The Miami Marlins have long had an unearned reputation for being one of the best talent developers in the MLB. In every aspect of talent acquisition—trades, the draft, and international free agency—the Marlins have been rudimentarily futile. And that futility has not depended on general managers and owners. Since the team’s first draft in 1992, the Marlins have been consistently below-average.
The international market.
Their frugality in the international market has left the team with little presence from outside of the country—where some of the best players are developed and signed.
A little while ago, Yoenis Céspedes sprayed monster home run balls throughout the far reaches of Citi Field at the Home Run Derby. Céspedes, 27, defected from Cuba in the summer of 2011. A free-for-all ensued by awed Major League teams after seeing his dubious YouTube showcase video. Céspedes wanted to play in Miami, and Miami wanted him.
The Oakland Athletics offered him $36 million over four years, and the Marlins offered him the same amount over six seasons. He signed with Oakland. The Marlins started the 2012 season with Emilio Bonifacio in center field.
A similar story can be told with Aroldis Chapman, another spectacular Cuban defector, who ended up signing with the Cincinnati Reds, who offered $30 million over six years in 2010. The Marlins offered $13 million over five years.
With Miami’s rich Cuban heritage, the importance of Cuban superstars cannot be overstated. Take a look at José Fernández. He was born in Cuba, defected when he was 15, and was drafted 14th overall by the Marlins in 2011. It isn’t only his baseball prowess that has the city of Miami taking notice. It is his eminently relatable story of triumph in escaping the dictatorial regime of Cuba.
In a Grantland.com story, Marlins’ Spanish-language TV broadcaster (and former coach) Cookie Rojas said, “Here in Miami, with a new stadium like this one, with the Cuban fan base, I think it’s important to have a [high-profile] Cuban player.”
Not just Cuban, but all Hispanic players could be attractions in this city almost more than any other. Look at former Marlins Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela), Hanley Ramírez (Dominican Republic), and Mike Lowell (Puerto Rico). Those players, and more, quickly became fan favorites for their roots as much as their talent.
Instead of investing in the foreign market, the Marlins are veering in the opposite direction. In the deal that sent Ricky Nolasco to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Marlins included international signing bonus slot No. 96, valued at $197,000.
Over the 2013 and 2012 international free agency periods, the Marlins have signed none of the top prospects, as ranked by MLB.com. The Marlins are one of eleven teams who did not sign any of the high-ranked foreign players over the last two years; the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signed six of the fifty top players in the same period.
While the San Francisco Giants signed center fielder Gustavo Cabrera (Dominican Republic) for $1.3 million and the New York Mets signed shortstop Amed Rosario (Dominican Republic) for $1.75 million in 2012, the Marlins biggest splash was third baseman Alberto Sánchez (Dominican Republic)—who was signed for $85,000. Under the new international spending rules, the Marlins were permitted to spend $3.2 million, and they spent a minuscule amount of that allotment.
According to Ben Badler of Baseball America, “the Marlins have consistently been one of the most frugal teams in the international market.” Despite all of the reasons to spend in the foreign market, the Marlins have consistently strayed from making any kind of splash. As Badler points out, “having a competitive budget to sign international prospects would seem to be an obvious strategy for a relatively minor investment.”
However, an obvious strategy it isn’t for Miami. In 2012, nearly a third of the All-Star-caliber players (using WAR) in the MLB were signed as international free agents. The Marlins have signed only one All-Star-caliber player internationally ever—Miguel Cabrera.
Many of the top players in the league were born internationally, and for teams who are willing to spend on those high-risk players, great rewards can be reaped. As the Marlins have continued to show, they aren’t willing to spend in a prolonged fashion in any sort. Without a change in their approach, they won’t see any extended success.
Sure, giving a 16-year-old Dominican player millions of dollars can be a dangerous investment. But the lack of risk for the Marlins leaves them—of course—a lack of results. Even if some investments are busts, if you get one to hit, the cumulative investment pays off. Some of the best players in the league—Adrían Beltré, Edwin Encarnación, Robinson Canó—were signed as international free agents. There is such a market there, nearly another draft, and the Marlins’ lack of interest in it is malfeasance.
Drafting is very difficult. Beginning with the inherent randomness, a very low percentage of players who are drafted ever make it to the major leagues.
With all of those difficulties, expansion teams have to tack on their own. For the first three years, expansion teams have to draft at the end of the each round. In addition, their scouting departments have little experience and relationship with each other. So the Marlins (and other expansion teams) get a break for their first few years of drafting. But it never got better.
Now, I would love to blame owner Jeffrey Loria for his penurious style, but in this instance, I cannot. Since the inaugural draft in 1992, the Marlins have been consistently below-average drafters.
Needing a way to quantify this, I separated draftees into three different categories — Successes, Plus-Successes, and Failures. Successes made it to the major leagues and played in at least one game. Plus-Successes played in at least 200 games for position players and 100 games for pitchers. Failures never made it to the major leagues.
The Plus-Successes played a “significant” amount of time on their teams. Placement in that category makes no declaration as to their worth to a team, but simply reflects their amount of time in the major leagues.
