Grantland's Jonah Keri has been visiting various locations in Spring Training as part of a month-long preview report before the MLB regular season kicks in. Part of visiting Spring Training is seeing the fresh faces of young prospects and how they plan on competing for big-league work, whether or not the organization is ready to slate them into those spots. In his latest article over at Grantland, Keri looked at the approaches of four Major League teams in promoting and grooming top prospects, and one of those four clubs was the Miami Marlins.
Last year, the first surprise came with the promotion of Jose Fernandez, an excellent prospect, but also a pitcher who’d never competed at a level higher than Class A. Now, of course, we know that promoting Fernandez right out of spring last year worked out beautifully, with Fernandez winning NL Rookie of the Year honors and emerging as a rare bright spot on a struggling Marlins team. But while even the team’s biggest optimists might not have imagined Fernandez performing that well so quickly, calling him up that early honored the team’s belief that certain players can thrive when pushed to the outer limits of their comfort level.
"A lot of guys have physical ability," scouting director Stan Meek told me last April, after Fernandez’s MLB debut. "But mentally they might not be able to handle the stress, especially at the big league level. When you find those special talents, then see that they can handle things mentally, that’s when it’s time to challenge them."
This quote by Stan Meek offers us the very first glimpse into the thought process of the Marlins when they blatantly disregarded the service time considerations with an elite talent like Jose Fernandez. The Marlins have a belief that players develop best when they are thrown into the fire rather than coddled in the minors more slowly. If a player appears ready, if he has tackled and dominated the levels he has seen, the Marlins are more than willing to call him up and let him sink or swim in the majors.
The pitfalls of that process are evident in last season's crop of promotions. Fernandez was a tremendous success. Christian Yelich appears to be well on his way to a successful career just based on how decently he managed against tough Major League pitching. Marcell Ozuna earned his legitimate shot at a starting job because he acquitted himself passably despite being thrown when perhaps even the Marlins did not believe he was ready (remember, Ozuna was inexplicably on the 40-man roster and was the only versatile outfielder available when Giancarlo Stanton suffered his hamstring injury). But Jake Marisnick failed in his attempt in the bigs despite promising numbers in Double-A and his confidence may have been affected as a result.
Ironically, of those four players, two of them were brought up at more than reasonable times, nullifying the argument that the Marlins are quick to rush their talent. Yelich and Marisnick had not played full seasons in Double-A, as both players were working through injuries in 2013, but both had dominated at the level when healthy. Furthermore, they were both broguht up in late July, well in advance of the expected deadline date for Super Two arbitration status. Sure, Miami could have waited another season and debuted either player in 2014, but the Fish likely would have needed at least Yelich's help in 2014 anyway. Promoting Yelich in late midseason in 2013 for a trial run did not affect their likely timetable at all.
The Marlins also did not work too quickly in the past when promoting their last elite prospect. In 2010, Giancarlo Stanton began the regular season in Double-A Jacksonville, thanks in part to middling numbers at that level in the tail end of 2009. The Marlins resisted the temptation to promote him despite their mediocre cast of outfielders, but by the time he smacked 23 homers and hit .313/.442/.729 (.496 wOBA) in 240 Double-A plate appearances, the Marlins' hands were forced and Miami promoted him after the Super Two deadline again.
Some players do force the Marlins' hand, and it seems they like that. But they also concede that development time is important to the organization. If you do not force their hand, the team wants to have options at the big league level to make them feel safe. General manager Dan Jennings said that is why the franchise turned to well-traveled veterans like Casey McGehee and Jeff Baker, so they would not be tempted to instead turn to top prospect Colin Moran.
"If Moran forces us to put him up based upon his production and maturity, then you put him up there," Jennings says. "Some of the good guys fast-track themselves, and they’re ready. Other guys, you need to pump the brakes a little bit, give them a chance to get a base under them. We want to have the option to pump the brakes on Moran. You know the old mind-set of 1,500 at-bats for hitters or 500 innings for pitchers [before they’re ready]? Just because the cost of procuring talent has gone up, it hasn’t changed the time frame that it takes for that apple to go from green to red. It still takes time for them to develop, and we want to recognize that, even if some players do force our hand."
