Just three weeks ago, the Miami Marlins were still insisting that they intended to stay true to the course they had set during a winter that was unprecedented for them in both activity and optimism. That their gleaming new stadium in Little Havana would remain stocked with the assemblage of players that they felt sure would transform their recently moribund franchise into an instant contender. That despite a disappointing first half that saw them go 39-42, their still-new acquisitions -- off-season free agent signings Heath Bell, Mark Buerhle and Jose Reyes and former Astro Carlos Lee, the veteran first baseman for whom they'd just traded -- would still turn into the complements that their centerpiece, Hanley Ramirez, needed. ("This is Hanley's team, man," new manager Ozzie Guillen would tell anyone who listened, not so long ago).
"It's all just new. You put them together, you wait for it to jell, and you want it to come sooner rather than later," team president David Samson told SI.com in early July. "We are still quite confident that at the end of the year, we'll be where we thought we'd be."
Three weeks in baseball, though, can be a very long time. Since the season's halfway point, the Marlins have gone 6-11, to fall nine games behind in the race for Bud Selig's second Wild Card spot. Worse has been the lifeless, listless way in which they've done it. Since the All-Star Game -- a 13-game stretch in which they lost two of three games to the Cubs and were then immediately swept by the Pirates -- they have scored just 2.3 runs per game, a major league low. Not only were they not jelling, they were disintegrating.
By the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the Marlins had decided that what they had not long ago still believed would work, never would. They traded Ramirez -- their main man, the central link between the old Marlins and the new Marlins -- to the Dodgers, for starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi and minor league righthander Scott McGough.
CORCORAN: Breaking down the Ramirez trade
In some quarters, the deal has been viewed as an act of treachery executed under the cover of night, a modern version of packing up a Mayflower truck and hightailing it for Indianapolis. At best, it has been seen as a sign that the Marlins' ballyhooed new era was the same as the Marlins' old era, in which the club would find (or begin to approach) success, engender all sorts of goodwill, and then blow everything up, in the name of saving money.
But Larry Beinfest, the club's president of baseball operations, insists that the trading of Ramirez -- who at 28 is now a year and a half removed from his perennial All-Star days, and who is hitting just .246 -- and, on Monday, of second baseman Omar Infante and starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez to the Tigers, was born not from financial considerations, but merely from baseball realpolitik.
"It's pretty simple: We're just disappointed by the team's performance," Beinfest told SI.com, during his team's Wednesday afternoon game against the Braves. "We've been waiting for this team to click. We've had a number of players who have underperformed. We kept waiting and waiting. We had a bad series in Chicago. We were swept in Pittsburgh. We just said, it just doesn't look like this is going to happen. We're not sure why, and we'll go back and try to figure that out, but we need to move forward and restructure. If we're not winning with the current group, let's try something different to get us in a winning mode."
Monday's trade might have been more palatable, in that the Marlins turned a pair of mature assets into a pair of highly touted prospects, pitcher Jacob Turner and catcher Rob Brantly, who fill positions of need within the organization, and who might quickly come to surpass in performance the players whom the Marlins sacrificed. "Our target was MLB-ready starting pitching, and catching as well, and it lined up with our goal and with what Detroit wanted to do," Beinfest says. "And we have a player in Emilio Bonifacio would could seamlessly step into Infante's spot at second."
The Ramirez trade was the shocker, but it too, says Beinfest, was not done out of cynicism, but realism. "Part of our restructuring plan was that maybe it's time for us to have a fresh start, and for Hanley to have a fresh start," he says. "He's way too talented to be performing the way he has. For whatever reason, maybe it's just time to move on. The target was major league-ready starting pitching, and Eovaldi fit our goals. We had multiple suitors for Hanley. We are where we are."
Beinfest bristles at the prevailing notion that his club has all of a sudden reverted back to its penny-pinching ways, and that it has all at once reneged on the commitment it made to finding sustained success in its new, largely taxpayer-funded ballpark. "People can call it whatever they want," he says. "I would not use the term 'white flag.' I would not use 'fire sale.' These moves were not payroll motivated. They were player motivated. It's a reaction to the underperformance of the team. Our long-term plan is to win, to be highly competitive. We still have a lot of talent on the field. We have pieces here to win. Our plan is to win. I'm sure it's going to be couched in a lot of different ways, but we weren't winning as is, so let's make adjustments."
JAFFE: What's left on the Fish market
Those adjustments, Beinfest adds, might not be finished. The Marlins have several other assets who are coveted by contenders, including staff ace Josh Johnson, who has also disappointed this year (he is 6-7 with a 4.14 ERA) but who is reportedly being pursued by, among others, the Rangers. "We'll stay on the phone until the trade deadline on Tuesday, gather information, kick around ideas," he says. "I can't say there won't be other moves. We'll take it as it comes. We're trying to put our team in position to win. A lot of stuff is just rumor -- but it's understandable that we're at the center of rumors, as we've acted aggressively, and we've underachieved."
As the finishing touches were still being put on the Marlins' ballpark back in February, Samson was asked what the worst-case outcome of his club's effort to rejuvenate itself might look like. "We lose 90 games, draw 1.3 million and people need umbrellas because the roof leaks."
Their new ballpark's roof has leaked some, yes, but less than four months into what is supposed to be their new era, the Marlins are trending perilously close to the more depressing elements of that worst-case scenario. They are on pace to draw 2.3 million fans, but that figure would rank only 18th in the big leagues, a disappointment for a brand-new stadium and a worrying sign for the years to come. And, after Wednesday's 7-1 defeat to the Braves, they are on track to lose 86 games.
There are, indeed, two ways to view the Marlins' activities as the trade deadline nears. The first is to assume that they have already given up, that they have reverted to their old form, that their offseason hype was only so much sound and fury.
The second is to take them at their word, to believe that they are acting quickly and decisively to create a new future for themselves, after realizing that the future they envisioned just four months ago would never come to be. "When we made those free agent signings, we had expectations for this team to contend," Beinfest says. "I think they were realistic. It just didn't happen. We just didn't perform well enough to win games. The bottom line is, we're disappointed, and we understand our fans are. We're not going to sit back and hope. We're going to make changes to try to make this thing better."
The new-look Marlins already have another new look. In fact, an epitaph can be written for the Miami Marlins, Version 1.0: They weren't what anyone thought they might be. It remains to be seen whether this version, centered on their new young pitchers, and Reyes and on the slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who is due to return from knee surgery in two weeks, will play like anything other than the same old Marlins, just in a fancier box.