A Brighter Future in Miami?

“We feel like we’ve got starting pitching depth, we have impactful championship caliber players at every position that will allow us to compete for multiple championships.” — Marlins president Michael Hill

***

This isn’t a bad time for Marlins fans. There aren’t many organizations you could credibly make that claim about following a 105-loss campaign and consecutive last place finishes, but this is Miami, where the standards are comparatively low.

Much of the positivity stems from an absence of negatives: Jeffrey Loria isn’t the owner, there’s no fire sale in progress or on the horizon, no scam contract extension on the books, no stars desperate for greener pastures, no silly stories about management bilking fans out of their premium parking spaces. This franchise usually trades in disappointment, and there are comparatively few sources of it right now.

There are also a few actively good signs. The club has cobbled together a functional pitching staff from spare parts, and have turned Brian Anderson and Sandy Alcantara into, if not building blocks, then at least the kind of productive players who wouldn’t look out of place in a contender’s lineup. The farm system itself seems rejuvenated: The Fish landed seven prospects on our most recent Top 100 list, most of whom already have Double-A experience. The organization as a whole is teeming with depth for the first time in ages, and they’ll add more impact talent in June’s draft.

If this described the state of the Royals, Mariners, Orioles, Tigers, or some other rebuilder, you could look at the club and say that while things may not look great yet, you don’t have to squint too hard to see how this could work. Develop a few impact players, make a trade or two, spend some money here and there and you can outline a route to competence, if not contention, sooner rather than later.

This is Miami though. Regardless of new ownership, the question in south Florida will not be “when will this be better?” but rather “why should anyone think this time will be any different?” It’s fair to ask.

***

No conversation about the future of the Marlins would be complete without a little reflection. This team hasn’t had a winning season in 10 years, mostly for lack of trying. The franchise’s history since their unlikely title run in 2003 can be measured by the cycles in which the Marlins bottom out, accumulate talent, inch toward a .500 record, and then sell their best players before they depreciate as assets. The thread runs from Carlos Delgado all the way through Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton.

Part and parcel with that cycle is the sell-off that periodically plunges the franchise toward the abyss. It never looks good — remember 37-year-old Placido Polanco hitting cleanup on Opening Day? — but the lay of the land looked particularly dire by the end of 2017, when the club dealt Stanton, Yelich, Dee Gordon, and Marcell Ozuna in a single offseason. By that point, Miami’s system had atrophied significantly. Anderson aside, the replacements for Yelich, Stanton, and Ozuna were underwhelming, but it was the pitching that particularly bottomed out. A few big whiffs in the draft, most notably No. 2 overall pick Tyler Kolek, had left the upper minors bereft of impact talent. With no choice but to turn to their farm in 2018, the big league staff struggled mightily: Marlins hurlers accrued a measly 2.7 WAR in 2018 — by far the lowest mark in baseball — and only two of their 29 pitchers notched an ERA- on the right side of average.

Everything looked unhealthy. Payroll sank. Attendance plummeted to embarrassing lows. The Marlins, already a bit shallow on the analytical side, were now weak down on the farm too. Aside from a handful of recent signees and imports from trades, there was very little talent or depth at even the lowest levels. The club’s average age across levels was the highest in baseball.

***

Bringing the Marlins back to relevance was never going to be easy and there have certainly been missteps along the way. A payroll trim was in the cards after shipping Yelich and Stanton afield, but the draconian cuts Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman imposed from the tarmac on their way in were not well received. Neither were the clumsy firings of club legends Jack McKeon and Jeff Conine (Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tony Perez were also purged). Jeter’s first public foray into management primarily illustrated the difficulties of publicly foraying into management — the opening months of his tenure were so rocky that the The Atlantic, of all outlets, swooped in to cover the chaos.

Behind the scenes though, the organization was changing. Headlined by new player development director Gary Denbo, Jeter lured a significant chunk of New York’s brain trust down south, and former Yankees staffers can now be found in every nook and cranny of the baseball operations department.

From all appearances, their arrival brought significant turbulence. Denbo in particular reportedly became a lightning rod for criticism from longtime Marlins employees, who chafed at his management style and reliance on analytics. Some of the accusations against Denbo — which publicly surfaced in Ken Rosenthal’s very detailed report on the Marlins culture in The Athletic last spring — were disturbing, particularly the multiple people who said he berated them for being overweight or out of shape.

For better or worse though, Denbo and the Marlins will be judged on their results. While there’s no perfect model to turn prospects into players, Miami has gone some way toward modernizing the front office and developing a coherent organizational philosophy on how to win. The analytics staff has swelled from three to more than 10, and the new hires have helped bring a more process-based approach to everything from statistical analysis to player development.

Critically, there’s a consensus on the type of players the team wants to build around. Eric Longenhagen spotted the pattern in his rundown of the club’s farm system:

“At a time when many teams are trending toward seeking concrete, measurable traits, shorter developmental timelines, and prospects who have lower outcome variance, the Marlins have targeted toolsy, high-risk prospects who might struggle because of unstable contact profiles, but otherwise have premium physical ability.”