The league average percentage of players making it to the major leagues from 1992 to 2009 falls at 12.6%, and the Marlins’ rate falls at 8.05%. (It is difficult to judge drafts after 2009, as not enough time has passed to evaluate.) These four and a half percentage points may not seem significant, but, indeed, they are.
The Marlins drafted 1,043 players between 1992 and 2009. An uptick of 4.55% in yield of players would net them 47 more major leaguers—and that is for only a return to the mean. Other teams who are drafting above the mean are netting even more major leaguers from the draft.
The mean for Plus-Successes in the MLB in that same 17-year span was 5.13%. For the Marlins: 3.16%. That is a difference of 1.97%—21 more “significant” major leaguers via a return to the mean.
This kind of failure at drafting can hamper and has hampered a franchise. But it isn’t so much because of an owner or a general manager. Past the first round, the draft is predominantly controlled by the input of a sizable throng of area scouts, cross checkers, and various scouting heads.
The Marlins’ incompetence has less to do with a certain person than with a complete mindset. It has to do with the inadequacy of the player development and scouting staff. It would be nearly impossible to pin it on one misdeed, but the ineffectiveness is clearly present.
Breaking down the team’s drafting year-by-year reveals the same incompetence—underperformance of draftees. With the exception of 2002, 2006, and 2008, the Marlins were sub-par. That leaves 14 of the 17 draft years as “bad.” For a team that relies on young talent because of its lack of spending, this uselessness is counter-intuitive and baffling.
The statistic for the “significant” players tells the same story. Other than 1999, 2002, and 2007, the Marlins were sub-par when it came to drafting players who lasted at the major league level. In 1998, 2008, and 2009, the Marlins returned no players who lasted significantly. A team cannot compete when it is producing zero significant players through the draft.
There is a simple bottom line that is devastating for a team that needs nothing more than for the opposite to be true: the Marlins have always been bad drafters. What makes it worse is the fact that the Marlins have continually been in a position to draft well. They have fielded losing teams for much of the last two decades, which nets them top draft picks. They have not panned out.
By my estimation, the Marlins have drafted four “studs” over these seventeen drafts—Charles Johnson, Josh Beckett, Adrián González, and Josh Johnson. Rational minds can disagree on players like Josh Willingham, Logan Morrison, and Rookie-of-the-Year Chris Coghlan. The point stands. They have not drafted well in terms of quantity or quality.
The Marlins are known throughout the league for trading players once their salaries are deemed too hefty. In a vacuum, this may not be such a bad strategy for a small-market team. Once players reach a point in their career at which they are often overpaid, a team trades them for younger, cheaper talent. If the trade is pulled off correctly, then the small-market team should be paying less for more years of high-quality players.
But the Marlins haven’t pulled off this trade correctly. The trade that epitomizes that trend sent Miguel Cabrera, then 27, and Dontrelle Willis, then 25, to the Detroit Tigers for a package that included two of the top prospects in all of baseball.
Andrew Miller, 22 at the time of the trade, had pitched well in a little more than one season in the minor leagues with the Tigers. The sixth-overall draft pick out of the University of North Carolina had a 2.60 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP over three levels in the minor leagues—respectable numbers. He even pitched in eight games in relief for the Tigers in 2006 and started 13 games in 2007, posting a 5.69 ERA. When the Marlins acquired him, he was the number-10 prospect in all of baseball.
The other big piece was Cameron Maybin, who was just 20 years old at the time of the trade. The tenth-overall draft pick out of T.C. Robertson HS in Asheville, North Carolina had played in 192 games in the minor leagues before the Marlins acquired him. He had an .833 OPS over two years in the minors and was the number-6 prospect in baseball when he made his way to South Florida. Like Miller, he played a little in the majors for Detroit—with a meager .143 batting average over 24 games.
The Marlins also attempted to increase their chances of getting a return by acquiring even more players—Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio de la Cruz, and Mike Rabelo.
While Maybin showed flashes of greatness, Miller never showed any flashes—just futility. Maybin’s highest WAR season was in his final season: 1.1. In three years for the Marlins, he was only a 1.8-win player. Just barely above a replacement player. His final line as a Marlin was .257/.323/.391.
Miller was worse. Pitching in 58 games over three seasons, he had an ERA of 5.89 and a horrendous WHIP of 1.732. In three seasons, he had a WAR of -1.1. He was worse than a replacement player.
Beyond all reason, Badenhop was the best player for the Marlins. Over four seasons, he had a 4.34 ERA and was a 1.9 WAR player. Rabelo and de la Cruz had negligible runs. Trahern never made it to the major leagues.
The trade was horrific. Dan Le Batard of The Miami Herald and ESPN calls it “the worst trade in baseball history,” and he might not be far off. Cabrera is still performing for the Tigers at a torrid pace and with no end in sight.
It hurt the team’s progression significantly. If those players had lived up to even some of their potential, the team could have been exceptionally competitive.
Yes, that trade was bad. But let’s take a trip back 15 years to a rather unpopular time in Marlins history—the fire sale. From the championship of 1997 to the end of the 1998 season, the Marlins made 17 trades. They got rid of everybody, from superstars all the way down to nobodies.
