Over the past decade, Jacksonville has been somewhat of a Double-A juggernaut, having collected the Southern League title in 2009, 2010, and 2014. The third of those marks the last time that any Miami Marlins minor league affiliate was crowned league champion at the end of the season. That drought has a lot to with the previous ownership group allowing the farm system to sink to great depths towards the end of their tenure as they traded prospect after prospect in search of short-term success. The franchise is only now starting to see glimpses of a light at the end of the tunnel of another long rebuild thanks to a renewed focus on a strong minor league pipeline.
As Miami’s farm system continues on its upward trajectory, highlighted this season by individual performanves across the board and playoff appearances for the Single-A Clinton LumberKings and Short Season A Batavia Muckdogs, let’s look back at the most recent minor league champion in franchise history.
Surprisingly, the 2014 Jacksonville team did not feature a lineup full of future major league stars, or even Double-A standouts, for that matter. Catcher/third baseman Austin Barnes, outfielder Joe Benson, utility man Alex Burg, and catcher J.T. Realmuto were the only players to hit over .260 while appearing in 50 or more games for the then-named Suns. Realmuto, the youngest of the group at 23 years old, led the team with 18 steals and 62 RBI, demonstrating the dual-threat ability which would propel him to emajor league success.
On the pitching side, the rotation was anchored by Justin Nicolino (14-4, 2.85 ERA) and José Ureña (13-8, 3.33 ERA), with the likes of Andrew Heaney and Anthony DeSclafani also impressing during their eight starts apiece. In the bullpen, Nick Wittgren saved 20 games in 52 appearances. Greg Nappo and Matt Ramsey combined for a 1.82 ERA with 74 strikeouts over 74 1⁄3 innings.
The Suns finished the regular season with a 81-59 record and, more importantly, got hot at just the right time. Winners of 16 of their last 17 games of 2014, Jacksonville completed the sweep of Chattanooga in the championship round thanks to six scoreless innings from Nicolino to cap off a fantastic year in front of their home crowd.
Fast forward to 2019, and the season wasn't so kind to the now-Jumbo Shrimp—they missed the playoffs and finished just under .500 at 66-71. However, the Marlins have the LumberKings and Muckdogs flying the flags for them in the minor league playoffs, with Clinton already advancing through to the Midwest League semifinals after 10-1 blowout win last night.
The Muckdogs have a little bit more work to do in order to advance past the quarterfinals in the New York-Penn League, as they play an do-or-die Game 3 tonight.
Overall, Miami's minor league affiliates fared much better in 2019 than in recent years, and may very well end up with a title to show for it. Even if the Marlins are flirting with another 100-loss season, the franchise is taking clear steps towards a better future with their minor league development, and that success will bear fruit for fans in Miami soon enough.