The Miami Marlins may be done dealing. After sending away four of the five best players from the 2017 team—reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, fellow outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, and second-baseman-turned-center-fielder Dee Gordon—the Bruce Sherman–backed, Derek Jeter–fronted ownership group that took control last fall has at least temporarily halted its trading activity. Considering that the departed quartet combined for 20.3 Baseball-Reference WAR on a 77-win club in 2017, the damage already done to the 2018 team is insuperable. After finishing first in every variety of combined outfield WAR last season, the Marlins now project to finish last in the same metric this season, according to data from FanGraphs, which would make them the second team (alongside the 2015-16 Diamondbacks) in baseball’s modern era to go from first to worst in outfield WAR.
Several potential trade targets are still standing amid the wreckage of the roster, and at least two Marlins, J.T. Realmuto and offseason trade acquisition Starlin Castro (who has yet to play a game for the Fish), have reportedly requested trades. According to a Tuesday Miami Herald report, the Marlins aren’t prioritizing a Realmuto trade because they believe that he would more readily resign himself to his fate in Florida than the more publicly displeased Yelich would have. First baseman Justin Bour and reliever Brad Ziegler haven’t agitated to be moved, and no recent rumors have sprung up around Castro, starter Dan Straily, infielders Derek Dietrich or Martín Prado, or any other veteran who’s conspicuously still on the team. Increased scrutiny from the MLB Players Association—which has “raised [its] concerns” about the Marlins’ low payroll with the commissioner, although it hasn’t formally filed a grievance—may make the Marlins think twice about shedding additional 2018 talent.
Of course, in light of their history, no one would be shocked if the Marlins’ teardown recommenced soon. But even if they don’t deal another player, the Marlins will have made history. In the months since Sherman officially succeeded reviled outgoing owner Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins—already a franchise known for fire sales—have one-upped both themselves and almost a century and a half of history, trading more WAR from the preceding season than any other team ever has in one winter.
The table below lists the top 20 teams ranked by total WAR traded in a single offseason, defining the offseason as the span from October 1 to Opening Day. Also displayed are each team’s record in the season preceding and following its fire sale, as well as the combined WAR produced by the traded players in the preceding and following season, the average age of the traded players, the following-season WAR generated by the players brought back in the trades, and counts of the major and minor league players dealt and received in the swaps. The full list of all teams is available here.
The first thing to note is that the 2017-18 Marlins are not no. 1, which might make it look like I’ve lied to you. But the team at the top of the list doesn’t deserve its spot. In 1899, the owner of the Louisville Colonels, Barney Dreyfuss, bought into the Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise he would own until his death in 1932. To populate the Pirates’ roster, Dreyfuss simply cannibalized the Colonels, transferring a dozen players—including future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and Rube Waddell—from his old team to his new one, which led to the Colonels’ contraction. Essentially, Louisville had turned into another team. To close the 6.1-WAR gap between them and the Colonels, the Marlins would have to trade Realmuto, Bour, and another positive 2017 contributor before the regular-season starts. I don’t doubt that they could do it if they really tried, but regardless, we can exclude the Colonels from consideration, just as Dreyfuss did.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that 22 of the top 25 players in franchise history (aside from the late José Fernández) have ended up leaving via trade, the Marlins appear on this list three times despite having existed for only 25 years. After winning the World Series in 1997, owner Wayne Huizenga dismantled his veteran team, trading 10 major league players with an average age of 31.5, four years older than the smaller group the Marlins moved this winter. Those 10—headlined by Kevin Brown, Moises Alou, Robb Nen, Devon White, Jeff Conine, and Al Leiter—combined for only 16.0 WAR in 1997, but the same players exploded for 30.6 WAR in their new uniforms in 1998, by far the highest “after” total on the list. The exodus continued after 1998 Opening Day, as Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, and Charles Johnson, among others, were sent to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile, neither of whom lasted the season in Miami. That teardown was particularly traumatic because it came on the heels of a title. The Marlins’ post-2012 teardown was traumatic for a different reason: It followed a failed one-year spending spree that resulted in a last-place finish. With the exception of Mark Buehrle, the names traded that time—Heath Bell, Yunel Escobar, Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Johnson, José Reyes, John Buck—haven’t held up as well as those in the post-’97 diaspora, but they mattered in the moment.
