The Miami Marlins have made a habit of tearing down and rebuilding their roster from scraps, most recently in the 2013 season after the failed signing spree of the 2012 campaign. Miami is often lauded for developing talent in a major way and letting that talent run free at the major league level. The team finally has that homegrown core that has always eluded them now, in star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, ace Jose Fernandez, and budding star Christian Yelich. Two of those three players are signed to long-term deals and will be around Miami for a while.
It did not always used to be this way. In fact, the Marlins have not set a strong track record for player development in the last decade and a half, and that trend to some degree has continued. I thought of this as I discussed the comparison between the Fish and a Pittsburgh Pirates organization that could serve as a model for the Fish. Both sides have similar elite talent cores, but the Pirates have seemingly done a better job developing prospect talent. The Marlins have let numerous slip past, and even the ones that did not eventually never developed into contributors. This, combined with the Marlins' perennial problems in terms of payroll and doling out salary, has led to the team's constant difficulty in piercing contention.
I looked into the time period of 2000 to 2015 looking for seven-year runs of success, judged by a player having at least 12 Wins Above Replacement as measured by Baseball-Reference. That averages out to just around 1.7 wins per season in the big leagues. I wanted to find out how many of those types of players the Marlins developed from drafts essentially between 1998 and 2005, a time period in which the club spent half of its run competitive and half of it out of contention. The average first selection the Marlins had during that time frame in the first round was the 14th pick, meaning the team was about a middle-of-the-pack squad.
I looked for all players with at least 12 WAR who spent their entire careers in one minor league organization. This way, no player could be influenced by another system. The total number of players of this type in the database totaled 140 players. The lists include big names like Albert Pujols and Clayton Kershaw and smaller names like Daniel Murphy and Ervin Santana. Of these types of players, how many can the Marlins boast came strictly from their player development system?
The Marlins developed three of the 140 players on this list, starting with Josh Beckett and his debut in 2001, along with Miguel Cabrera in 2003 and Josh Johnson in 2006. One other near miss includes Josh Willingham, who fell just shy of 12 wins if you include his cups of tea in 2004 and 2005. Overall, the Marlins essentially just missed what would be expected to be the league average if these players were evenly distributed among other teams. The Fish drafted at a league average position in the first round on average (though they did have more selections due to free agent departures), but they just missed a league average representation of capable homegrown talent.
At first glance, this does not sound like a huge problem. The Marlins were average in draft position and almost average in talent. And for a normal team with a normal payroll lean, this would be an acceptable thing to have. But the Fish are not normal in the least, but rather one of the few teams in the league that simply cannot (or won't) supplement their team's core talent with costly additions. For a club like that, ending up with just three homegrown talents is unacceptable.
As a comparison point, we can look at a few higher-budget teams as a way to judge how well the Marlins did. The Yankees, who averaged their first first-round draft pick at the 24th pick, had three players (Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, and Nick Johnson) who matched that kind of production. The Boston Red Sox, who averaged the 19th selection and missed two drafts altogether without a first round pick, had six draft picks of this caliber in around the same time frame.
Of course, the Marlins hitting the league average would be fine if the Fish could spend like the league average. Unfortunately, the Marlins are stuck spending like a bottom-feeder, and that limits their Major League options. Instead of having young talent that can supplant an eventual need from an aging veteran, the Marlins have to move guys quickly through the pipeline in order for them to remain competitive in the bigs. This leaves a team that has drafted poorly or otherwise lacked farm depth to either suffer when the reinforcements run out or be forced to mine the cheap resources from elsewhere.
That is exactly what happened to the 2006 era Marlins, a team almost directly built from outside acquisitions. Of the best Marlins of that era, only one player (Johnson) was homegrown within the Marlins organization. Most of the others came from trades elsewhere, things that the Marlins do not always win. When the Miguel Cabrera deal yielded nothing significant at the big league level early on and the team's mid-2000's draft picks faltered, the club had no reinforcements to supplement a Hanley Ramirez - Josh Johnson - Dan Uggla core.
A similar problem is happening now. The Marlins had to promote Yelich, Fernandez, and Marcell Ozuna in a hurry, and its other draft picks have yet to yield results. Furthermore, the team traded from its minor league depth, leaving it completely empty when the club was (and still is) in need of starting pitching.
What is the Key?
That is a question better answered by folks who are intimate in the system. But one key to remember is that the Marlins have essentially run an organization with a stagnant upper management for over a decade under Loria's reign. The Marlins have not budged Stan Meek and Michael Hill from positions of power for some time, and only recently had they parted with long-timers Larry Beinfest and Dan Jennings. The addition of Pirates front office and scouting pieces like Marc DelPiano may help, but then again, DelPiano himself is a former Marlins hand.
The insulation of the Marlins front office cannot be helping the team's run of poor player development. Outside of the obvious more recent successes, the team has struggled to build a top farm system to assist its decades-long run at the bottom of the payroll, and that hurts the club in the end.