In baseball, one player can take his team only so far no matter how great he is. For evidence, look no further than the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Angels, both of whom have struggled to break .500 in recent years despite owning the prime years of two of the best players in baseball—Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout, respectively.
After 23-year-old Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani signed with the Angels on Friday, and with trade talks around Stanton heating up, the contrast between the two clubs, in terms of how they reacted to having one solitary superstar and little institutional support, could not be clearer or more instructive.
While it’s possible to start with Stanton or Trout and end with a win total in the high 70s, it takes some work. Both teams have had historically bad farm systems in recent years, a failure of both scouting and player development. In 2014, with Carlos Rodón, Kyle Schwarber, Aaron Nola, and Michael Conforto on the board, the Marlins spent the no. 2 overall pick on Texas high school fireballer Tyler Kolek, who’s thrown 3 2/3 innings in rookie ball over the past two years thanks to Tommy John surgery. The next year they spent the no. 12 overall pick on high school first baseman Josh Naylor, who was dumped off to San Diego a year later. The last player the Marlins drafted who’s actually played in the majors for the Marlins was J.T. Riddle, a 13th-rounder in 2013.
The Angels, meanwhile, almost looked like they suffered a karmic setback after drafting Trout in 2009. Their 10 first-rounders since 2010 have combined for 3.7 big league WAR, about a third of that from Sean Newcomb, who was traded to the Braves in 2015. In 2016, new GM Billy Eppler spent his first pick on Matt Thaiss, a college catcher with a polished bat who might rise quickly in a barren farm system, then moved him immediately to first base, cutting Thaiss’s upside to a fraction of what it had been.
Both teams have also been absent at the top end of the free-agent market the past few years, the Marlins because their legendarily penurious owners refused to spend, the Angels because about a fifth of their payroll goes to Albert Pujols, if you can even call him that anymore. An actual statue of Albert Pujols would be cheaper, and probably faster, than the genuine article.
But in order to waste the best years of Trout or Stanton this comprehensively, it’s not good enough to be cheap and bad, you have to get unlucky too. Angels ace Garrett Richards has made 12 starts in the past two years, and fellow righty Matt Shoemaker, a league-average pitcher when he’s healthy, has yet to reach the innings threshold needed to qualify for an ERA title in four full seasons. The Marlins had planned to build their rotation around an ace of their own, José Fernández, when the 24-year-old superstar died unexpectedly last year. Fernández’s death was a real-world tragedy; it also undeniably affected the trajectory of the Marlins franchise.
Even adding in a few good secondary players, there was no easy path back to contention for either team, despite the presence of an MVP-caliber cornerstone, and over the past few months, the clubs have taken wildly different paths.
The Marlins were sold to a conglomerate fronted by former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter but bankrolled by billionaire Bruce Sherman who, like many modern sports owners, made his fortune essentially flipping companies the way you might flip a house. Now he’s entrusting the baseball operations department to Jeter, who could not more obviously have no idea what he’s doing.
The Marlins, who spent about half what the Dodgers did on player payroll last year, have set about trying to shed even more salary, trading second baseman Dee Gordon (three years, $38 million remaining) to Seattle, along with $1 million in international bonus money, for a three-prospect package headlined by Nick Neidert, a Double-A pitcher who topped out at 84 on Baseball America’s midseason prospect list in 2017. They’re dangling outfielder Christian Yelich, whose long-term deal (a maximum of five years, $58 million) is far from a millstone—it’s one of the biggest bargains in baseball.
And most notably, they’re actively trying to pressure Stanton, on the heels of an MVP season, into accepting a trade, and rather than rebuilding the team with the king’s ransom he might bring back in young talent, they’re willing—happy, even—to trade him for flotsam to any team that will pay his salary. The Marlins of tomorrow don’t look remotely competitive, but they do look like they’ll keep the team running on fumes long enough for Sherman to use revenue-sharing checks to pay off his share of the club’s $400 million in debt, all while Jeter takes the blame.
One way to flip a house is to sell off the furniture and let it sit vacant until someone wants to buy the land to build a Walmart. (This is less cynical than what Sherman’s actually doing, which is more ethically akin to burning it down and committing insurance fraud.) Another way is to take what resources you have and use them to improve the property where you can, bit by bit, until it’s actually a place you want to live.
That’s what Eppler’s doing. In August, he sent minor leaguers Grayson Long and Elvin Rodriguez to Detroit for Justin Upton, whose opt-out depressed his trade value to the point where the Angels could afford him. Then Eppler signed Upton to a five-year, $106 million contract extension that’s underwhelming if you’re trying to win points for being a clever GM, but looks completely reasonable if all you want is Upton’s bat in the lineup behind Trout.
The farm system is even looking stronger, thanks to the addition of this year’s first-rounder, Kentucky high school outfielder Jo Adell, and 17-year-old Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, who was liberated from the Braves system in the John Coppolella scandal. Maitan’s stock has fallen a little since his amateur days, but the Angels still got him for about half what the Braves originally paid in 2016.
And most importantly, the Angels have started to get lucky. Not only did they get Maitan after being outbid by the Twins by a reported $1 million, they landed the biggest name in the free-agent market: Ohtani. Inking Ohtani is partially the result of savvy positioning—Eppler’s years-long relationship with Ohtani reportedly played a factor, as did the Angels clearing enough international cap space to make a competitive bid.
On the other hand, the Angels didn’t purposely establish the team in California in 1961 just so they’d have a shot at a player who didn’t want to play on the East Coast. Nor did they have any control over the fact Ohtani, perhaps the best international prospect ever and certainly the most valuable unattached player since Bryce Harper’s draft year, would choose to leave Japan at the exact time that he could make the least money by MLB rules, allowing the Angels to sign him at a discount of somewhere around $200 million.
But in order to take advantage of opportunities like Ohtani’s interest, a team has to be ready to do so. It feels strange to praise the Angels for being in the right place at the right time, and making obvious moves once they got there, but with such a concrete contemporary example of the alternative, it’s worth saying nonetheless.