WEDNESDAY BUZZ COLUMN
It’s awfully difficult to change the culture in an organization that hasn’t made the playoffs in 12 years (second-longest drought in baseball), was 110 games under .500 over the past six, and witnessed all seven of its minor league affiliates finish in last place in 2015. But the Marlins, despite a poor effort tonight in a sloppy 10-2 loss to Milwaukee, are slowly taking encouraging steps.
Player procurement and performance will always be paramount in a team’s success, and the Marlins who are thriving (Martin Prado, Giancarlo Stanton, AJ Ramos, Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, among others) deserve credit foremost for the ongoing stretch of 12 wins in 16 games, leaving Miami at 17-15 after tonight's setback.
But behind the scenes, other factors are helping internally, from top to bottom:
• Don Mattingly’s hiring. Of Jeffrey Loria’s eight managerial hires since Jack McKeon, this has the potential to rank as his best.
“He’s amazing,” Jose Fernandez said. “I love his passion. I love the environment he has [created]. He’s like a friend, is always going to have your best interests in mind.”
Partly because of the tone Mattingly has set, Fernandez seems happier than ever before. “I am in love with this team,” Fernandez said.
So what is Mattingly doing specifically? He didn’t flip on his players, or yell at them at all, or call any you-better-get-your-act-together meetings, after a 5-11 start.
“The steadiness he brings is comforting to a lot of people in here,” catcher Jeff Mathis said, adding Mattingly’s hiring “has been good for everybody here. He brings the same energy and attitude every day and that’s something that was needed in this locker-room.”
Pitcher David Phelps put it this way: “Donnie doesn’t lose his emotions. He keeps his cool. He had a very quiet confidence about him in the spring. You can tell the difference here; guys aren’t hanging their heads if we’re losing. You can’t have a team riding highs and lows. That carries over to players and [is bad for] a young team.”
The other factor with Mattingly, Mathis said, is “the attention to detail. There’s a huge list of small things” that are being emphasized now, from base-running fundamentals, to handling a pitching staff. Chris Johnson said he never spent more time in spring training on fundamentals than he did this year under Mattingly.
• The addition of pitching savant Jim Benedict as a special assistant. The Marlins thought so much of him that they traded a pretty good pitching prospect, Trevor Williams, to acquire Benedict from the Pirates.
Benedict, in his behind-the-scenes role as a roving pitching guru, has made a difference with several of the Marlins’ young arms.
"He gave me tips on my delivery to make me more efficient,” said AJ Ramos, who has a 1.38 earned-run average. Kyle Barraclough watched his minor-league tape with Benedict last month, made a minor mechanical adjustment at Benedict’s urging and has a 1.64 ERA since his promotion.
• A re-commitment to the minor league system. The Marlins made a smart move in luring Marc Delpiano from the Pirates to run the team’s farm system, and a Marlins minor league official cited several changes that have followed.
Among them: “We’re spending more money. [President/baseball operations] Mike Hill and everybody stepped up. We redid the batting cages [at the minor-league facility in Jupiter]. The video room is better equipped now. We used to have to retrieve balls in minor-league camp; now they’re spending more on baseballs. We have a full-time independent league scout for the first time.”
Another thing also struck that Marlins minor-league official: “People are being held accountable now, and it’s refreshing. We’ve been told, and this comes from the top, to hold players and ourselves to higher standards and demand excellence.
“If you don’t run hard 90 feet down the line, there must be consequences. We had a kid [in minor-league camp] who didn’t run hard to first in spring and he was sent to the other field to run. He was singled out and we made an example of him.
“It’s playing the game the right way that we’re teaching. There’s no doubt we had a depletion of talent in the minors. But there also needed to be a culture change here, and it’s happening.”
So far, the Marlins’ minor league teams are 51-71, with one of the four teams in last place. So there's much work that remains.
This front office needs to draft well; there is a dearth of high-end position player prospects above the low-level minors. And it must replenish the pitching pipeline now that Adam Conley and Justin Nicolino are in the majors and others (such as Andrew Heaney) were used in trades.
But the early signs are encouraging.