So the Marlins are not as aggressive about promoting their players as the Fernandez example makes them out to be. But is their strategy the best way to go about it? It flies in stark contrast to the Tampa Bay Rays' philosophy, which smartly holds their prospects back for as long as possible to benefit the team, even when their players are ready. Evan Longoria waited 20-odd days and lost a year of service time when it was clear he was in the team's plans in his rookie season. Wil Myers debuted halfway into the year last season despite the Rays being starved for offense. For them, this is a calculated move to retain control over these premium young talents on the cheap for as long as possible.
On the surface, it would seem Miami should turn to a similar strategy. After all, they too are in a supposedly cash-strapped situation, or at least their owner seems to insist they are. And given that they are not competing for anything, unlike the Rays, shouldn't they be more cautious of service time? The prevailing though in Miami, it seems, is that being on the non-competitive losing side somehow makes service time concerns less important. With a team like the Rays, elite prospects are prized possessions that are needed to retain their competitive stretch run dating back to 2008. Retaining those players for as long as possible keeps the joy ride going, and that maintains the team's competitive edge.
For Miami, it is an entirely different story. The Fish are not worried about retaining prospects who may or may not pan out for a year longer because they have no dynasty to maintain. There is no guarantee that Jose Fernandez will be on the next great Marlins team, nor was there any guarantee that he would even be one of those future great Marlins. So if Miami thought Fernandez was essentially ready, why bother messing with his playing time to preserve some future unknown success? The Marlins would rather lose with prospects learning to adjust to Major League life rather than lose with veteran riff-raff with no upside. Provided the team believes the prospect could handle the jump, the Marlins would rather give that player more time to face the perils of the big leagues and sink or swim in it than waste more regular season reps on the Kevin Slowey and Mark Hendrickson types whose development will not impact the team. Since the club will be losing anyway, it is not negatively affected if the player struggles and fails to pan out; in fact, it allows the Marlins more time to move forward to the next player.
Keri's article also discusses how this impacts the team's coaching decisions.
It sounds simple, maybe even obvious. On many veteran-laden teams, however, managers and coaches can amount to little more than caretakers; they make sure nothing goes horribly awry, but they don’t necessarily take a proactive role when it comes to fostering players’ success. [Manager Mike Redmond] and the Marlins go the other way. They know they’ll need to lean heavily on player development if they hope to succeed, and that player development shouldn’t stop the moment a kid gets to the majors.
This makes the decision to replace former manager Ozzie Guillen and turn to Mike Redmond a much more logical one than it initially seemed. Guillen has some desirable qualities in a big league manager, but being a nurturing teacher is hardly one of them. Depending on him to coach a rebuilding squad like the 2013 team would likely have hindered some development. On the other hand, Redmond appears to be a steadier hand and has more recently been with prospects with his work as manager in High-A Dunedin in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. He would be far more willing and able to teach the new generation of young Marlins players what they need to learn to be successful Major Leaguers than a fiery, hot-headed Guillen might.
Is that the right approach? As Keri mentions in the article, there is probably more than one way to skin the cat known as proper prospect development. But after reading the article and pondering the reasons behind Miami's moves, I think I have a better grasp on what the club is trying to accomplish. Most fans are arguing that the Fish are wasting valuable service time on wasted seasons; Miami is arguing that those prospects need that Major League time to reach their full potential, and thus it is actually a waste of time and a hindrance to their development to keep them in the minor leagues. In a way, it is a refreshing method that rewards their players rather than turning them into assets from the get-go. On the other hand, it is impossible to tell whether that extra time facing premier competition was the deciding factor that helped or hurt the development process of these players. Either way, it is an extremely interesting question and debate.
What do you Marlins fans think? Should Miami be as gun-ho as they have been with their young prospects? Is their theory about needing to challenge players right? Let us know what you think!