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Why Marlins should take the lead on increasing pay for their minor leaguers

The Marlins are putting immense pressure on the next several waves of prospects to lead them back to relevance. Investing in them now would increase the chances of them reaching their full potential.

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Bruce Sherman’s approval rating is higher than ever. On Monday, the Marlins majority owner spoke at Spring Training, describing the old Jeffrey Loria regime as “irrelevant,” expressing his optimism about the team surging in the standings in the near future, and reiterating his commitment to spend significantly (and wisely) on proven players to supplement the existing core.

In the process of rallying the troops, Sherman made a bold prediction (h/t Fish On The Farm):

“All those players we invested in will come to fruition.”

Does that statement hold up under further scrutiny? Not entirely.

Sherman is correct in touting the current state of the Marlins farm system in the aftermath of the rebuilding trades, high draft position they’ve earned from losing so many major league games and international amateur signings. All the leading national MLB talent evaluators consider it among the 10 best in the league. Those rankings should hold steady or potentially climb even higher during 2020 as members of last year’s loaded draft class continue to progress. More depth will be added over the summer to offset some of the players on target to graduate from their prospect eligibility.

Five particular Marlins prospects—Sixto Sánchez, JJ Bleday, Jazz Chisholm, Edward Cabrera and Jesús Sánchez—are top-100 talents entering the new season. Among them, only Cabrera was “inherited” from Loria; the others have come to Miami under Sherman’s administration. No other MLB organization has more than five who are universally held in such high regard by all of the following outlets:

Marlins ranked in 2020 MLB Top 100 Prospects Lists

Rank Baseball America Rank MLB Pipeline Rank FanGraphs Rank Baseball Prospectus Rank Prospects Live
Rank Baseball America Rank MLB Pipeline Rank FanGraphs Rank Baseball Prospectus Rank Prospects Live
16 Sixto Sánchez 22 Sixto Sánchez 33 Jazz Chisholm 27 Sixto Sánchez 31 Sixto Sánchez
46 JJ Bleday 28 JJ Bleday 48 Sixto Sánchez 35 JJ Bleday 45 JJ Bleday
58 Jesús Sánchez 66 Jazz Chisholm 51 JJ Bleday 52 Jazz Chisholm 68 Edward Cabrera
68 Edward Cabrera 80 Jesús Sánchez 66 Edward Cabrera 80 Jesús Sánchez 74 Jazz Chisholm
88 Jazz Chisholm 85 Edward Cabrera 96 Jesús Sánchez 97 Edward Cabrera 81 Jesús Sánchez
102 Monte Harrison
119 Lewin Díaz

The Marlins certainly have “invested” in various ways to get to this point. Jesús Sánchez, for example, came in a trade that sent right-handers Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards to the Rays. Both Anderson and Richards worked their way up from independent ball. With the Marlins, they harnessed their abilities and finally got the opportunity to establish themselves as legitimate contributors that contenders coveted. Bleday was the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2019, agreeing to a $6.67 million signing bonus, the largest for any amateur in franchise history.

On a broader scale, the Marlins established an education department two years ago with full-time instructors both domestically and at their academy in the Dominican Republic. Native English speakers learn to communicate more proficiently with their Spanish teammates and vice versa. Foreign-born players can take courses to earn their high school diplomas, increasing their professional options outside of baseball.

Courtesy of Marlins Communications

But if the Marlins are putting so much faith in their homegrown talent to rescue them from the National League’s longest playoff drought and worst attendance situation, they must provide players with even more resources throughout their minor league careers.

The vast majority of affiliated MiLB players are not like Bleday—they initially receive a bonus in the four-, five- or six-figure range, not seven. Try stretching that across several developmental years, especially if you have family members and loved ones relying on you. The current system forces so many of them, even those with unquestioned big league skill sets and makeup, to make sacrifices. They abbreviate their training schedules, forgo balanced nutritional plans and split their time between baseball and side gigs while working their way up the minor league ladder, as detailed by Emily Waldon of The Athletic (subscription required).

Gradually, we are seeing some reforms. In 2019, the Blue Jays raised in-season salaries for their minor leaguers by more than 50 percent. Last week, the Associated Press reported that league-wide raises have been approved by the MLB owners, which will go into effect for 2021. The Giants are getting a headstart on that, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and immediately making the following quality of life improvements:

  • Triple-A—$750 a week, up from $502, with a $500-per-month housing allowance
  • Double-A—$600 a week, up from $350, with a $500-per-month housing allowance
  • High-A—$500 a week, up from $290 (coordinating with host families instead of housing allowance)
  • Low-A—$400 a week, up from $290 (housing provided by Giants organization)

Better than what they’re used to, but nonetheless an embarrassing level of compensation for elite athletes.

Marlins fans have bought into the youth movement. Fish Stripes surveyed our readers weekly throughout the abysmal 2019 season. Consistently, more than three-quarters of them said that they were still satisfied with the long-term direction of the organization, eagerly awaiting the next waves of talent on the horizon. Then on Tuesday night, I posted an impromptu poll: Are fans more excited to follow along with major leaguers or prospects in 2020?

They understand this process is their only escape from the treadmill of mediocrity. They trust it, but that doesn’t guarantee it will yield any fruit. There is still a disconnect between what Marlins leadership preaches and the actions being taken.

On day one of the Bruce Sherman/Derek Jeter era, Jessica Blaylock of FOX Sports Florida asked what lessons learned from Jeter’s playing days would be implemented with the Marlins:

“Take care of your players. I try to move forward and not look in the past, but I come from a [New York Yankees] organization that does a very good job of taking care of their players, and I think that’s important. We want this to be an organization where the players want to come play, the employees want to come work here, and more importantly, the fans want to come watch games here. So I think you take care of your players and you take care of your fans and you make it a fun experience for both of them. So I think that’s probably the one thing that I’ve learned the most, is you have to take care of those people because you need them to be successful.”

And yet, Sixto Sánchez, once an under-the-radar prospect who is emerging as a huge building block for the Fish, has only earned about as much money playing baseball in his career as I have blogging about it. How is that taking care of your players? Why has the organization remained silent on the issue of minor league pay while the Blue Jays and Giants are proactive in creating a recruiting edge for themselves?

It’s hard to articulate how much pressure is on the Marlins moving forward. They are projected to lose more games from 2018-2020 than the organization has ever lost in a three-year span. The differences that Sherman/Jeter have with Loria and John Henry and Wayne Huizenga ultimately do not matter if they don’t culminate in sustainable winning during this new decade. Casual sports fans and deep-pocketed sponsors will see the same old unappetizing product.

There are legitimate revenue challenges that the Marlins will always face in South Florida. Signing in-his-prime Mookie Betts as a free agent and surrounding him with a strong, balanced roster is a pipe dream.

The right thing—and the smart thing—for the Marlins to do is ensure their developing players have every possible advantage. Make your own Mookie by putting them in a comfortable yet competitive environment where they can focus their undivided attention on baseball.