“The message,” that Marlins official said, is “we’re not going to leave any stone unturned” in finding and developing players.
• The Heat’s Joe Johnson conceded that he, Goran Dragic and Luol Deng now feel “a big responsibility” to help Dwyane Wade more “because he has put us on our back and we have to chip in.”
Consider that Wade on his own outscored that trio in Games 3 and 4 (68 points to 65), shot far better than the three of them both overall (53 to 36 percent) and on threes (4 for 8, compared with 1 for 15).
• Erik Spoelstra went only 12 minutes the entire regular season without Chris Bosh or Hassan Whiteside or Amar’e Stoudemire or Udonis Haslem or Josh McRoberts or traded Chris Anderson on the court.
But in Game 4, with Bosh and Whiteside sidelined, Spoelstra went essentially center-less for 10 minutes, with the quintet of Deng (playing center), Wade, Dragic, Johnson and Justise Winslow outscoring Toronto by 14 points in those 10 minutes.
That lineup had played three minutes total as a group during the regular season and were a minus eight. Johnson likes that lineup, because it puts so many play-makers on the court.
“It’s great; when we go small, [opponents] aren’t going to switch as much,” Deng said. “They are going to really try to lock in on Joe or myself. They have to lock in on stopping the ball and that’s going to get guys open. If they don’t, guys are going to get down the lane and get good looks."
Spoelstra was non-committal about whether he would use that lineup more in Game 5, saying he has a lot of good options.
• The Heat or Toronto will definitely play at 3:30 p.m. Sunday on ABC --- either Game 7 of their series or the winner playing in Game 1 against Cleveland.
• For a ton more Heat notes from earlier today, including the latest on Hassan Whiteside; some perspective on what Wade is doing; Charles Barkley's comments about D-Wade; and the Heat's reaction to an ESPN report of tension between Wade and Dragic, please click here.
• Couple of thoughts from an NFC scout on the Dolphins’ draft: “We all liked [Rutgers receiver] Leonte Carroo. Powerful guy. Can make contested catches. Built like a running back…
"[Alabama running back] Kenyan Drake has explosive speed. Smart kid, though I found him a bit arrogant. He would be able to handle blitz pickup. Has better hands than [Alabama teammate] Derrick Henry, can catch the ball of the backfield. He’s a straight-line speed guy. I worry about his durability. If he couldn’t stay healthy as a part-time player at Alabama, how is he going to do it in the NFL?...
"[Western Kentucky quarterback and seventh-round pick] Brandon Doughty has a chance. We liked his mechanics and production. We had some interest in picking him. [Texas Tech receiver] Jakeem Grant is a great gadget player but he needs to make it [as a returner].”
• In the weeks before the draft, we told you that the Dolphins (with coordinator Vance Joseph at the front of the line) preferred big corners such as Eli Apple, William Jackson and Dolphins second-rounder Xavien Howard to smaller corners such as UF's Vernon Hargreaves.
Reporters finally got a chance to ask Joseph why he feels that way.
"The receivers in the league are getting much bigger now," he said this past weekend. "Obviously, you look for good players first and if they have the size you want, its prototype. But you want guys who can cover first [and have] quickness, ball skills, good lateral movement stuff. The size is extra.”
But what about the argument that taller corners sometimes don't have good hips?
Howard "is a second-round pick," Joseph responded. "When you are drafting guys in the first and second round, you’re hoping [they] have size and the movement stuff. And [Howard] does. Most guys, when you draft them later on, they may have one redeeming quality. It could be size but not movement, but [Howard] does have both. He’s a 6-foot guy with a 5-foot-10 corner’s movement skills. That’s special.”
• It's becoming clear that undrafted Iowa rookie Marshall Koehn (16 for 20 on field goals last season; 47 for 53 on extra points) will have a legitimate chance to unseat incumbent Andrew Franks (13 for 16 on field goals as a rookie, 33 for 36 on extra points).
“We want to see him become more consistent,” special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said of Franks, while also praising some aspects of his rookie season. "[Koehn] has a great skill set. He reminds me a lot of Andrew. Only difference is he kicked at a bigger school.”