According to Dan Greenlee, Miami’s director of player personnel, this is intentional. “We think that, with a strong PD system, targeting up the middle athletes and guys with the ingredients to be stars, we have a better chance of building a championship core,” he told me. Most of the big ticket minor league acquisitions over the past few years fit the bill. Guys like Alcántara and Sixto Sanchez wield huge stuff on the mound, while Top 100 hitters like Jazz Chisholm and Monte Harrison are elite (and sometimes multi-sport) physical talents.

Greenlee and others freely acknowledge that there’s often plenty of molding to do with this type of player. Still, there’s a consensus within the organization that to develop impact big leaguers, you have to gamble a bit: “You work backwards from star major league players, the hardest thing to come by in baseball. These guys generally are pretty gifted athletes,” said Greenlee.

There’s always a risk that the toolsy athlete never learns to hit, a reality reinforced by the disappointing production from acquisitions like Lewis Brinson and Magneuris Sierra. At the same time, Greenlee pushes back on the idea that these players are uniquely risky: “I think sometimes there’s a notion with a high ceiling player, there’s a lot of risk, but a lot of times those players can run and throw and all those things have value on the field. To me, that mitigates risk. If you get a non-athlete and all the pressure is on the bat, the bat has to carry that guy to his ceiling.”

With the talent in hand, the job turns to the development staff. Club president Michael Hill is confident that he has the right group in place. “When you have athletes and you have tools, you need the right coaches to help them reach their potential. We feel that we have the best hitting coaches in baseball.”

Part of the reason for that confidence is that this is a group that speaks the same lingo, from the front office to the field staff. “It didn’t happen overnight for us,” Greenlee concedes. “But we’re really talking the same language now, and analytically we’re using some pretty powerful tools and have a pretty good grasp on them with coaches at all levels at this point.”

One of the big player development challenges in baseball is giving players and coaches actionable data. Effective filtration is key, Greenlee says: “You have to know which metrics have the most weight and how to apply them. If you have too many statistics, and coaches and players kind of look at this whole see-everything, it can be paralysis by analysis.”

Communication is also a two way street. An effective statistical model is only as good as its inputs, and Greenlee has found that picking the brains of the coaches on the field has real analytical value: “Some of my favorite coaches have been the most reluctant to accept analytics at face value, challenging each statistic, and that can be good too. As long as they’re taking the time to understand the metrics, and a lot of times, these guys have a lot of experience, they poke holes and make our analytics even better. They’re engaged, they interact, and take the time to understand, and both sides get a lot better.”

The road between a good farm system and a good major league team is long and winding. While some of the upper level talent figures to debut in 2020, we probably won’t know too much about how these guys are faring as big leaguers for a couple of seasons. For now though, the farm system looks healthy again.

***

Whether the Marlins will have the money to supplement a good young core is an open question. Financial stinginess has been part of the Marlins’ DNA since the days following the club’s first championship, when ownership forced Dave Dombrowski to gut the core of the club to reduce expenses prior to a sale of the team.

The pattern continued into the past decade. The Marlins made their best attempt at a facelift to greet the arrival of Marlins Park in 2012, sporting a new name, fresh jerseys, and most surprisingly a major league payroll, boosted by $191 million in contracts to José Reyes, Heath Bell, and Mark Buehrle. Of course, the re-brand proved entirely cosmetic: Miami’s brass tried to get out from under the deals practically from the moment the ink dried. Hanley Ramirez was traded in July, and the three big free agents were shipped out the following winter. By the time Stanton signed his record breaking contract before the 2015 season, it was hard to find anyone who seriously expected him to finish the deal in town. Sure enough, he didn’t.

New ownership hasn’t meaningfully changed the equation, at least for now. Under Sherman and Jeter, the Marlins Opening Day payroll dipped from $115 million in 2017 down to $71 million by the start of last season; it was left for the Miami Herald to grimly concede that while payroll ranked in the league’s bottom five, it was a notable improvement over many years in the Loria era.

As to whether this will change in the future, you can make an argument for both outcomes. On the one hand, the Marlins have spent more on backend infrastructure than they did in the late Loria years. They’re investing more in the farm system and have revamped their player development and analytical staff. The Marlins also have different decision makers holding the purse strings. Realistically, Miami is always going to operate as a small market franchise. But few small market clubs are content to deal away any semblance of a young core as aggressively as the Marlins were under Loria. The organization has at times skimped in ways that looked pretty ugly, but there seems to be more of an emphasis on winning than in years past.

Ultimately though, you can’t win without flexing the payroll. Miami remains at a point on the win curve where the incremental benefits of each additional victory are low enough that they don’t need much justification for continuing to shop in free agency’s bargain bin. But if the team’s collection of minor league talent is as good as the brass thinks it is, the Marlins will soon find themselves in a situation where a robust investment in the free agent market could make them contenders in the National League East. I asked whether the organization would have more money to spend to supplement the team’s young core. It’s a tricky question to answer definitively, and it’s one that Hill took his time in answering directly. After a brief detour, he came back with “Ownership has always said whatever we need when the time is right, they will support whatever we need to do to get to the next level.”

It’s a lot to take on faith alone.

We hoped you liked reading A Brighter Future in Miami? by Brendan Gawlowski!

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Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Lol, no.