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The Fire Sale: Why and Wherefore

How to best understand the Marlins' fire sale? Can it ever be a good idea?

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

I do a lot of reading. Most of this reading is for my job, and as I’m a graduate student in English, most of the work I read is at least tangentially related to literature – lot of novels, lot of folks thinking about novels, that kind of stuff. One thing about studying literature, though, is that you’re studying representations, and as such, it’s not just the representations you’re interested in but also the ways in which representation works. Aesthetics, philosophy, theory, a lot of high falutin’ stuff, which is why you’ll see me spouting off about philosophy around these parts. It’s relevant to what I do every day.

What you’d find if you dealt with this stuff every day is that you need shortcuts, easy ways to kind of make sense of vast philosophical concepts. Here’s an example: if you’re ever wondering how to read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, particularly his vision of the sublime, I’d suggest you read up on Lovecraftian monstrosity. (I won’t go into it here, but the inability to conceptualize that Kant talks about is almost exactly how Lovecraft defines the representation of any of his monstrosities.) Unsurprisingly, a lot of my shortcuts have to do with baseball – I let my understanding of the game and its complexities complement my understanding of philosophical complexities. When the Marlins made their blockbuster trade, I found myself making just such a shortcut.

Michael Clune writes about contemporary American Literature with an eye towards what he calls "economic fiction." One of the markers of this economic fiction is an engagement with a distinction that economist Karl Polanyi draws between embedded and disembedded economic and social relations: when economic relations are embedded with social relations, we encounter the world as it truly exists, wherein our understanding of market relations and price is deeply connected to our understanding of social dynamics. When economic relations are disembedded from social relations, then the market can exist autonomously from the social, what Polanyi calls a "mythic" kind of economy. Polanyi and Clune are careful to note that this autonomous market – free-floating and self-determining – can only really exist in representations, aesthetically, mythically impacting the real world by way of a representative gap. And that makes sense, though I would guess that Clune and Polanyi never read Fangraphs.

Had they, they might be a bit more hesitant to dismiss the real world occurrence of disembedded relations. The WAR/$ formula, the discussions of marginal utility, and the construction of the market by way of disembodied scarcity and PECOTA projections make it difficult sometimes to imagine that we’re actually talking about people. And I don’t mean this in the Rick Reillian, moralistic way – "These guys are PEOPLE TOO!" – but rather in the way that there are social reasons that the contracts we all discuss and debate are signed. Not only do players sign contracts based on location (a social problem), but they also sign based on expectations of employment, stability, and lifestyle. Furthermore, teams do not always sign players for performance alone; witness the Nationals’ pursuit and contracting of Jayson Werth. Werth is a great player, but he was as much a statement signing as a value signing. Teams have to consider their prospective value to future free agents, to their young core who they will need to resign, and to their fans and their cities, who essentially are the motive force for their profits.

All of this is a long way of getting to the fact that, while Jeffrey Loria probably hasn’t ever considered Karl Polanyi, he’s certainly acting as if he’s living in a mythical, disembedded economy, and it’s an irresponsible, depressing thing to see as a baseball fan. Loria might think that "We finished in last place. Figure it out" can operate as an actual reason for why one would trade one’s entire team to the American League, but it has become wholly apparent from the negative response across the board that it cannot. Furthermore, we can imagine that the potential of the Jays prospects coming back to the Marlins represents a potentially frugal investment given the cost of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck, and Josh Johnson. And yet, this seems wrongheaded as well, simply because baseball does have a social aspect as well – perhaps Loria will get a star OF in Jake Marisnick, a defensive whiz in Adeiny Hechevarria, a solid corner or middle infielder in Yunel Escobar, some cost controlled future arms in Anthony DeSclafani and Justin Nicolino, and hey, maybe Jeff Mathis hits and Henderson Alvarez finally remembers how to strike people out. Maybe it ends up being a totally smart baseball decision; it still ends up being a wrongheaded move.

Why? Well, first and foremost, it alienates a fanbase that is one year removed from a new, tax-payer funded stadium. Imagine how the Marlins stack up in a newly competitive NL East. The Phillies will (we all hope and expect) have a bounce back year in 2013; the Nationals are now actually quite good; the Braves are (ugh) competent in many aspects of the game; and the Mets…well, Sandy Alderson still has a lot of work to do. That said, is there any doubt that, despite broad proclamations, the Fish are going to end up in last place again this year? FishStripes got it right in saying that this trade ends up being likely a win in a vacuum for the Marlins, but they’re likely to trot out a lineup that looks a little something like this

C – Jeff Mathis

1B – Logan Morrison

2B – Yunel Escobar

SS – Adeiny Hechevarria

3B – Greg Dobbs/Donovan Solano

OF – Giancarlo Stanton

OF – Chris Coughlin

OF – Justin Ruggiano/Gorkys Hernandez

SP – Ricky Nolasco

SP – Jacob Turner

SP – Henderson Alvarez

SP – Nathan Eovaldi

SP – Brad Hand/Wade LeBlanc/???

Does that look like a winning team? The answer, sadly, is no. It’s a team with a lot of potential, admittedly, but look, realistically, the NL East is a four, not a five team race next year, and that is bad for baseball. Do I want the Marlins to beat the Phillies? No. But do I want this Marlins team to operate at pennies on the dollar so that a rich man can get richer? Noooooooooooooo.

And it is not as if it’s going to look a lot different moving forward. One commenter I saw suggested that this strategy of dumping big contracts in order to pick up prospects every year was a wholly viable option. Again, perhaps in a disembedded relation between economy and society, but we live in a different world. There won’t be high priced free agents willing to sign with the Marlins for a while, and that Giancarlo Stanton extension? It just got a lot more problematic. Just imagine for a second what this would be like if it were the Phillies: say we traded Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Domonic Brown, and Carlos Ruiz to the Rangers for Mike Olt (3B), Rougned Odor (SS/2B), Leonys Martin (CF), David Murphy (OF), and Will Lamb (LHP). It’d be a better haul than the Marlins got, for sure, but how would you feel. I mean, honestly, how would you feel? You wouldn’t feel good, and if you say that you’d be able to view the utility of the prospects with clear eyes and unburdened heart, I just can’t believe you. You can’t cut out the heart of a team and either a) expect it to perform any time soon, or b) expect fans to believe in that team anymore.

And that last point is deeply important. Baseball teams are social institutions; we are connected to them not because we love economic analysis or free market thinking, but because we love the team gutturally. If we didn't, we’d all be Rays or A’s fans. And the true shame now is that it is effectively impossible to believe in that aspect of the Miami Marlins. The team didn’t get a change in attitude – the team quite simply no longer has an attitude to its name. Jeffrey Loria now has to hope that each and every one of these prospects pan out, and do so quickly, because it will be a long time before he can trick the world into thinking he’s ready to spend again. And that means that he will be waiting a long time before the world believes in him and his team again. Like Daffy Duck says, it’s a neat trick, but you can only do it once.