“It’s too soon to judge!” Every Marlins fan saw/spoke that line or slight variations of it throughout 2018. This past year was filled with long-term decisions that may or may not put the franchise on a successful trajectory. There is not enough information to be sure either way at the moment, but what’s clear is that the ownership transition has brought with it a radically different way of leading on and off the field, so at least that’s exciting.
In certain situations, though, it is fair to reach conclusions. I have handpicked the major transactions and missed opportunities that have no gray area—they either succeeded or failed to improve the Marlins and the relationship with their fans.
Success: Mesa brothers signings
Admittedly, some good fortune went into this—the Mesa family already had loose connections to the South Florida community, and the brothers selected Marc Anthony’s Miami-based Magnus Sports agency to represent them after leaving Cuba in the spring. The opportunity to sign them sort of fell into their lap despite the Marlins’ lack of Latin American scouting presence.
This was the equivalent of getting an extra top 10 overall draft pick and using it on a polished collegiate player (Víctor Víctor), plus a second-/third-round outfielder with big upside (Víctor Jr.). The Mesas provide a huge boost to the farm system, both talent-wise and in terms of marketability.
As explained in October, the Marlins had to make several sacrifices to obtain those “picks,” but each player traded for the necessary international bonus pool money was expendable.
Success: ballpark enhancements and price adjustments
New ownership spent 2018 observing what they had to work with at Marlins Park before making any dramatic revisions to the fan experience. After ranking dead last in MLB attendance by a wide margin, the franchise has spent the past couple months outlining their vision for better, more cost-efficient entertainment.
Bye bye baseball. Hello, offseason.— Marlins Park (@MarlinsPark) October 1, 2018
Ballpark enhancement’s start now! pic.twitter.com/bUuD7gCl6j
See ya outside on the Marlins Park Art Walk, buddy!— Marlins Park (@MarlinsPark) October 26, 2018
The first step to a reimagined Marlins Park. More ballpark enhancements are on the way for 2019. pic.twitter.com/EAjyx4Ax3q
The premium standard just got reset.— Marlins Park (@MarlinsPark) November 2, 2018
Introducing The Club presented by DEX Imaging, the re-imagined lounge experience at Marlins Park: https://t.co/LXYjEr5ouU pic.twitter.com/3PwY0X4g6Q
A new way of getting closer to the action.— Marlins Park (@MarlinsPark) November 13, 2018
Introducing our new Center Field Zone and SRO Social Section: https://t.co/pHL3u0d83D pic.twitter.com/bzh7jOXJyg
From this angle, you can see the beginnings of the Center Field Zone, replacing the home run sculpture at Marlins Park pic.twitter.com/qudCd5eVeP— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) December 29, 2018
MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro has the details about extended safety netting along both foul lines. The netting will be higher than last season, but also thinner, and adjustable to allow fans to continue having pre-game access to players and coaches.
Most recently, the Marlins announced their 3-o-5 menu. Going against industry standards of exploiting captive customers with marked-up prices on the most basic concessions, several popular items can be had at $3 or $5 apiece moving forward.
The combination of these changes positions the Marlins as an attractive option for local families, despite legitimate concerns about the current on-field product.
Success: MLB Draft
VP of Player Development and Scouting Gary Denbo took the lead on the 2018 draft class. Even with these new players doubtful to debut in the majors until next decade, it’s not too early to recognize that Denbo and the front office found surplus value.
They prioritized up-the-middle athleticism, taking three hacks at finding a future starting catcher with Will Banfield, Nick Fortes and Keegan Fish. Specifically, the foursome of Connor Scott, Osiris Johnson, Tristan Pompey and Banfield have loftier ceilings than the prospects you’re accustomed to getting from Miami’s unremarkable draft position (picking 13th). They already stick out among their organizational peers.
Naturally, expectations are even higher for the 2019 class.
I’m lumping together the “Our Colores” campaign with the teal throwbacks which debuted during June’s 25th Anniversary Weekend series.
Without having access to precise figures from the Marlins sales department, it’s safe to assume that the club is raking in more merchandise revenue than at any other point in recent years thanks to these innovations. This is not meant to take any satisfaction in working class people lining the pockets of one-percenters, but to acknowledge that when designs are driven by fan feedback, the fans take special pride in wearing them. What a novel idea!
Jeffrey Loria tried to put the “Miami” in Miami Marlins with his own rebrand seven years ago; Derek Jeter and Co. did it more authentically.
Failure: trade deadline inactivity
In an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, president of baseball operations Michael Hill (correctly) noted that club control extending beyond the 2018 season made several of his key players desirable targets leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. However, with the Marlins poised to be one of MLB’s most active sellers, Hill did the bare minimum—impending free agents Cameron Maybin and Brad Ziegler were flipped for one prospect apiece...and that’s it.
There were contenders calling for Kyle Barraclough, who couldn’t be scored upon throughout the first half of the season (despite some shaky peripheral numbers). There were contenders calling for Adam Conley, whose move to the bullpen unlocked tremendous velocity gains. There were contenders calling for Derek Dietrich, on pace for his best offensive year in the majors and terribly miscast as the Marlins left fielder. There were contenders calling for Dan Straily, experiencing improved results by adding an occasional sinker to his pitch mix.
Standing pat under those circumstances, despite the interest from other teams and the fans’ eagerness to continue stacking young, long-term contributors, was inexcusable. The Marlins have nothing to show for releasing Dietrich, and they ultimately traded Barraclough for pennies on the dollar. This pushed the rebuild behind schedule.
Failure: neglecting José Fernández
September 25, 2018 was a beautiful, painful and awkward day. On the two-year anniversary his tragic death, Twitter and Instagram were flooded with tributes to the late José Fernández, not just from South Florida accounts, but from across the international baseball family.
Meanwhile, there was deafening silence from the Marlins themselves. Aside from revealing a modest plaque with the star pitcher’s uniform No. 16 in March, they made a calculated decision to omit him completely this past year. So many opportunities to reminisce about his performance and legacy, wasted.
JDF is the most popular Marlin—not “was,” is. Yet a new ownership group eager to connect with the local community wants to scrub him from their history instead of drawing inspiration from him?
Yes, Fernández made a reckless decision that led to his death and those of two other innocent men. Yes, he was adored by Jeffrey Loria, who the Marlins don’t want to associate with moving forward.
That being said, JDF jam-packed so much fun and achievement into his four major league seasons. His magnetism single-handedly expanded the Marlins fanbase and made young players think differently about the entertainment value of baseball. This phenom needs to celebrated for his impact.