ESPN's Keith Law ranked all of the 30 Major League teams' farm systems as they currently stand, and while the Miami Marlins did not land in the same place as the Los Angeles Angels, whom he labeled "the worst farm system he has ever rated" in his eight years doing this, they were not far behind. The Marlins' system ranked 29th according to Law, just one spot ahead of the Angels, and they only landed one player in the top 100 prospects in baseball.
The team's system is in the state it is in due to a variety of different circumstances. Those circumstances are going to take time to recover unless the Marlins nail several of their next immediate draft pick-ups. Miami has worked themselves into this problem through several moves that have had variable outcomes on the Major League roster. Let's take a look back at some of those transactions.
The Fire Sale Trade's Failure
The Marlins' crop of talent in the minors was moderately stocked by the 2012 season, with top names like Christian Yelich, Jose Fernandez, and Marcell Ozuna holding up a top-heavy system. Those guys were thought to be interesting guarantees, but Miami wanted to add depth to that cast. When the 2012 signings did not bring a playoff-bound Major League club and the team decided it would not spend another $100 million to play mediocre baseball, the team sent off Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle among others to extract any value they had left before their games withered.
In return, Miami picked up a bounty of talent that somehow came off as less impressive. The Toronto Blue Jays traded the one of the less impressive pitching prospect in their available quartet of interesting names along with two all-tools, no-refined prospects in Jake Marisnick and Adeiny Hechavarria. The team rounded out the deal by getting a relatively unknown college pitching prospect in Anthony DeSclafani as well. This quartet was supposed to add significant depth to the team's farm, with at least one of those players taking over immediately in the big leagues.
One of those guys has turned into a regular starter, but even Hechavarria has been questionable all throughout his time in Miami. Marisnick has not learned yet how to hit big-league pitching. Marisnick failed to win a starting job in a crowded outfield and has not learned to hit big-league pitching yet. Justin Nicolino, the other top prospect prize, cannot strike out hitters. And the college pitcher who turned out to be a diamond in the rough was traded in an ultimately ill-fated deal with the Cincinnati Reds and could be a regular contributor elsewhere.
The Marlins' haul was good considering how much salary they unloaded, but the prospects' development has not been impressive.
Because the Marlins divulged themselves of all of that 2012 talent, the team was not able to wait for the promotion time period they usually would have used. Jose Fernandez, a 2011 draftee with one fantastic season under his belt in the minors, was promoted all the way to the majors at the start of 2013. Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich found themselves on the big league squad in 2013 as well. All of the team's top-heavy prospect talent from the early 2010's was suddenly in the majors all too quickly.
This in and of itself is not a significant problem. In fact, this is a regular occurrence on the Marlins, who often have to hustle prospect talent to the big leagues in order to make up for roster deficiencies, largely because Miami spends so little on the big league team. This worked out decently for the Fish this time, as the fastest promotions all worked out; Fernandez, Yelich, and Ozuna still stuck in the majors through the last three seasons despite each playing very minimally in Double-A or beyond.
The problem is that it rushes talent's service time clocks, especially with the Marlins mismanaging both Ozuna and Fernandez. It also forced these guys to immediately be centerpieces rather than reinforcements on an already established team.
Traded Draft Picks
This still would not have been a major issue had the Marlins worked with the remaining draft depth they did have. It seemed as though the team was aware that it would potentially have issues filling the Major League roster and might need reinforcements faster, as they drafted two polished college prospects in a row in starting pitcher Andrew Heaney and third baseman Colin Moran. Both guys figured to fill a need and were expected to be ready quickly, with Heaney expected to play in 2015 and Moran ready for the 2016 season.
Instead, the Marlins took a lot of that depth, including those two picks, and used it to salvage a run for the postseason in 2015. The club wanted to bolster its Major League roster without busting the salary figures it projected, so Miami made a series of moves starting in 2014. With the club on the very fringes of the Wild Card chase, the team made a puzzling move to acquire Jarred Cosart from the Houston Astros by trading Moran and Marisnick. They also acquired an interesting utility player in Enrique Hernandez, whom they promptly did not play much.
The trades continued in the offseason following that year. Miami traded Heaney because of 25 bad Major League innings combined with the team's confusing preference for Nicolino over the higher-drafted lefty. Heaney was dealt along with Hernandez and prospect Austin Barnes, a unique talent who can play the middle infield and catcher and has an intriguing bat, in the Dee Gordon trade. The Marlins also dealt several other prospects and guys close to the majors in the last year as part of other deals in order to bolster the 2015 season, which eventually did not work out.
The propensity of the Marlins being unwilling to spend on the big league roster forced their hand when the team wanted to contend. They had to give up all of their remaining minor league assets, resulting in a decimated farm system. Heading into the 2015 campaign, the team only had Tyler Kolek and J.T. Realmuto as interesting prospects, with big question marks on almost everyone beyond that. With Kolek struggling all year in 2015 and Realmuto being promoted, Miami's prospects at the top look like a bottom-five system.
Those trades sapped any depth left over from the 2012 trade and subsequent drafts. The problem now is that Miami has very little in the way of reinforcements in the coming years. This may have been part of the reason for the team's push to sign core contributors like Gordon, Yelich, and Stanton in the last two seasons. However, Miami needs time now to reset its farm system after all of these changes, many of which did not significantly assist the big league squad. A return to prominence would require nailing several draft picks, lucking out into a star in the mid-first round, or a large-scale trade-off of players again if this core proves untenable.