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José Devers emerging as potential cornerstone of Marlins rebuild

Devers gives the Marlins hope of salvaging significant value from what was seemingly a lopsided trade.

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Photo by Alex Carver/Fish On The Farm

Dec. 11, 2017 may have marked the low point in Marlins fanbase morale under new ownership. Giancarlo Stanton held his introductory press conference with the Yankees, in which the reigning NL MVP raved about joining a more competitive situation. Meanwhile, CEO Derek Jeter wasn’t available to offer the Marlins’ perspective on the trade; he was spotted in a suite at the Patriots-Dolphins NFL game taking place several hundred miles south of the MLB Winter Meetings.

The optics of the blockbuster were ugly and the reality of it was depressing. The Marlins dealt Stanton in his prime with salary dumping as the chief priority. With their flexibility limited by the no-trade clause in his record-setting contract, they lacked the leverage to demand any top-tier, can’t-miss prospects as compensation. Good business? Sure, but there was no way to put a celebratory spin on this.

Veteran second baseman Starlin Castro was included in the return package as somewhat of a liability, as the Yankees sought to add Stanton and get below the luxury-tax threshold. Coming off a successful age-21 campaign, right-hander Jorge Guzman looked to be a classic high-risk/high-reward prospect—even with a plus-plus fastball, there were doubts about whether he could refine the other aspects of his game enough to start big league games.

It is, improbably, the distant third piece that Miami received—shortstop José Devers—who can change the legacy of a seemingly one-sided transaction.

The Yankees thought highly enough of Devers to sign him for $250,000 as an international amateur free agent in 2016, then promote him from the Dominican Summer League to the Gulf Coast League after just 11 professional games. Even so, he was skinny and inexperienced and buried in a very deep farm system, excluded from all Yankees Top 30 prospect lists at the time of the trade.

The Fish have decided to challenge Devers against older competition, and he continues to prove he belongs.

Competing at full-season Low-A Greensboro as an 18-year-old, Devers demonstrated great contact skills (13.5 K%) and had decent results to show for it (.273/.313/.332, 87 wRC+). He even got a cup of coffee with High-A Jupiter at the end of the season. Baseball America named him “Best Defensive Infielder” in the Marlins system last fall.

Although that performance significantly improved his stock, we are witnessing a full-fledged breakout with Jupiter here in 2019. The youngest player in the Florida State League entering this season, Devers has served as the regular shortstop and leadoff hitter for the Hammerheads. He got off to a productive start, then landed on the injured list Apr. 15 with a mild groin strain. Since returning, he’s been even better, reaching base safely in 14 straight games prior to Saturday, when he came off the bench and grounded into a force out in his lone plate appearance.

Devers has lowered his strikeout rate rate even more at age 19 (from 13.5 K% to 12.1 K%, approximately half the MLB average). He is slashing .354/.421/.396, which translates to a 150 wRC+ when adjusting for the FSL’s pitcher-friendly conditions. Among qualified Marlins minor leaguers, only bat-first corner outfielders Austin Dean and Jerar Encarnación are ahead of him.

A pro scout speaking to Andre Fernandez of The Athletic praises Devers’ intangibles as well (subscription required):

“The stuff that will keep him on the field are his instincts and his drive,” the scout said. “He looks really motivated. I love the way he competes. He doesn’t give anything away.”

Photo by Alex Carver/Fish On The Farm

The Jupiter Hammerheads roster is populated with more top prospects than any other Marlins affiliate. Even in that setting, Devers has distinguished himself.

Left-hander Trevor Rogers, the club’s first-round draft pick in 2017, wasn’t shy in anointing him as a future big leaguer when speaking to Fish Stripes last week.

“It’s unbelievable what he’s able to do at 19 years old. Hitting .360 in High-A. He’s just even-keel about it—his mental side of the game is very impressive. The way he gets us going to start the ballgame on the offensive side is definitely a good thing. It’s gonna be really exciting to watch him in a few years once he’s playing shortstop in Miami, driving in runs, making things happen. It’s gonna be really exciting to watch him.”

There is still more developmental work ahead for Devers, to be clear. Power is easily his most questionable tool, and despite 15-20 pounds added to his frame during the offseason, according to Fernandez, those gains have yet to manifest themselves in the batter’s box.

Devers has one home run in 165 career games. None of his batted balls this year have even reached the warning track, with only a handful measuring beyond 300 feet in the air (season long of 342).

Baseball Savant

Devers has shown so much promise. That being said, the way runs are produced in MLB right now, it’s hard to envision him as a star unless he learns to elevate his hard-hit balls on occasion.

With respect to Miguel Rojas, the fact that he has no serious challenger for the Marlins shortstop job speaks volumes of how inadequate the alternatives are. The franchise’s future at the position is totally unsettled, and Devers is rapidly asserting himself as the leading candidate.

For all his elite production, Stanton was never part of a .500 Marlins team, much less a playoff team. It would alleviate the sting of losing him if Devers can play a consistent role on legitimate contender in the coming years.