Every fire sale has a story, although many of those stories have some of the same threads. The post-1921 Red Sox, who held the dubious “WAR traded in one winter” distinction prior to last week’s Yelich deal, were suffering from the same feuds and financial strains that had earlier prompted Harry Frazee to sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees. This time, Frazee traded shortstop Everett Scott and starters Sad Sam Jones and Bullet Joe Bush to the Yankees, as well as first baseman Stuffy McInnis to Cleveland. A search for financial relief is the common element among most of these teams, up to and including the current Marlins, whose underfunded ownership group is saddled with debt incurred by Loria. According to MLB, the Marlins are headed for a third consecutive season with operating losses, although the value of the franchise has appreciated enormously despite Loria’s regular attempts to cry poor.
After falling short in the 2014 AL wild-card game, the small-market A’s embarked on a still-ongoing rebuild, dealing Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Jeff Samardzija, John Jaso, and, yes, Yunel Escobar. The A’s were cash-strapped in earlier eras, too; after 1917, owner-manager Connie Mack prefigured the post-1921 Red Sox sell-off by pulling off his own McInnis and Bush trades. At Mack’s command, Bullet Joe went to Boston with two teammates for three marginal players and, more important, $60,000, the equivalent of more than $1 million today. Bush helped Boston win a World Series before the Sox, on the down side of the cycle, became the salary dumpers instead of the salary dumpees. Sixteen years after Philadelphia’s post-1917 fire sale, the Depression-era A’s, still owned and managed by an even less solvent Mack, did it again, making three trades (involving future Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove, among others) on one December day for returns that included $245,000 in cash. As Marlins observers long ago learned, certain franchises seem doomed to see sad history repeat itself.
We could continue the litany: Of the post-1917 Phillies, historian Steven Goldman says via email, “The Phillies being broke in this period is never to be underestimated. They were a farm team to the rest of the bigs.” The mid-’90s Expos hemorrhaged talent in an unstanched stream, and after ’97, declining attendance pushed them to part with Pedro Martínez. Like Mack’s A’s, the Expos never pulled out of their stall.
For the remaining Marlins fans (who do actually exist), there are a few positive spins we can apply to the team’s latest offseason imbroglio. First, the 1998 breakouts of the ’97 club’s cast-offs were atypical: Most fire-sold players decline as a group in their post-sell-off seasons. Second, the other top-20 teams saw their year-after winning percentages collectively fall by an average of fewer than 40 points; although the Marlins’ roster looks bleak, their supporters can console themselves with the thought that barring further trades, at least the White Sox could conceivably be worse. And third, the Marlins’ latest sell-off falls closer than some of the archaic examples we’ve covered to the “prospect stockpiling” end of the fire-sale spectrum than the “paring payroll” end, although they’ve pursued—and, to some extent, accomplished—both goals. Only two of the previous fire-sale leaders accumulated as many prospects in their one-winter trade orgies as the 2017-18 Marlins: the post-’97 Marlins, who went on to win a World Series in 2003, and the post-2014 Braves, whose ultimate fate is still uncertain but who are, at minimum, considerably better than the Marlins’ current incarnation.
That modest haul, of course, has come at a cost: Whatever prospect return the Marlins have managed amid their salary savings is a testament to the talent and youth of the former Fish who leaned on the team to trade them. This winter, we’ve witnessed history, when we weren’t too disgusted to watch. Baseball history has a new fire-sale front-runner, and the Marlins may yet add to their lead.
Thanks to Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge, Sean Dolinar of FanGraphs, Hans Van Slooten of Baseball-Reference, and Jessie Barbour for research assistance.