March 26, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Miami Marlins: Haste
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: how production comes from unexpected places for the Orioles and Marlins.
Player development is more art than science. There’s no such thing as a commonly accepted schedule for promoting players through the minor leagues. Every system has quick risers and slow movers, but in general, teams accelerate their talent at different speeds. The Rays, for instance, are notorious for allowing players to develop slowly, often choosing to let their best prospects marinate at a single level all year long. Evan Longoria was one of the most advanced college hitters in recent memory, and even he slogged through 200 games before reaching the big leagues.
The Miami Marlins are the Rays’ opposite. For years, the Marlins have challenged their top prospects with tough assignments, aggressive midseason promotions, and sink or swim trials at the highest level. For the most part, Miami’s strategy has paid off well. Giancarlo Stanton may be the captain in town, but a big reason the Marlins will compete for the wild card this season is a surrounding core composed primarily of players who reached the major leagues on an accelerated timetable.
Specifically, the Marlins are more inclined to promote players quickly once they reach the high minors than just about anybody else. Since 2013, the Marlins have promoted five of their best prospects after minimal exposure to advanced competition. All have either played well in Miami or been shipped elsewhere for major-league help:
This list doesn’t include Anthony DeSclafani, a less impactful prospect, but another example of a Marlins prospect reaching the major leagues quickly. It’s also worth mentioning that the Marlins really don’t like sending their top prospects to Triple-A New Orleans: of those five players, only Heaney spent any time at all in a Zephyr jersey before his big-league debut.
Once these players arrive in the major leagues, the Marlins quickly identify which ones they see as part of the team’s future, and which can be used to bolster the roster through the trade market. Of the group, Fernandez was the youngest and the only player to never play a game above High-A: his breakneck development is a credit to the entire front office, and the Cuba native’s instant success is an instructive reminder that mature arms belong in the major leagues regardless of their experience. Miami also did well with Yelich and Ozuna. Instead of letting near-replacement level veterans soak up at-bats in lost 2013 and 2014 seasons, the Marlins challenged the pair of outfielders with big-league assignments. It paid off in both cases, as Ozuna and Yelich were two of Miami’s best players last season and look to be fixtures in the club’s lineup for years to come.
The quick promotions also allowed Miami to solve a potential outfield logjam before it developed. Once Ozuna and Yelich solidified their place in the outfield alongside Stanton, Marisnick became expendable. He and Colin Moran fetched Jarred Cosart, and the Marlins further solidified their rotation by turning Heaney, DeSclafani, Enrique Hernandez, and change into Mat Latos and Dan Haren (as well as Dee Gordon). Per PECOTA’s projections, that’s about a five-win upgrade for 2015.
Ultimately, the Marlins received four starters in exchange for a number of players who were unlikely to contribute much value in Miami this year. It’s impossible to quantify how much the accrued big-league experience Marisnick, DeSclafani, and Heaney boosted their trade value, but it almost certainly helped: it’s much easier for another team to trade established big leaguers if the return pieces have already gotten their feet wet in the majors. So, even the quick risers who didn’t stick in Miami are positively impacting the Marlins in 2015.
While the Fish have done a tremendous job of extracting value by promoting their best minor league talent quickly, the club isn’t simply rocketing every player with impact tools through the system in the hopes that they’ll turn out well on the other side. Justin Nicolino, a relatively safe arm with modest upside, spent all of 2014 in Double-A after making eight starts at the level a year earlier. Despite his lofty draft status, Moran only reached Double-A after he was traded to Houston. One imagines first-round pick Tyler Kolek will move slowly as well, as he learns to complement his high-90s fastball with serviceable secondary pitches.
In short, the Marlins have gotten the most out of their farm system by aggressively promoting prospects with big-league ready tools while judiciously blending that approach with a slower track for other players. The success rate with which they’ve hit on their quick movers suggests that the organization is adept at identifying players with the right skills and maturity to succeed in the big leagues as youngsters. In an era where large-market teams are willing to play the service time game with their top talent, Miami has bravely promoted their best prospects sooner than most would have deemed prudent. They could be rewarded with a playoff appearance as soon as this year.