Yesterday, the Miami Marlins took a a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, leaving the Fish floundering at a 18-30 on the season. Meanwhile, the Pirates are storming back and are now 24-22 after the three-game sweep of the Fish. They sit a game or so behind the Chicago Cubs, whom the Marlins play in a three-game series to start off next week. The Cubbies have ridden their young influx of talent to a nice start and a potential contending bid in the National League.
These thoughts are relevant to me as we watch the Fish struggle through another difficult season even though expectations were higher at the start of the year. Last season, the Marlins won 78 games surprisingly despite not having Jose Fernandez for much of the season. The team got an MVP-level season out of Giancarlo Stanton, All-Star level performances from young players on the roster, and aside from the Fernandez injury, a good run of health. This year, injuries have affected the early roster, players have not played as well as expected, and what was thought to be an 83-win team with dark-horse playoff aspirations instead fired its manager in less than 40 games and has hired its general manager to serve on the bench.
Meanwhile, the Pirates inch closer to contention, the Cubs are in the thick of it as well, and the Houston Astros are the first team in baseball to 30 wins.
Why are the fates of these three teams relevant? Each club began a long process of rebuilding within the last seven years, with the Astros and Cubs really kicking off that process in 2012. The Marlins recently also began a rebuilding process from their disastrous 2012 season, having torn down the roster to the ground with a fire sale trade and built back up from scratch around Giancarlo Stanton.
Three of those teams have approached the situation in a more systematic, thought-out approach. The Marlins, under Jeffrey Loria, have followed a different plan entirely.
In some ways, one can see it starts with analytics. ESPN's study on analytics noted that the Marlins are one of only two "non-believer" organizations in baseball, alongside only the Philadelphia Phillies. The Marlins just hired their first intern to work on establishing their analytics department. Who know how much president of baseball operations Michael Hill, who owns an extensive scouting background, or former general manager Dan Jennings, who also broke into the game as a scout, listened to the tiny analytics department of one on the Marlins' staff.
Analytics does not guarantee a seat at the big-boy table in baseball, nor does ignoring it guarantee that you will not be successful. But information is always important, and it should be noted that these three other organizations began their transition once they moved to a more analytically-friendly front office. The Pirates hired general manager Neal Huntington in 2007, so his footprints on the organization began in 2008. The perennial laughingstock Pirates began investing into an analytics department, hiring well-known names in sabermetrics circles such as former Baseball Prospectus writer Dan Fox. The team hired a manager in Clint Hurdle who bought into the process. By 2014, the team had built a successful culture of communication and blending of analytics and scouting processes.
The Pirates have had years to do this. The Astros and Cubs really just started. In 2012, both teams hired new front office staffs. For the Astros, it was former Cardinals scouting director Jeff Lunhow who took over the GM role. For the Cubs, it was former Red Sox wunderkind Theo Epstein and his group that made the jump. In both areas, a new approach was being used right from the get-go. Lunhow focused on the process, tearing down an aging roster inherited from Ed Wade and emphasizing new player development strategies in the minors. He also hired notable names in sabermetrics, including influential former BP writers like Mike Fast and Colin Wyers. Epstein brought his know-how to Chicago and employed a similar approach, focusing on development and trying to find someone who would buy into the process
In all three of those instances, the focus was always on the long-term process rather than any short-term goals. The Pirates waited out four ugly seasons, including a 59-win year, before reaching the 70-win mark in consecutive campaigns. After a disappointing 79-win season, the club won 94 games in 2013 and Andrew McCutchen won an MVP award.
The process has been cataloged well in Houston. Lunhow tore down the roster significantly after a 56-win season in 2011 and allowed Houston to take three consecutive 50-plus win seasons. The Major League roster was barren because Houston spent money elsewhere, investing in the draft and trying to lock up prospects and young talent who might become core members of the next competitive Astros team. They opted not to spend significantly on players who would only fit short-term needs, and while the Major League team lost many games, the Astros set themselves up well for the future.
The Cubs had a similar plan. They looked to acquire talent and lock up any future pieces and did so by signing Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro while letting any extraneous veterans eventually leave town. They suffered through bad seasons and received high draft picks in return. They found a good bit of luck in nailing several of those picks, but they also spent money investing in international markets and finding talent elsewhere. Meanwhile, they turned short-term Major League signings that panned out well into future assets on the pitching side who could help their team going forward.
In stark contrast, when was the last time you heard the Marlins ever place an emphasis on long-term success? When has the team ever put forth the idea of a sustainable model for winning? The club has made moves towards that in signing Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich to smart long-term contracts, but the team has never stressed that it has a plan that stretches beyond the next year or two.
Instead, every move has been based on short-term decisions, often driven by Loria's whims. When the Marlins struggled in 2012 after making a number of long-term free agent signings, Loria bailed on the process via a fire sale rather than evaluating what was salvageable and what was not from that team. When the Marlins did surprisingly well in 2014, Loria immediately thought "playoff contention" and was furious when that did not occur within the first 40 games of the year. He extended a manager he liked and immediately changed his mind in 38 games. This sort of freelance management is hurting the Marlins.
The First Star
The nice thing about Miami is that they already have a situation that lends itself to sustainable success. Much like the Pirates, the Marlins signed their signature star talent to a long-term contract, ensuring that Giancarlo Stanton will be a Marlin for at least six years. The Fish also have strong surrounding talent, especially if their second star, Jose Fernandez, returns healthy and ready to play.
The other teams are at varying stages of finding that first star. The Cubs probably have theirs between Anthony Rizzo and new toy Kris Bryant. The Astros face a more interesting question, but they are bringing up a slew of prospects to find out which one is going to be the franchise cornerstone. Is it George Springer? Is it Carlos Correa? They all have a chance to become "the man."
With the Marlins already having an edge with their superstar on board, what is left for the organization to do is exhibit patience in setting up and sticking to a long-term plan. The Marlins probably could benefit from a shift away from the same front office that has neglected analytics since 2002, but the most important thing on the docket to emulate the upcoming success of these other franchises would be for the team to focus on the long haul rather than get caught chasing short-term goals.