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Olney: Marlins' new owners face defining decision on Stanton

A team official who knows a whole lot about marketing spoke recently about the unique challenge facing Derek Jeter and the Marlins’ new ownership group as they assume control of the franchise. The relationship between the franchise and the community is so badly damaged, the official said, that Jeter & Co. will effectively have one legitimate chance at rebranding the franchise -- one small window of opportunity to distinguish itself from the previous ownership.

Which is why the recent surge of All-Star right fielder Giancarlo Stanton is both a blessing and a curse for the incoming ownership group.

If Stanton had generated a 2017 performance closer to his career average -- say, 27 homers over 130 games -- then Jeter & Co. could’ve had more public-relations cover to dump his contract, under which Stanton is owed $295 million over the next 10 years. For a team saturated with debt, it would be good baseball business to unload a player who would absorb such an enormous portion of the team’s annual budget, even if it means kicking in tens of millions of dollars to offset some of his salary for his next employer. There is more than a reasonable argument that the Marlins need to move Stanton, for the sake of winning games over the next decade.

But through an adjustment at the plate -- closing his stance -- Stanton has suddenly become one of baseball’s best players, and a serious candidate for the National League MVP award. Over his last 59 games, Stanton has 32 homers, 58 runs, 60 RBIs, 34 walks and 1.205 OPS, while playing his home games in what is generally perceived to be the worst hitters’ park in baseball. For years he has been the Paul Bunyan of position players because of his size, and now he is the source of Bunyanesque production.

This fuels the trade value of a player in his prime if the Marlins decide to deal Stanton, who turns 28 in November. If Miami arranges a trade, it would probably get a better package of prospects in return than it would have three months ago and would have to eat less money.

But Stanton’s explosion on offense also cements his standing as the Marlins’ best and most prominent and most marketable player -- especially given the death of Jose Fernandez last September.

Does Jeter -- with that one chance to make a first impression with Miami baseball fans -- want his first prominent move as the Marlins' front-office captain to be dumping Stanton?

And while it is true that Jeter’s group is not yet officially installed as the team’s new owners, few fans will fall for a three-card Monte trick if Stanton is traded before Jeter is formally approved. Jeter will have to assume the responsibility of any Stanton deal no matter when it happens, because even casual baseball fans will assume that the incoming owners had veto power of any major changes, in the same way that the prospective buyer of a house would have to approve significant alterations before a closing.

If the grand reopening of the franchise includes the selling of Stanton, a lot of Miami baseball fans will read this as: Same ol’ Marlins.

Which is why it’s good that Jeter is expected to oversee both the business and baseball side of operations in this case, because while it may be smart baseball to move an onerous contract and carve out payroll flexibility, it would be terrible business. There can be no way for Jeter & Co. to sell this as a good thing; it would be perceived as only a bad thing. Jeter shouldn’t ride into town on a big white horse representing change and then trade the Derek Jeter of the Marlins’ franchise.

The sooner that Jeter & Co. make peace with that reality, the better, and shift their focus to building a better team around Stanton.

The Marlins’ front office has been taking calls from other teams about Stanton throughout this season, and rumors continue to swirl about the slugger’s future. If Jeter really wants to rebrand the franchise and distinguish the new ownership from the old one, he should step in and announce definitively: We are not trading Giancarlo Stanton now or anytime in the near future.

• If Jeter & Co. do decide to move Stanton -- and decide to immediately take that plunge into a hole of public perception from which they may never emerge -- these are the teams that could make the most sense as suitors. (To be clear: What follows is speculation, with some input from rival executives.)

The Cardinals: Stanton would give St. Louis exactly what it needs, and what it had in the past with Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols -- a transcendent slugger as a lineup anchor. The Cardinals have enough prospects to make a deal, and they’ve got money to spend. They are viewed as early favorites to land Stanton in some corners of the industry.

The Phillies: They have a ton of payroll flexibility and enough of a stable of prospects to build a trade, and perhaps a greater sense of urgency given the lack of progress in their rebuilding this winter. But for the Marlins’ new owners, dealing Stanton to a division rival may be a tougher sell than if they moved him elsewhere.

The Dodgers: Stanton is from California and he is perfect for the L.A. market that thrives on star power. He’d be a baseball superhero with the Dodgers. But time and again, Dodgers president Andrew Friedman has demonstrated that he is not willing to trade the best and brightest of his young players, a strategy that has paid off handsomely this year. The Marlins might demand a Cody Bellinger to make a trade work, to sell the deal to their fans, and the Dodgers might justifiably say no, given that Bellinger is younger and cheaper.

The Giants: The need is there, for sure, and Stanton’s power -- like that of former Giant Barry Bonds -- would translate even in AT&T Park. But San Francisco doesn’t have a lot of immediate payroll flexibility and would probably have to structure a deal in which the Marlins assume a lot of Stanton’s contract up front or take on a big contract or two in return (like that of Brandon Belt).

