Samson: Spring offers Marlins 'a new beginning'
Team president sits down with MLB.com to address the state of the franchise
This Presidents Day, MLB.com is reaching out to check in with club presidents around the league, including a discussion about the state of the Marlins with team president Dave Samson.
JUPITER, Fla. -- Turning the page is easy when you've just experienced the second worst season in franchise history.
Couple the frustrations of losing 100 games in 2013 and three straight last-place finishes, and it's easy to see why the Miami Marlins eagerly embrace a fresh start in 2014.
Some may say the downward trend is an indicator that more misery awaits in 2014. To the skeptics, Marlins president David Samson isn't buying it.
Since closing day in 2013, the Marlins have undergone sweeping changes to their front office as well as their roster.
Michael Hill replaced Larry Beinfest as president of baseball operations, and Dan Jennings was promoted to general manager.
From the outside, the front office added Mike Berger as vice president and assistant general manager Craig Weissmann as vice president of player personnel and Jeff McAvoy as director of pro scouting.
Still with limited economic resources, the team signed a number of free agents, like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal and Casey McGehee.
The common thread with all is they've experienced winning, which is part of a cultural change the team is going through.
"What Spring Training means to me is it's a new beginning," Samson said. "To me, the best thing about baseball is every 12 months you get to walk on the field in Spring Training, when pitchers and catchers report, and you have the hope that that year will be your year.
"It's happened once, in 2003. We've had winning seasons since then, but everybody wants to win the World Series. To have that hope in the beginning, no matter what the media says, no matter what you may think inside your own mind, the truth is, you're tied for first when pitchers and catchers report. This is my 15th year in this, and that has not gone away, it's just gotten stronger."
The Marlins feel they are heading in the right direction, and Samson shared some of his reasons why with MLB.com.
MLB.com: After a busy offseason reshaping the roster, what is the excitement level like heading into Spring Training?
Samson: I think we're all very excited for this year. It was an offseason of change. Bringing in Mike Hill and Dan Jennings as well as Mike Berger, McAvoy and Weissmann. Our baseball operations department has a new look. They came in with a plan this offseason, and they've been able to execute it perfectly. Now, as Giancarlo Stanton likes to say, 'Let's just play ball.' Everyone has been excited about Spring Training for a long time, and now it's time to get it going.
MLB.com: Obviously, you rebranded in '12, and it didn't go the way you wanted. You restructured in '13, and endured a long season. How are you rebranding, and what do you need to do to reconnect with the fan base?
Samson: I think what our fans are looking for is stability, and what they're looking for is better performance. The good news is we have a great ballpark, and that 10-year struggle is over with. The people who come to our ballpark really do love coming here. We want to show them a better product that wins more games. That's what we're definitely trying to do, and we feel we're on the upswing.
MLB.com: How important is continuity in moving forward?
Samson: I think continuity of performance is very important. Obviously, having players who can help you win, stay on your team, is very important. From our standpoint, we're always trying to find the right formula, because there is no perfect formula. Whether your payroll is $200 million or $20 million, there is always going to be places where you think you can improve. Having great baseball people, who are able to make decisions and execute decisions is where we think we have an advantage. But you have to play the games.
MLB.com: What kind of baseball market can Miami become?
Samson: We feel Miami is an up-and-coming market. This is our 13th season here. I don't think we've yet seen what this market can be like, both from an attendance standpoint and a television standpoint. We have a TV deal that goes for many more years, but we have great partners in Fox Sports Florida. They recognize the importance in the industry of television revenue and what it does. What we've seen in the last couple of years is escalating salaries due in large part to increased television revenues. Since we don't have that right now, what we have to do is to make smarter decisions that will enable us to compete on the field until such time that we catch up with the other clubs.
MLB.com: You also have a new radio partner this year on Clear Channel's 940 WINZ-AM, what does that deal do for you?
Samson: We're very happy to have a new radio partner in Clear Channel. It feels as though we are finally on a station that understands the benefit of having baseball on radio. And having Dave Van Horne and Glenn Geffner as the voices on our radio, our fans now have a chance to listen to good baseball talk and great baseball games across a huge platform of stations. I couldn't be happier with Clear Channel right now.
MLB.com: Drafting and development, obviously, is important to your organization. You have the second overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft. How are you going about building up your system?
Samson: The Draft is critical. I think what you've seen in the new posting system where the Japanese players are coming over like [Masahiro] Tanaka, that's not something the Marlins can participate in. The new rules didn't really help any teams. What they did was gave more money to the player, instead of the team.
From our standpoint, drafting and developing is critical. When you look at the players that we have coming, the players we have here, the young core, we've done a really good job. I think this year is a critical Draft for us. Come June, our signing bonus budget is over $18 million. That's how much we're spending on new players, because we realize having those players come into our system and grow into decade-long Marlins players is how we're going to win over a sustained period.
MLB.com: Regarding your homegrown players, when you've identified your core, how important is the next step -- to do what the Braves just did and sign some of those guys to long-term deals?
Samson: It's interesting if you look at teams and who their core is. Let's talk about the Yankees, they had a core of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera. They were only that team for a very long time. But if you look around at other teams, it's getting more and more rare to have players spend careers on the same team. That's just how the world of baseball is right now. So the tough part is choosing, which players you want that to be and then being right. What you don't want to happen, if you are the Marlins or about 28 other teams, if you choose wrong, that can stop your team from winning for a sustained period of time. The key is to figure out which players you think will be the best over a long period of time. I'm happy to say we have a lot of choices right now.
What our baseball people do is they look, and they scout, including at the Major League level. They make decisions, then they come to us and say, 'Listen, this is who we can build around. This is someone who could be a forever great player, and he will help your team win.'
MLB.com: So what's the best way of going about that -- to identify and lock up the right players?
Samson: The way we need to operate, and we've said this before, is we can't afford mistakes. Let's face it, we made mistakes in 2012, and we paid for it. We went for it. We had a payroll that was too large for what we could afford, but we also lost 93 games. So, forgetting what the payroll was, the results were we lost 93 games.
What we're trying to do is win more games. Whatever combination that is. Last year, three of the bottom five payrolls were in the playoffs. We don't know if it is payroll related. What we believe is that it is decision related. We think we have the right people in place who have the authority to make better decisions.
MLB.com: This is an entertainment industry, you want fans in the stands.
Samson: It's a tough thing, when you look at the combination of winning and the combination of a good experience at the ballpark -- the fact that it's hard for all leagues right now. Attendance is a struggle in all professional sports leagues, as well as all events, because the creature comforts of home have gotten more significant as the years have passed. Our job is to make people want to come to the ballpark and want to enjoy time at a baseball game. I think we have the ability to do it because of Marlins Park.
MLB.com: What do you think is a realistic, sustainable payroll?
Samson: It's hard to know what a realistic, sustainable payroll is because we have to see what revenues are. That's what it's based on. We're certainly looking forward to more TV revenue. We want to win. We want to be able to have the players who can help us win. We want to be able to afford a mistake, which happens in baseball, in terms of signing a player who may not be helping you win. That's not where we are right now, but it's where we're trying to get to.