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Rob Manfred claims he didn’t know the Marlins would slash payroll, gets raked over the coals

Miami Marlins fans weren't afraid to criticize Derek Jeter at a recent town hall, and the feedback was well deserved.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred appeared on Dan LeBatard’s ESPN radio show today. The show originates out of Miami and the Marlins and their recent fire sale were, understandably, the main topic of conversation.

But though the topic was predictable, it turned out to be a combative interview, in which Manfred deployed some lawyerly evasion when it appeared he was caught in a lie about his and the league’s foreknowledge of the Marlins’ plans to slash payroll after being sold to Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter. And it ended with Manfred, apparently, giving his full endorsement to tanking.

The interview -- video/audio of which can be seen below -- started out with LeBatard asking Manfred directly if he was “aware of Jeter’s plan to trade players and slash payroll.” Manfred attempted to evade the simple yes or no question, but then said “we do not approve operating decisions by ownership, new ownership, current owners or not, and as a result the answer to that question is no.” He then said “I’m not going to be deposed like this is some adversary thing. You wanna ask me questions, I’m going to answer the way I want to answer them.”

LeBatard then called Manfred out, incredulous that Manfred was unaware of Jeter’s plans to trade players and slash payroll, saying “we’re starting out with a lie, Rob . . . you can’t tell me you’re not aware of this.” LeBatard pressed him again, saying “were you aware of this?” To which Manfred said, “no, we did not have player-specific plans from the Miami Marlins or any other team . . .” He also said that the league did not see a payroll plan from the Marlins “until two days ago.”

The emphasis in that quote is added. You’ll see why once you see what Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported this afternoon after the interview:

A source directly involved in the Marlins sales process, after hearing the Le Batard interview, said, via text: “Commissioner said was not aware of [Jeter] plan to slash payroll. Absolutely not true. They request and receive the operating plan from all bidders.

“Project Wolverine [the name for Jeter’s plan] called on his group to reduce payroll to $85 million. This was vetted and approved by MLB prior to approval by MLB. Every [Jeter] investor and non investor has the Wolverine financial plan of slashing payroll to $85 million. Widely circulated.”

This is where Manfred’s legal training comes in, of course. Note his use of the phrase “player specific plans.” Manfred -- once he realized he was denying knowledge of the Marlins’ plans to slash payroll -- inserted that phrase to give him technical veracity. It can and should be read as “we did not know, specifically, that the Marlins planned to trade Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon and Marcel Ozuna.” Which is meaningless of course, because (a) he knew that the Marlins planned to slash payroll to $85 million; and (b) the only way to do that would be for the Marlins to trade away Stanton, Ozuna and likely Gordon.

Manfred clearly wanted to give off the impression that the league had no idea of what Sherman and Jeter planned to do, but he clearly knew. Is it a lie? I suppose we can argue the technicalities of that. It was certainly, however, an attempt to mislead. It’s also quite possible, if the Miami Herald report is accurate, that his comment about not seeing a Marlins payroll plan “until two days ago” is a lie, but that probably depends on how he’d define “payroll plan.”

This was not the only nugget from this interview. Get this from Manfred later in the interview:

“The strategy that, apparently, the Marlins have adopted is one that is tried and true in baseball. I’m not saying it’s without pain. As a matter of fact, I think the fans in Houston endured some bad seasons. But it was a process that ultimately produced a winner, and that process is really dominant in terms of the thinking in our game right now, in terms, particularly, of smaller markets’ ability to win.”

Translation: the Commissioner of Baseball is now on record as saying that teams should tank to win. That’s a position some outside observers and analysts have taken and, clearly, the tack certain teams have taken in building their teams. But it’s not without considerable controversy and it’s remarkable to hear the Commissioner of Baseball endorse it. For the leader of the game to tell fans, “hey, your teams might suck for a while as the owners rein in their costs, but maybe it’ll work out” is a very different thing than an analyst saying it. Given that there are absolutely no guarantees that other teams, let alone several of them, can count on an Astros-style turnaround, it’s an endorsement of bad baseball and owners’ interests above fan interests.

Which, if you’re aware of baseball’s business history is not surprising. It’s well known that, throughout baseball history, the league and its commissioners care about owner profits first and foremost and that they prefer lower payrolls to higher ones. The examples of this are legion, in fact. Indeed, the real shocking news here would have been if Manfred and the league DID NOT know that Sherman and Jeter planned to slash payroll.

Which makes one wonder why Manfred so ineptly claimed otherwise at the outset. His predecessors were so much better at hiding it.

Follow @craigcalcaterra