Last year, I wrote that the Miami Marlins farm system was one of the weakest systems in baseball. A series of unsuccessful first round draft picks, including Chad James and Kyle Skipworth, had left the minors bereft of talent. The front office displayed an unwillingness to offer over-slot money in the draft - a reflection of the organization's penny-pinching ways. Top prospects such as Logan Morrison and Giancarlo Stanton had graduated to the major leagues, leaving little impact talent at the system's upper levels.
Twelve months have passed, and the system has experienced a remarkable turnaround. The Marlins have improved their drafting, selecting Christian Yelich, Jose Fernandez, and Andrew Heaney in the last three years. The series of trades that sent away much of the major league roster also infused the minors with a new supply of talented players. In total, the fire sale netted the Marlins nine prospects, six of whom are featured on this list. Today, the Marlins have one of the strongest minor league systems in baseball.
The Marlins' Double-A affiliate, the Jacksonville Suns, will be the team to watch this season. In addition to Yelich and Fernandez, its roster will include Marcell Ozuna, Jake Marisnick, Jacob Realmuto, and Adam Conley.
Sam Evans, Conor Dorney, and I have worked together over the past month to create this list, containing what we believe to be the Marlins' twenty best prospects. The list should not be mistaken for a scientific endeavor. It represents a blend of observation, statistical analysis, and pure intuition.
The three of us will be expanding on this list in the coming weeks by posting in-depth reviews of each player's performance, explaining the justification behind their ranking, and predicting their future with the Miami Marlins.
1. Jose Fernandez, RHP
The crown jewel of the Miami farm system. The 20-year-old Cuban right-hander boasts an array of dominant pitches, which he used to full effect in his debut season. He struck out well over a batter per inning and allowed just 26 earned runs in 134 innings pitched. Fernandez has the makings of a future ace.
2. Christian Yelich, OF
Last year's top prospect, Yelich did nothing to warrant a demotion to second place this year. On the contrary, he exceeded expectations in Jupiter, improving upon his statistics from the prior year. Yelich has the best overall bat in the system and features decent power. He plays a capable left field too, making him the complete package, and a fantastic prospect.
3. Jake Marisnick, OF
Marisnick has been described as a potential "five-tool" talent. He defends well in center field, steals bases effectively, and hits for decent power. Marisnick's one question mark is his ability to make consistent contact. He has spent a lot of time refining his hitting mechanics, but there is still a degree of wonkiness in his swing.
4. Andrew Heaney, LHP
Heaney exhibited terrific promise in his professional debut, striking out 30 batters and walking only 6 in 27 innings pitched. He has excellent command of his low-to-mid-90s fastball for a 21-year-old pitcher, and even mixes in a plus slider. Heaney could rocket through the Miami farm system in 2013.
5. Marcell Ozuna, OF
Ozuna has the most impressive tools of all the Marlins outfield prospects, displaying incredible raw power. He has hit over 20 home runs per year for the past three seasons. He struggles with pitches out of the zone, often chasing when he should lay off. He runs well and has a plus arm in right field.
6. Justin Nicolino, LHP
Nicolino cannot claim to have the most dominant stuff, but he does possess the most advanced command of any Marlins pitching prospect. He walked only 21 batters in 124 innings pitched for Class-A Lansing last season. His fastball sits around 90 miles per hour, and he can easily fool batters with his changeup. He should develop into a fine number two or three starter.
7. Adeiny Hechavarria, SS
Hechavarria will likely begin the season as the Marlins' starting shortstop. The strength of his glove is unquestioned, but his offensive potential is limited. Thankfully, he won't have to hit much to make a positive contribution in the big leagues.
8. Rob Brantly, C
Brantly probably won't duplicate his outstanding numbers with the Marlins last season, even though he should continue to perform well as an an above-average hitting catcher. His defense needs polish, but his inherent athleticism will allow him to adjust as necessary.
