Marlins' Management Circus Pushing Away Yet Another Star in Jose Fernandez

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistDecember 23, 2015

Sep 11, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez (16) prior to a game against the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Clown noses, check. Circus music, check.

But under the Miami big top, would the Marlins really trade ace Jose Fernandez now? When they've got him under team control for another three years?

In the three-ring circus that always is just one elephant short of going full Barnum & Bailey under the carnival-barker owner Jeffrey Loria, have things deteriorated so rapidly that Fernandez's teammates at times in 2015 openly rooted for him to get blasted while he was on the mound?

Barry Bonds
Barry BondsJeff Chiu/Associated Press/Associated Press

Granted, the Marlins being the Marlins, anything is possible. No other team could—or would—overshadow its own managerial hire (Don Mattingly) with the hiring of a batting coach (Barry Bonds). In Miami, it's business as usual.

Fernandez is young (23), sensational (22-9, 2.40 ERA in 47 big league starts) and, as the club's first-round draft pick in 2011, should be one of the franchise's flagship players for years to come.

He is also coming back from Tommy John surgery in May, 2014, represented by the same agent who clashed with the New York Mets last summer over Matt Harvey's workload under similar circumstances and, at times, is immature enough to anger opponents and teammates alike. Just ask Brian McCann, who was furious with him for pimping a home run in 2013.

Now, as the Los Angeles Dodgers and others investigate acquiring him while a steady drumbeat of rumors flow this winter, Fernandez's South Florida future is dominating the hot stove league landscape.

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That he is pitching for the game's most toxic regime only fuels the speculation.

The Marlins' culture under Loria and club president David Samson for years has been lowbrow, but even that reached a new high (low?) last summer when the club fired manager Mike Redmond and moved Dan Jennings downstairs from the general manager's office to replace him.

Dan Jennings
Dan JenningsWilfredo Lee/Associated Press/Associated Press

Jennings was met icily with everything but an open mutiny upon replacing Redmond last May. Players were angry and distrustful that the neutral zone between the clubhouse and the front office had been torpedoed.

Soon, players took to playing circus music in the clubhouse and on charter flights whenever anything they viewed as amateur enough to be endemic to the Marlins occurred. Former Marlin Jeff Baker passed out clown noses. This was all first reported earlier this winter by Andy Slater, a talk show host for the Marlins' flagship radio station, WINZ, and multiple Bleacher Report sources confirm Slater's account.

Furthermore, Slater quoted a source saying that Fernandez's arrogance expanded to the point last season that there were times when coaches and players hoped "he would go out on the mound and get shelled."

In this winter's avalanche of rumors surrounding Fernandez's attitude and desire to be traded from the Marlins, retired pitcher Dan Haren, who started last season in Miami's rotation before being dealt to the Cubs at midseason, finds at least that last part impossible to believe.

"No way," Haren told Bleacher Report. "No way. A lot of those things in [Slater's] article were actually right. But at least from a pitcher's standpoint, there's no way anybody was on the bench rooting for Jose to get hit."

Haren then extended that to include position players as well.

"There's no way," he said. "You can be frustrated with a person on and off the field, but I would say there are very few instances [where it reaches that point]. There are people I hate, too. People I don't get along with, and who don't like me. But I find it hard to believe in a team sport like baseball, where you need the guy to your left and right to succeed, that people are rooting against someone."

Marlins starter Tom Koehler echoed Haren.   

"That's ridiculous," Koehler told Bleacher Report. "Why would you want your teammate to do poorly? It reflects on everybody. You play to win. If you root for your best pitcher to lose? It doesn't make sense."

Multiple sources close to the Marlins acknowledge that Fernandez has grown more and more blunt with management, and there are those who do not appreciate the way he sometimes speaks to his superiors.

Among other things, these sources maintain that several players angrily spoke up when Marlins' management informed them that Jennings would replace Redmond as manager last May, and that Fernandez was one of them.

Scott Boras
Scott BorasMark Humphrey/Associated Press/Associated Press

Meanwhile, the relationship between Fernandez's agent, Scott Boras, and Marlins management was already testy over the club's dealings with outfielder Marcell Ozuna. When Ozuna, also a Boras client, was dispatched to Triple-A New Orleans last summer during a 1-for-36 slump, the agent publicly rebuked the team.

Samson responded by telling Steven Wine of the Associated Press: "My strong suggestion to Mr. Boras is that instead of resting on his 5 percent that he collects from his stable of players, he write a check and buy a team. Then he would have the opportunity to run a team that he claims to be so able to do. Until that time, he is in no position to comment how any Major League Baseball team is operated."

Then at the general managers meetings in November, Samson suggested that Boras will be excluded from any talks regarding Fernandez's workload this summer as the pitcher continues his comeback from Tommy John surgery (he returned last July 2 and made 11 starts for the Marlins, working 64.2 innings).

Boras took the high road earlier this month at the winter meetings in Nashville.

"The Marlins have been very cooperative," Boras told Bleacher Report. "We've had meetings with the general manager, Mike Hill, and their doctor and Jose's doctor. We've had two or three of those conversations during the summer. I actually had a brief conversation with Jeffrey [Loria] not more than three weeks ago about how well things went for Jose.

