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Gary Denbo is running the Marlins his way

Thorough reporting from The Athletic sheds light on how Denbo has rapidly changed the Marlins’ player development operations, and describes the confrontational behavior that made him available in the first place.

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Photo by @DuseReport/Twitter

When the Marlins hired Gary Denbo as their vice president of player development and scouting in October 2017, it added instant credibility to the franchise. An experienced executive who helped engineer an extraordinary young core for the New York Yankees, Denbo would be tasked with building up Miami’s farm system from scratch.

But in an extensive story for The Athletic (subscription required and recommended), Ken Rosenthal confirms that the Yankees did not plan to retain Denbo, anyway. Moreover, Rosenthal spoke with numerous sources who have worked for or alongside Denbo during his career—they describe him as disrespectful and unwilling to collaborate or accept criticism.

What you already knew: The Marlins have flushed out Jeffrey Loria holdovers from their baseball operations department (more than 75 employees, by Rosenthal’s count).

What you didn’t know: Nearly half of them resigned and fled to other major league franchises rather than conform to Denbo’s leadership style.

A consistent portrait of Denbo as an unyielding authoritarian emerged in interviews The Athletic conducted with more than 20 former Marlins employees and a dozen others in baseball over the past 11 months. Those former employees say Denbo engaged in verbal abuse, fat shaming and blatant favoritism toward certain Marlins personnel.

One mystery addressed at the very beginning of the story is why the Marlins switched Low-A affiliates this past offseason. The Greensboro Grasshoppers were a seemingly ideal partner, located relatively close to the organization’s player development headquarters in Jupiter, Florida, and consistently lauded for their facilities, high attendance and fun game atmosphere. Greensboro is among the few MiLB teams that trains dogs to retrieve used bats from the on-deck circle, a gimmick enjoyed by players and fans alike.

The problem was, Denbo discovered during a visit to the ballpark that the dogs’ kennels were in the same area of the clubhouse where players were served food. He determined that to be unacceptable and demanded the longtime clubhouse attendant to move them elsewhere, according to Grasshoppers president and general manager Donald Moore.

Despite 16 years of harmonious affiliation with the Marlins, Moore said the relationship could not be salvaged after that:

Bruce Sherman, the Marlins’ majority owner, made his own visit to Greensboro toward the end of that season with his wife, Cynthia. Moore says the Shermans thought Miss Lou Lou Gehrig was one of the coolest things they had ever seen at a baseball game, and they even toured the clubhouse to meet her. But by then, Moore had all but made up his mind. He would not work with Denbo, and so he would not stay with the Marlins.

It was somewhat of a misunderstanding; Moore thought Denbo was rejecting his bat dogs entirely, whereas Denbo claims he only took exception to the specific living arrangement. (The Double-A Trenton Thunder, for example, were allowed to keep bat dogs during Denbo’s Yankees tenure.)

Nobody questions Denbo’s track record as a successful evaluator and coach. However, this and several other anecdotes raise concerns about whether his temperament and interpersonal skills are befitting such a powerful decision-maker.

Last year, Denbo reportedly fat-shamed left-handed pitching prospect Kevin Farjad. In a separate incident around that time, Marlins employees attending one of his PowerPoint presentations were teased for their physique, too.

Conditioning is a key point of emphasis for Denbo, and Rosenthal finds that players are buying in. Almost 30% of minor leaguers reported to spring training in 2018 above their target weight. In 2019, Denbo says less than 5% missed the mark. That being said, it’s fair to wonder what effect his strictness has on player morale.

Derek Jeter has known Denbo since the very beginning of his professional career and continues to put his total trust him. A mock draft published Monday morning from ESPN’s Keith Law (subscription required) reports a conflict within the Marlins regarding their upcoming No. 4 overall selection: scouts want college outfielder JJ Bleday; Jeter and Denbo want prep shortstop C.J. Abrams. If both sides continues to hold firm on their stances a month from now, you can bet Abrams will be the pick.

As Rosenthal accurately concludes, now that Denbo has cleaned house, he is losing “the ability to blame the previous regime for the team’s woes.” For better or worse, he is calling the shots and must take full responsibility for the long-term results.

Marlins fans will have to hope that the staff members who survived the transition can adapt to Denbo’s no-nonsense leadership, subscribe to his evaluation ideology and figure out how to translate it into a talented foundation for the struggling major league product.