9. Jacob Realmuto, C
Realmuto demonstrated considerable defensive improvement this year, dramatically reducing his number of passed balls, and gunning down would-be basestealers at a good rate. Unfortunately, his bat stalled in the pitcher friendly Florida State League. He still has plenty of time to work out his problems and become an offensive presence.
10. Adam Conley, LHP
Conley made quick work of Class-A batters last season, earning himself a promotion to high Class-A Jupiter. He failed to maintain his level of production in the FSL, and his earned run average slipped from 2.78 to 4.44. Already 22 years old, I expect Conley to continue his fast rise through the system. If he doesn't succeed in the majors as a starter, he could easily transition into a successful bullpen arm.
11. Derek Dietrich, 3B
Acquired from the Rays in exchange for Yunel Escobar, Dietrich profiles as an offensively-oriented third or second basemen. His bat is solid and he flashes above-average power, although his plate discipline could use improvement. His defense remains his greatest weakness as a prospect. His arm is an asset, but he doesn't have tremendous range.
12. Jose Urena, RHP
Urena took major steps forward in 2012, playing full season ball for the first time, nearly cutting his walk rate in half, and allowing fewer runs to score. He throws his mid-90s fastball for strikes, but sometimes struggles to locate it within the zone. His secondary pitches need to advance if he wants to reach his ceiling of a mid-rotation starter.
13. Mason Hope, RHP
Hope's fastball velocity declined as the season wore on, falling to the high-80s. He still managed to have a respectable year in Jamestown, however. He has a clean delivery and a solid arsenal of pitches, including a plus curveball that will make for a good strikeout pitch. I am optimistic that Hope can have a breakout year in Greensboro.
14. Jesus Solorzano, OF
Yet another toolsy outfield prospect in the Marlins system, Solorzano continued to improve in 2012, posting a .314/.374/.519 slash line in Jamestown. He's an excellent athlete, and can play all three outfield positions. His speed has yet to make him an effective basestealer, as he was caught stealing last season almost as many times as he stole successfully. He has good bat speed, and he stands to add power as he develops.
15. Zack Cox, 3B
Once a highly touted prospect, Cox was expected to shoot through the minors with his advanced bat. His stock has tumbled since then, as his numbers have underwhelmed evaluators. His below-average athleticism and defense represent another roadblock to success. If Placido Polanco fails to perform in Miami, Cox could compete with Derek Dietrich for the third base job.
16. Austin Brice, RHP
Brice garnered attention for his swing-and-miss stuff, striking out 122 batters in 109 innings pitched for Greensboro last season. His command is extremely erratic, however. If he can harness his formidable fastball and curveball combination, Brice could be a sound middle-of-the-rotation starter.
17. Kolby Copeland, OF
Copeland is the best pure hitter the Marlins have drafted since Christian Yelich. His bat shows a lot of polish for a player that only turned 19 this month. Despite his success in high school football, his defense in the outfield is average at best. There are also concerns about his maturity level, but thus far it does not seem to have significantly impacted his on-field performance.
18. Avery Romero, 3B
Romero has a good feel for hitting, with the potential to develop strong power over time. Although he was drafted as a shortstop, his lack of quickness will force him to move to second or third base. Almost 20 years old, he was very old for his high school class, and has yet to prove that he can stack up against age-appropriate competition.
19. Arquimedes Caminero, RHP
Caminero holds tremendous talent, notably throwing a high-90s heater that devastates batters. The problem is achieving consistent control of his stuff. Caminero could pitch in Miami as early as mid-season. I will be paying close attention to his early season performance.
20. Alfredo Silverio, OF
Once ranked as the number four Los Angeles Dodgers prospect on Baseball America, Silverio had a bright future ahead of him when he was involved in a serious car accident that forced him to miss the entire 2012 season. The Marlins picked him up in the Rule 5 draft this winter. It is unclear whether Silverio has recovered, but if he is healthy and ready to play, he could prove to be a steal for the Marlins.
Honorable Mentions: Austin Barnes, 2B; Kyle Jensen, OF; Chad James, LHP