"All I know is, our doctor, Jose's surgeon, is involved in all calls and we certainly like to share that information with the team. As to who's on that call, obviously, it's Jose's choice because they are his private medical records. And if the team wants to be involved and gain that information, and I'm sure they do and their doctor does, then obviously they'll join the calls as they've done in the past.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

"People have come to me about this, and that is not the pattern of conduct from the Marlins that I've seen."

As for Samson specifically threatening to go around the agent in the care and handling of Fernandez, Boras told Bleacher Report: "I know I have a regular course of conversation with Michael Hill and Jeffrey Loria. I don't deal with David much because he's not involved in baseball dynamics."

All of this, and more, factors into the appearance of Fernandez arriving at a premature career crossroads in Miami.

Though his free agency is still three years away, with Boras advising him, Fernandez is viewed throughout the industry as a goner in Miami following the 2018 season. Especially as starting pitcher salaries continue to soar, and after he's reportedly rejected club overtures in the past regarding a contract extension.

If David Price is worth $217 million over seven years this winter at 30 years of age and Zack Greinke is worth $206.5 million over six years at 32, how far out of Miami's price range will Fernandez be as a free agent in the winter of '18-'19 coming off his age-25 season?

Given Fernandez's homegrown status and Cuban heritage, he should be a cornerstone piece for this franchise for years to come. Among the most dazzling numbers in his glittering resume: He is 17-0 with a 1.40 ERA in 26 career starts at home in Marlins Park.

Increasingly, however, it appears as if he will become just another table-top item in the Marlins' perennial swap meet.

Fernandez could not be reached for this story. During a recent charity appearance, though, he did nothing to dissuade reports that he wants out of Florida.

"I've got no comment on that," Fernandez told the Miami Herald. "I'm not allowed to comment on it."

Certainly, if he does want out, Fernandez would simply join a long list of Marlins seeking asylum elsewhere.

Owner Jeffrey Loria (left) and team president David Samson have spent 14 years leading the Marlins.
Owner Jeffrey Loria (left) and team president David Samson have spent 14 years leading the Marlins.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Far and wide, the club culture under Loria and Samson is—and always has been—viewed as amateur hour. Players despise Samson for many things, according to multiple sources, including his frequent, unwelcome postgame clubhouse appearances questioning them on things that went wrong during a game.

And it is not uncommon for players to head to the postgame spread and find that they are, say, 12th in line because Loria and his entourage, or Samson and his kids, have beaten them to the food. And if Loria isn't screaming at umpires, the Marlins are firing popular television broadcaster Tommy Hutton.

"There's a pretty open relationship there with the front office people and, for me, as a player, it's hard to be criticized by people who maybe haven't played the game," Haren said. "That's a difficult thing for all players, and for Jose especially.

"He's very vocal in what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. I think part of the problem is the relationship is very difficult between the front office and the players. That could be extended to any field, really: It could be hard for a writer to be criticized by someone who hasn't written before.

"The front office is pretty hands-on there, and that's tough for him. He's very young, he grew up in a different country. A lot of times there's a language barrier. Jose speaks really good English, but maybe he was raised to handle things differently."

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

As far as Fernandez's relationship with teammates, other than isolated incidents that are not unusual to any club during the course of a long season, Koehler said there are no problems.

"I don't see anything that's any different than what anyone has with each other all the time," Koehler said. "I think one thing needs to be remembered in all this is that he is 23 years old. Dan's 35. There's a lot of growing up that goes on in those ages.

"As far as being disrespectful to teammates or management, I've never seen it. I love him."

After their recent three-team deal with Cincinnati and the Chicago White Sox that netted them right-hander Frankie Montas, second baseman Micah Johnson and outfielder Trayce Thompson from the White Sox, the Dodgers have stockpiled enough top-level prospects this winter that they are viewed as a favorite if the Marlins decide to deal Fernandez for what certainly would have to be a whopping package.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Miami's template for a deal, meanwhile, was roughly set when Arizona sent center fielder Ender Inciarte, right-hander Aaron Blair and shortstop Dansby Swanson, the top overall pick in this year's draft, to Atlanta for starter Shelby Miller earlier this month. The Marlins certainly will require an even bigger return than did the Braves.

On the other hand, with lucrative, billion-dollar regional television contracts funneling seemingly endless cash streams to clubs throughout the game, Loria is said to be working feverishly to try and renegotiate his club's comparatively paltry deal that doesn't expire until 2020. And with ratings spiking with each Fernandez start (by an average of 5 percent last year, according to Fox Sports Florida, after a 19 percent spike in 2014 and a 16 percent increase in 2013), if the Marlins ultimately decide not to deal him this winter, that may be the biggest reason why.

It is all business, from the bottom-line dollars to the television ratings to how to proceed from Fernandez's surgery in a manner that works both for the club and for the pitcher and his agent.

And in this atmosphere, it is a very fine line that separates a fresh-faced phenom from a precocious villain.

There are many in the industry who believe absolutely nothing in Miami will ever change as long as Loria and Samson continue to run the show.

Fernandez is primed to become the latest example.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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