From poor chemistry to farm system to injuries to behind-the-scenes issues, Marlins trying to fix festering problems
Probe beneath the surface, beyond the regrettable free agent signings such as Jarrod Saltamacchia and foolish managerial lab experiments like Dan Jennings, and the Marlins acknowledged this winter there were more subtle shortcomings that ailed the organization, that festered internally, and also help explain why this franchise hasn’t made the playoffs since 2003.
Among them and what they’ve done in response:
### A decaying minor league system. The Marlins don’t have a single player in MLB.com’s list of top 100 prospects, and the fact their seven minor league teams all finished in last place last season “was not lost on me,” president David Samson said.
“We can’t have that. We don’t do the minor leagues to win. We do it to develop. When your entire system is bereft, when you don’t have one prospect in the top 100 -- arguably we should have, but you don’t -- you’ve got to take a look and understand why. We did a pretty deep dive into that and we need to do better.”
I asked a Marlins minor-league official what position players at high-level Class A or higher could become big-league starters. He mentioned Jupiter left fielder Austin Dean (.268, 18 steals, 52 RBI in 2015) and Jupiter shortstop/second baseman Avery Romero (.259, 42 RBI), but both are a long way away.
“Austin Nola has an outside chance to be a utility guy,” said that minor-league official, who asked that his name not be used. “We’re really down in talent in our system. We’ve up given up guys like Chad Wallach, Austin Barnes, Andrew Heaney, Anthony DeSclafani in trades. We’ve got to sign more international players. We’re giving some of our international money to other clubs.”
Dealing Heaney to the Dodgers in a package for Dee Gordon (and others) was clearly a good move. But the Mat Latos/DeSclafani deal with Cincinnati obviously was not.
Hard-throwing right-hander Tyler Kolek (61st) was the only Marlin rated among MLB.com’s top 100 prospects last summer but he slid off the list after allowing 169 base-runners in 108 innings in Single A last season.
The more encouraging news: The Marlins have several promising position prospects in the low-level minors, including first baseman Josh Naylor, their first-round pick last year. And they have several quality pitching prospects throughout the system, including Jarlin Garcia.
But Samson indicated better decisions are needed, in general.
Even “six-year minor league free agents, we felt we were not doing as good a job as we needed to in those areas,” Samson said. “When you’re not the Dodgers or the Yankees, you have to make decisions at the lower levels the way Pittsburgh has done so well in recent years. I didn’t feel we were doing that.
"So we made some changes and we won’t bear the fruit of many of those changes for the coming years. When this window closes with these players, the next window comes and we’ll see how effective it is.”
There is renewed hope about the farm system after two significant additions, both from the Pirates: Marc DelPiano (who previous worked for the Marlins) was hired to be vice president/player development and run the team’s farm system, and Jim Benedict was added as vice president/pitching development, with the Marlins dealing a quality prospect to the Pirates (for a non-prospect) as compensation for him.
Benedict has a good relationship with pitching coach Juan Nieves and has been credited with helping several pitchers blossom, including Edinson Volquez and Gerrit Cole, among others. Benedict will work with Marlins pitchers at all levels of the organization, including the big league team.
“Benny brings this aura of ability to get things out of players that others can’t get,” Samson said.
As for DelPiano, “he has tremendous attention to detail,” Marlins president/baseball operations Michael Hill said.
The aforementioned Marlins minor-league official said DelPiano “is very impressive and dynamic. He says we’re going to develop champions.”
### Injuries issues. Last season, only five teams missed more games due to injuries that required players going on the disabled list. Samson said that prompted changes, though longtime trainer Sean Cunningham remains.
“We are trying a bunch of different things with the players this year,” Samson said. “We’re trying different things on conditioning. We’re trying different things with injury prevention. We’re studying their body composition.
“Injuries cost us our year last year to a large degree. Some injuries you cannot help [such as Giancarlo Stanton’s hand injury last June]. But there are ones you can, [such as] the hamstrings.”
### Internal chemistry. The Marlins regret signing Jeff Baker, who they believe was a malcontent and strongly soured several key young players before his release last summer. One team official called him a “cancer.”
But the problems extended off the field. “The chemistry last year was lacking both upstairs and downstairs and in between,” Samson said. “What we have this year is different. We had issues top to bottom, bottom to top and middle to middle. We sat down with Jeffrey, Don Mattingly, me, Mike Hill – we were in constant contact with Giancarlo Stanton, who is the leader of this team --- and I know things are better this year.
“I believe a positive clubhouse bereft of agenda will lead to victory. There’s a different feel around the team that’s just better. I’m not blaming it on Dan Jennings or Mike Redmond. It’s better now.”
Still, Samson concluded that front office dynamics would work better without Jennings. Jennings is a good man and a good baseball man, but there was a sense last year that different executives were competing for owner Jeffrey Loria’s ear.
Last February, while Jennings was reaching out to free agent pitcher James Shields and discussing it with Loria, other members of the front office weren’t even aware of that, a team official said.
Here’s how it works now: This offseason, Benedict told the front office that he thought he could fix Edwin Jackson and suggested the Marlins sign him, which they did.
Samson said: “Mike Hill will then call [assistant GM] Mike Berger, and say, ‘Bene saw Edwin Jackson. What do you got on him?’”
Besides Berger, Hill will also discuss the list of external free-agent and trade options with front-office officials Jeff McAvoy, David Keller, Orrin Freeman and Benedict (for pitchers). Then Hill and Samson will determine how much money can be offered to that player within the team’s budget constraints.
That part “is done by me and Mike, because we have the budget,” Samson said. “Then we meet again and say, ‘Hey listen, no for [this player] but [yes] for that player,’ … and then you weigh [the consequences].”
### Analytics. The Marlins felt they were way behind in this area and hired respected Jason Pare from Toronto to lead the analytics department. Hill said the Marlins used analytics in deciding recent player acquisitions (such as Wei-Yin Chen) more than ever before.
“Now when we talk about a player, we have that analytical voice at the table now that can give their perspective to helping me make better decisions,” Hill said. “There's so much data out there. We always had the data. We just needed to interpret the data.”
The Marlins hope these changes make a tangible difference for a team that has MLB’s second-longest ongoing postseason drought, longer than any team except Seattle.
“Ever see the movie Honeymoon in Vegas?” Samson said. “There’s a guy walking and there’s a cloud over his head. It’s sunny everywhere and there’s a cloud over his head. I felt that about us. I felt there was always a cloud. I feel it has been lifted now.”