The Marlins found themselves on the butt end of many jokes when they went from having perhaps MLB’s best starting outfield to a 100-loss team in just one winter. After a 2017 season in which they flirted with contention before fading in the second half, their rebuild got off to a slow start with the trades of its premier outfield trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. The organization received its fair share of flak after those three yielded relatively light returns that have provided little payoff to this day while Yelich goes supernova in Milwaukee. The franchise was transitioning to a new ownership group fronted by Derek Jeter, and his orchestration of yet another fire sale—which have become entirely too commonplace in the Marlins’ abbreviated history—did little to ingratiate him to the Miami faithful.
However, over the past year or so, the team’s acquisitions have given rise to a burgeoning minor-league system that is now, by most accounts, one of the ten best farm systems in baseball, a big step up from where they were even after trading away Stanton, Ozuna, and Yelich. The Marlins’ trades in July of last year were illustrative of an organizational preference for physically-gifted, toolsy hitters with a wide range of possible outcomes, both good and bad. Separate deals involving Nick Anderson, Sergio Romo, and Zac Gallen all reflected this thinking, and that’s made it easy to dream on best-case scenario outcomes for the youthful Miami franchise.
Sending Anderson (and Trevor Richards) to the Rays and Gallen to the D-Backs yielded Jazz Chisholm and Jesus Sanchez, respectively, both of whom are consensus top-100 prospects with highly-touted tools. Dealing Romo to the Twins produced Lewin Diaz, a lower-profile prospect but one whose offensive potential is likewise power-dominant.
That said, greater upside is often tempered by uncertainty, and with their revamped farm system, the Marlins are swinging for the fences. Perhaps the front office’s proclivity for energizing talents is just a coincidence, or maybe it’s an organizational recognition that the path to contention is by catching lightning in a bottle—thanks to their notoriously limited monetary resources. Either way, it’s a trend that warrants some discussion.
About those aforementioned prospects: Sanchez, formerly of the Rays, has been lauded for his bat speed and power potential, but those strengths have thus far been mitigated by below-average plate discipline and a groundball-heavy swing path. The thinking is that if he can hone his angle of attack as well as his approach at the dish, his power will start to manifest in games more often. Acquiring Sanchez for Nick Anderson, who hardly fits with the Marlins’ timeline, feels like the kind of move the club should be looking to make, and they’re betting that their player development staff can get the most out of Sanchez’s tantalizing tools.
Similar things can be said for shorstop Jazz Chisholm, though his acquisition was met with more skepticism after the Marlins gave up rookie right-hander Zac Gallen to the Diamondbacks. Gallen, though still far from established, had already pitched in the Majors and, through seven starts, looked like the kind of starter you can build around. Nobody expects Gallen to become a bona fide ace, but you don’t need five aces to win a World Series, and the Marlins could expect to keep him around for at least the next six years. That sounds like a player you want to keep around in a rebuild, but the Marlins saw and seized an opportunity to exchange Gallen, a boring player (in a good way), for one with a little more zest.
Chisholm, a 22-year-old Bahamian shortstop, catches the eye in a way that a command-oriented starter just can’t. Gallen’s high-floor, low-variance profile is contrasted by that of Chisholm, who has a chance to realize an explosive offensive ceiling while playing in the middle of the field. Hey, that sounds an awful lot like Javier Baez! Of course, the caveat is that there’s still too many strikeouts for some scouts’ liking, and there are questions about whether those issues will ever go away. And yeah, that still sounds like Javier Baez circa 2014, but for every Baez, there’s a handful of similarly-built prospects who fizzle out when they swing and miss too much.
J.J. Bleday, the Marlins’ first-round draft choice last June, looks like a good get; he was one of the most polished hitters in last year’s draft class, but supplements that with strong athletic traits. His floor probably isn’t as low as that of Chisholm or Sanchez, and he represents a key draft pick for Miami after missing on top picks in years prior. He should slot into an outfield corner for Miami in the near future—maybe even as soon as the second half of this year, assuming a season is played.
Kameron Misner, Jerar Encarnacion, Osiris Johnson, and Peyton Burdick are lesser prospects that nonetheless deserve a mention. Misner, Burdick, and Encarnacion are all big-bodied outfielders who can hit the snot out of the ball (Misner and Burdick, both 2019 draftees, can run a little bit too) but will need to prove their ability to hit for average and get on base if they’re going to stick in the Majors. Johnson is a versatile infielder who was drafted out of high school in 2018; he’s mired in a lot of uncertainty partly because of injuries, but partly because he doesn’t have a position and he’s still raw as a hitter.
On the pitching side, there’s less evidence for the tools-based approach we’ve described here. The likes of Jordan Yamamoto and Nick Neidert represent a more command- and pitchability-based profile, while on the other hand frontline pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez has run into some speculation about whether he’s ticketed for a bullpen role. Still, Sixto and Edward Cabrera have received a lot of attention as righties who could install themselves in the rotation for the next contending Marlins team.
Of course, not all of the players discussed here will reach their ceiling in the Majors—that just isn’t how player evaluation and prospects work. With that said, the Marlins might only need to hit on a few of their touted minor leaguers to kickstart the MLB team and accelerate the rebuild. The point of inflection for many rebuilds is whether the organization is lucky enough to form a core of players who overlap in their development and ascension to the Major Leagues, allowing the team to invest in those players and construct a roster around them. And if that happens in Miami, their tools-heavy focus in player acquisition could pay off in a big way.
Unfortunately, the only way we’ll see the end of the Marlins story is with time. Farm system rankings can only take us so far, and they mean nothing if the talent doesn’t produce at the Major League level. The Marlins are gambling on their organizational ability to mold talented but raw youngsters into quality MLB players. Their hit rate on those players will determine whether the franchise is ready to move into next phase of its rebuild or if they’ll need to reset and re-evaluate their organizational philosophy.