On Saturday morning, the Marlins reached an agreement to trade Giancarlo Stanton — or more accurately, trade a reported $265 million of his contract — to the New York Yankees for second baseman Starlin Castro and prospects Jorge Guzman (the second-best player the Yankees got from Houston for Brian McCann last year) and Jose Devers (Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers’s cousin, who was slugging .342 in rookie ball at age 17 while Rafael was homering in the ALDS). That a Stanton trade has been rumored since the All-Star break, and been a virtual certainty for weeks, does not make its arrival any less odious, in much the same way that it’s no less revolting to watch sores open up and necrotic tissue slough off, even if you knew long ago that you had trench foot.
At a time when good relief pitchers can net teams multiple top-100 prospects, the Marlins have ripped their team up by the roots to trade Stanton, and received only two underwhelming prospects in return, along with Castro, an OK big league second baseman, who will no doubt soon be traded himself, because he’s due almost $24 million over the next two years, and the Marlins brass has promised investors that the team’s payroll will shrink from about $115 million last Opening Day—already in the bottom third of the MLB payroll rankings—to somewhere in the neighborhood of $55 million, which is about a third of the MLB median.
This is not a baseball trade. This is a liquidation of assets. It’s not the first time a team with dubious short-term prospects and a weak farm system has gone for the hard tank, but the Astros and Cubs in 2012 had less to work with than a 77-win team with a reigning MVP on the roster, and both returned to the playoffs within four years and won a title within six. Miami is now without not only Stanton but Dee Gordon, sold to Seattle along with $1 million in international bonus money—the cheapest way for savvy teams to acquire talent—for a bag of magic beans. Where’s the path back to the playoffs for Miami, particularly when they’re committed to running a payroll that wouldn’t keep the lights on in the NHL? There are situations in which the best thing a team can do for its own medium- and long-term competitive interest is rebuild. This is not one of them.
Even in a franchise that’s suffered a post–World Series fire sale under Wayne Huizenga, then 15 years of slimy hucksterism from former owner Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins are exploring new depths of bad faith, and drilling into substances so repulsive our baseball vocabulary is not up to the task of describing them. Woe unto those who call this move “clearing payroll,” which implies that the Marlins might better spend Stanton’s salary elsewhere. Not only is that contrary to what we know about the Bruce Sherman–led investment group that bought the team in September—where should they spend that money if not on the NL MVP?
Nor should we take at face value—or worse, repeat—claims that the Marlins can’t afford to keep Stanton. Any owner who has the best power hitter of his generation locked up long term at age 28, and is so afraid of him getting old that they sell him to the Yankees for nothing, ought to get out of show business altogether. Sure, Stanton’s owed up to $295 million over the next decade, but perhaps the Marlins could’ve found part of that sum in the half-billion dollars that local government gave them to build a stadium five years ago?
Professional sports franchises operate in this strange ether in which they are privately owned, for-profit enterprises but serve as civic institutions nonetheless. For this reason they inspire local loyalty and are often government subsidized, with the unspoken covenant that the private owner will operate not only to turn a profit, but to make them successful on the field. Sherman has broken faith with the city that supports his franchise—and for all the jokes about Marlins Park being empty all the time, the team sold 1.65 million tickets last year, which was 27th in baseball but still actual millions—for the purpose of paying down some $400 million in debt resulting from the purchase of the team, and presumably selling the club for a profit when that’s done. Miami—indeed, the nation as a whole—has been suckered into taking billionaires at their word for too long, when most billionaires got so rich in the first place by wringing every last dollar out of companies, cities, and people, then leaving desolate ruins in their wake.
Sherman has experience doing just that to beloved privately owned civic institutions, when a little more than a decade ago, he gutted the Knight Ridder newspaper company, leaving dozens of the country’s most prestigious news organizations—including the Miami Herald—with skeleton staffs and shoestring budgets. The baseball world should have known better than to greet Sherman’s purchase of the team as a relief.
So why didn’t it? First, Loria was so uniquely reviled within the sport that we forgot the first rule of the mid-2010s: It Can Always Get Worse. Second, because Sherman was never the headline name on the Marlins’ investment group: Derek Jeter was.
Sherman, for all the immense consequence of his investments over the years, maintains a low public profile—his public persona is mostly his lack of a public persona—and is described as “shy” and “publicity-averse.” What a savvy strategy: If you’re making billions torching newspapers and baseball teams, why would you want publicity?
Into this void stepped Jeter, who cashed in decades of public goodwill earned as the face of noncontroversial athletic conservatism, along with tens of millions of his own money, for a 4 percent stake in the Marlins. That Jeter, and not Sherman, will take the fall for trading Stanton is a tragedy particular to American social climbing. Rich and famous workers are workers nonetheless, and their wealth and power are limited accordingly.
Sherman invited Jeter to join the rentier class—or at least feel like he was part of that exclusive club—in exchange for a 4 percent buy-in and one particular service: Jeter, as the team’s CEO, would look like he was in charge. Now he’s a well-paid human shield, like Roger Goodell for the NFL, soaking up public scorn while the men who wield real power soak in profit. The relationship between Jeter and Sherman is like the relationship between an occupying army and the local puppet ruler, or a mafia boss and his stooge.
That’s not to excuse Jeter for accepting this ignoble role, or to portray him as having a clue what he’s doing, but rather to reinforce whose name ought to be slapped across protest signs and headlines as the Marlins are parted out for pennies on the dollar, leaving one of baseball’s most beloved figures as a punch line, and a city’s baseball tradition withered and desiccated like a prune in the sun.