Fellow Baseball Fans,
After having been an active participant on Marlins social media sites, a contributor to the sabermetric site Fish Stripes, and getting to know the various Marlins fans’ perspectives from ongoing conversations, I have a few observations:
First, there is a passionate, if small, group of fans that understand what the new ownership and front office are doing in this rebuild. We read Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, which in my view are the three best sites because contributors include people who have devoted their working lives and careers to the game. Baseball America’s writers have extensive communication with scouting departments from every big league team. As such, they are a very solid source for traditional player evaluations that increasingly combines scouting with more sophisticated statistical analysis. FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus rely more on statistical or sabermetric measures, but even these websites have writers using traditional scouting observations as part of their evaluations.
Fans that follow these baseball sources stay well-versed in empirical information when making observations about what the Marlins are accomplishing, or failing to accomplish, in this rebuild. The wonderful site Fish Stripes epitomizes this part of the fanbase.
Then there are a larger group of fans that love the game and base their evaluations on their own observations or the occasional conversations with friends, and listening to sports talk radio, television, etc.
There is a third group of more casual fans, by far the largest potential in this market, that like going to the park and watching the game but don’t get heavily involved in following the complexities of the sport.
Clearly, the Marlins need all three of these fan bases for sustained growth in attendance, and the current ownership is aware of this. That’s why they want to do the rebuild properly from a player evaluation standpoint, but also try to move as quickly as possible to field a playoff competitive team, so as to tap into a larger and more inclusive fan base that includes all of the above types of fans.
What this larger fan base could do to help energize the Marlins was on display Saturday when the Fish mounted a comeback win against the Atlanta Braves in front of the largest audience of the season, courtesy of the annual promotional day organized with the University of Miami. There were close to 30,000 fans cheering the Marlins on, and quite a few stayed as the Fish scored four in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game before winning it in the tenth.
What most of these fans don’t care about, but what is essential to renewing this entire franchise, is the depth and breadth of talent in the Marlins’ minor league system. By every measurement available, the new front office has succeeded in building the deepest and most talented farm system in the history of the franchise. And that is saying a lot for a franchise that has won two World Series. However, the first World Series in 1997 was built with a combination of high-end minor league talent and free agent acquisitions. At that time, the farm system was not particularly deep or built to last, and the ownership was unwilling to pay the necessary money to keep the superstars on the roster. The 2003 WS team was built with a strong minor league system, but mainly due to the upper-tier strength of the system represented by Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett. Even in that case, the minor league system did not have the overall breadth and depth that it has now.
Why is is important to have such breadth and depth? Breadth means wide coverage of talented prospects in pitching and at all positions. Depth means that the talent is layered throughout the system so that there are options to help cover the high failure rate associated with prospects. Pitching prospects fail at about a 70 percent rate, which is why you need lots of them. Top-end hitting prospects succeed more often, as over half of the top rated prospects go on to have productive big league careers of varying qualities. A quality organization needs to have breadth and depth to cover the inevitable shortfall in potential and to plug in gaps when major league players get hurt. In addition, having lots of breadth and depth gives the front office options to trade surplus talent for immediate big league needs.
The first part of the Marlins rebuild was devoted to stocking up on pitching talent. The new front office under the Sherman ownership succeeded in elevating the quality of the farm system from a ranking of 29th (the last year of the Loria regime) to 10th (after the June annual player draft), according to Baseball America, which is the gold standard when it comes to evaluation of prospects. Why Baseball America? Two reasons: they solicit the widest range of input in their rankings from scouts across the sport, and their evaluations over the past decades have correlated with future major league success. So they are worth paying attention to, if you choose to care about such things. FanGraphs is another excellent ranking system that also has developed an impressive recent track record.
The Marlins rebuild is progressing very fast, and it’s not a question of "if" it will produce dividends, but when and by how much. The past few months have seen an exponential growth in high-end position player talent that was previously lacking in a system that was very top heavy in pitching depth. Those position players were acquired in the June annual player draft and also the product of trades made before the trading deadline.
The deadline trades netted the Marlins three players who will probably be centerpieces for a future playoff competitive team, including 1B Lewin Diaz, acquired from Minnesota, OF Jesús Sánchez from Tampa and SS Jazz Chisholm from Arizona. The first two acquisitions were very low risk in that both players profile as relatively safe hitting prospects whose ceiling for upper level performance is good (Diaz) to very good (Sanchez) but whose floor is also high—meaning that prospect evaluators expect that they will at least be productive big league players, if not stars or superstars.
The acquisition of SS Jazz Chisholm comes with a very high level of risk for two reasons. First, the Marlins gave up a very good starting pitcher in Zac Gallen whose status has risen considerably this year from a projected back of the rotation starter to a mid rotation starter. That’s a lot of quality to give up. Second, Chisholm’s prospect status is risky given that he has a superstar upside ceiling (higher than Sanchez and Díaz) but also a low floor given his high strikeout numbers this year in AA. FanGraphs is not worried about the strikeouts, as they have kept Chisholm within the top 45 prospects in the game due to his high upside and his age (21) which is almost two years younger than his competition in AA. Baseball America, on the other hand, is concerned enough about the strikeouts to have moved Chisholm outside their top 100 prospects at the time of the trade. So yes, this trade is risky.
The Marlins front office and scouting department believes in Chisholm’s high upside, and if they are correct, this trade becomes very successful. We won’t have much of an ability to evaluate this trade until 2021, when Chisholm is likely to get an extended opportunity in the majors.
The other prospects recently acquired, Lewin Diaz and Jesús Sánchez, could move much faster, and realistically make appearances on the big league roster sometime in 2020. In addition, the Marlins still have an abundance in pitching depth in their system, despite trading as many as four pitchers in recent deadline trade deals. The system remains especially strong in upper-tier pitching prospects who project as front line starters in the big leagues. The two that figure to lead the rotation, perhaps as soon as sometime in 2020, are Sixto Sanchez, acquired in the Realmuto deal, and Edward Cabrera, a product of the Marlins international scouting and player development system. Two other former first round picks, Trevor Rogers and Braxton Garrett, are not far behind. This does not even include Nick Neidert, who is pitching quality innings at AAA now after recently coming back from injury, and long having been ranked as one of our best pitching prospects, though not a top rotation guy. And of course there is Jorge Guzman, acquired in the Stanton trade, who has turned in phenomenal back-to-back starts in AA recently and could be promoted very soon. Guzman’s control issues, as well as his ability to master a consistent third pitch, will determine whether he will be a future starter or a back-end reliever.
The upshot is that this Marlins organization under the new ownership has moved the team from a bottom-level farm system to an elite farm system in just a year and a half. After the trade deadline, FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline now rank the Marlins as the fourth-best farm system in baseball. Baseball America recently elevated the Marlins to number eight on their list. And yes, these rankings matter as they have correlated with future big league success in the past.
So this is a very good time to be a Marlins fan. We will see the dividends to some extent next year, but especially by 2021.