The Yankees: They certainly have the caliber of prospects needed to make a Stanton trade, and the coupling of lineup monsters Aaron Judge and Stanton would be a marketers’ dream. (Although it probably would end any talk of the Yankees’ signing Bryce Harper.)

But Jeter is a really, really competitive person, and my guess is that he would only make a deal with the Yankees -- his former team -- if it was a total wipeout, one-sided trade. And keep in mind that in the past, Yankees GM Brian Cashman has worked to avoid the big, massive contracts like Stanton’s: He argued against the Yankees re-signing Alex Rodriguez after A-Rod opted out of his deal early in the 2007-08 offseason.

The Red Sox: Because they’re a big-market team, they’d probably make a call about Stanton -- and it would be fun to see him hit in Fenway Park. But Boston is already deep in outfielders, most notably Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi.

The Cubs: A lineup trio of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Stanton would fill the Wrigley bleachers with homers, but the dollars might not work for the Cubs, unless Chicago could somehow wedge the contract of Jason Heyward into any Stanton trade to help offset the dollars. But the Cubs would have to provide a big package of prospects to make that happen, and they might not want to do that given the prices they’ve paid in the deals for Aroldis Chapman, Jose Quintana, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.

The Astros: Stanton would be an interesting addition, for sure, but Houston tends to adhere strictly to value assessments in its trades and would have to work outside that comfort zone to make this happen.

The Angels: They’re developing some payroll flexibility, with about a dozen contracts set to expire -- including the final year of Josh Hamilton’s disastrous deal. And a trade for Stanton might be the sort of thing that convinces Mike Trout to stick around beyond his current deal through 2020.

The White Sox: A sleeper. Because of the prospect-driven deals made by Rick Hahn in the past year, the Marlins would have a lot of prospects to choose from -- and the White Sox have a whole lot of payroll flexibility in the years ahead. A move for Stanton would help position the White Sox to win in 2018 and 2019, as the Royals spin into a cycle of rebuilding and the Indians’ current window for success starts to close.

Around the league

For the Nationals, the last five weeks of the regular season will be all about recovery and rehabilitation and rebuilding, with so many of their most prominent players coming back from injury. Stephen Strasburg returned from the disabled list in Houston on Thursday, Max Scherzer will be activated for Monday’s game, and Trea Turner perhaps as soon as Tuesday. Additionally, Jayson Werth is expected back this week, Harper sometime closer to mid-September -- and even Adam Eaton took batting practice on the field Saturday, a surprising development for a player who blew out his knee earlier this year. (The Nationals continue to say they don’t expect Eaton to return this year, which is what the Cubs said last summer about Kyle Schwarber before the slugger made the roster for the World Series).

With a lot of players sidelined, Nationals manager Dusty Baker was asked about the increase in injuries in baseball and whether it hurts the sport. The current generation of players, Baker noted, are “supposed to be bigger and stronger than ever before, but they’re also hurt more. That’s a problem.”

Baker noted that some fans will go to the park expecting to see the best players but will be disappointed when they’re out of the lineup. Baker compared this dynamic to the time when he had a ticket to see Sly & the Family Stone, and the act didn’t show -- the same thing happened when Baker went to see the legendary James Brown.

Baker’s Nationals will take on the Mets on Sunday Night Baseball.

• The idea of left-handed players being used at third base, shortstop and second base has long since been abandoned because of the sport’s geometry -- because of the extra milliseconds required for a left-handed thrower to square up his body from those infield spots in order to execute a throw to first base. But in the aftermath of Rizzo’s emergency inning at third base, Keith Law and I had a conversation about whether this is worth review, especially given all of the defensive shifts and specialized lineups that are used.

If the Yankees, for example, could get an extra left-handed hitter into the lineup at second base or third base and the players considered were average to above-average fielders, would the offensive advantage gained at least offset the disadvantage -- much in the way that many teams have been willing to play right-handed throwers at first base?

Baseball Tonight podcast

Friday: A review of the Yankees/Tigers brawls; Paul Hembekides digs into what’s behind the recent hot streaks for Manny Machado and Giancarlo Stanton; Jessica Mendoza on the risks that go along with a one-sport year-round focus for kids and teenagers; Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post on all of the rehab and injury situations for the Nationals.

Thursday: Cubs catcher Alex Avila on the challenge of learning a pitching staff in midseason, and the conversations that he had with his father before Al Avila traded him to Chicago; Keith Law on Rich Hill’s brilliant defeat; and Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle on the Astros.

Wednesday: A fun conversation with Joey Votto about hitting, and about how many players pick his brain about hitting; Curtis Granderson on his trade to the Dodgers; Tim Kurkjian on the end of Aaron Judge’s strikeout streak; John Fisher on the building strength of the Indians.

Tuesday: Keith Law and Eric Karabell discuss the injury to Alex Wood; Sarah Langs plays the Numbers Game; Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs.

Monday: Keith chats with Jerry Crasnick and Eric about the Little League Classic; Alex Speier on Rafael Devers and the Red Sox; and Todd Radom’s uniform and logo quiz.

And today will be better than yesterday.