One trade in particular gives the Cabrera-Willis deal a run for its money. On May 14, 1998, the Marlins sent Manuel Barrios, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson, and Gary Sheffield to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In return, they received Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile.
Piazza played in five games for the Marlins and was spun off to the New York Mets for Geoff Goetz, Preston Wilson, and Ed Yarnall. Zeile hung around a little longer, playing in 66 games, but he was traded at the deadline for Daniel DeYoung and José Santos.
Let’s recap. A package that included a then-29-year-old Sheffield—who would go on to play in six All-Star contests, finish in the top three of MVP voting twice, and totaled 40 wins above replacement, plus Johnson, who continued to be an extremely serviceable backstop, and two more aging veterans, netted the Marlins Wilson and four more players that never made it to the major leagues for the Fish.
Wilson, while having an exceptional 2000 campaign, was never an All-Star during his tenure as a Marlin. He never won a Silver Slugger. He never was in the running for MVP.
I believe the issue lies less in the original deal than in the subsequent one involving Piazza. In his next nine seasons, he was a 28.2 WAR player, was elected to seven All-Star games, and won five Silver Slugger awards. The trade of Sheffield for Piazza was far more equitable than the one of Piazza for Wilson.
If one extends the lineage further, Yarnall was later packaged with Mark Johnson and Todd Noel for Mike Lowell prior to the 1999 season. Lowell was inestimably large for the Marlins over his seven seasons. By extension, the Sheffield-Piazza deal is somewhat responsible for Lowell becoming a Marlin.
But the return wasn’t nearly enough. And that is a constant throughout the Marlins’ trading history. This is very often because their trades are driven by monetary concerns—not by true “best-interests-of-the-game” motives.
It’s the aforementioned Sheffield and Cabrera trades. It’s Robb Nen for two minor leaguers and Joe Fontenot, who only played eight games in the majors. It’s Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham for two minor leaguers and Emilio Bonifacio. It’s Carlos Delgado and cash for a minor leaguer, Mike Jacobs, and Yusmeiro Petit.
They are trades that are inexcusably bad. A cycle of producing talent and then trading it for equal talent would allow a team to subsist. The fact is, the returns have not been equal. They have been severely unequal, and slanted in the other team’s direction. That stunts a team’s development.
It is impossible to point to a trade that epitomizes how the Marlins should capitalize on trading their talent.
Possibly their best trade—Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, and Guillermo Mota to Boston for Jesús Delgado, Harvey García, Hanley Ramírez, and Aníbal Sánchez—is, at best, a push. There is no example of a clear-cut win by the Marlins.
H. Wayne Huizenga brought the Marlins to South Florida—for that, the community is forever indebted. As well, Huizenga brought the team a championship in 1997—equally indebted.
But his “fire sale” after the 1997 championship began an era of changing leadership.
After he cut assets, John Henry, the current Boston Red Sox owner, purchased the team in the 1998 offseason. He lasted for three seasons, and then sold the team to Jeffrey Loria. Another change in leadership. Leaving at the same time was Dave Dombrowski, the general manager who brought the championship to Miami, and Jim Leyland, the manager who delivered the same honor.
In came Loria, straight from destroying the Montréal Expos franchise. Along with him came his step-son David Samson as team president, the former Expos interim general manager Larry Beinfest, and the former Expos manager Jeff Torborg.
Almost on all fronts, the Marlins changed leadership. Thought processes and systems changed. This was extremely detrimental to their growth.
Since the group took over in 2002, they have had ten managers—almost one per year. This epitomizes their struggle to relate and create a comfortable working environment with the on-field personnel.
Despite the rapid change in managers, Samson and Beinfest have kept their jobs. Despite three last-place finishes, horrid trades, a sub-.500 winning percentage, they still receive paychecks.
Ozzie Guillén did lose his job after a year. His team didn’t play well, but how much of that was his fault?
Joe Girardi, the NL Manager-of-the-Year, lost his job after a year, as well . . .because he didn’t get along with Loria.
Those men weren’t yes-men. They didn’t tell Loria and Beinfest only what they wanted to hear. What the Marlins need more than anything is no more yes-men.
Chuck LaMar, the former general manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was joined at the hip with former owner Vincent Naimoli. He received two contract extensions and, when he was ultimately fired by new ownership after the 2005 season, he was the fifth-longest-tenured general manager in baseball. He did not cash in on those contract extensions due to his merit. He received them because of his palatability to the volatile owner Naimoli. He was a yes-man when what Tampa Bay needed most was a no-man.
The reason Beinfest and Samson have kept their jobs? Their similar-minded approach to Loria. Just like how LaMar kept his job in Tampa Bay.
From the top down, this franchise is extremely flawed. They aren’t always operating on baseball-related inspiration. They care about money.
And when they make trades based solely on money, they flop.
Over their twenty-year history, when they draft, they flop.
And through their abysmal activity in the international market, they flop.
When things look bright for this franchise, it is only for a brief time. The Marlins do not operate in terms of long-range success. Not in the way they’re presently constructed.