, all these trades also provide a glimpse as to how the Marlins could rebuild with the current nucleus. After all, five of the 10 trades occurred during an eight-month stretch in Loria's first year as owner.
Since the 12-player fire sale this offseason, rumors have run rampant about the possibility of the Marlins' trading Giancarlo Stanton for a treasure trove of prospects. With that said, what will happen in Years 3, 4 and 5 of the rebuilding process when Fernandez, Yelich, Hechavarria, Dietrich, Henderson Alvarez, Steve Cishek, Mike Dunn, Nathan Eovaldi, Jake Marisnick, Logan Morrison, Marcell Ozuna and Jacob Turner are all too expensive to retain because Loria won't pony up the money to keep a majority of them?
That's why 2016 just seems way too early to consider the Marlins a World Series contender. Even with the revenues of the new stadium, it's likely Loria will trade some pieces away to keep payroll at a level he's comfortable with.
On the flip side, if 2018 is the most realistic year for the Marlins to contend, that means Alvarez, Cishek, Dunn, Eovaldi, Morrison, Stanton and Turner would have all probably reached free agency already. It also means Dietrich, Fernandez, Hechavarria, Ozuna and Yelich would probably all be eligible for free agency after the season.
So the only question is who would still be around to see the rebuilding project come to fruition, if it does at all?