The team that can’t hit: Why the Marlins’ rebuild derailed and what an analysis revealed

DAVID SANTIAGO/dsantiago@miamiherald.com
·14 min read

Part 1 of a six-part series examining the state of the Marlins franchise.

The new owner’s plan, in theory, seemed reasonable for a team with modest revenue and poor attendance: Trade the highest-priced players from a 78-win team and snag a bunch of highly-regarded, cheap prospects to form the nucleus of a roster that would eventually return the Marlins to relevance.

So how did the franchise’s latest rebuild — now in Year 5 under principal owner Bruce Sherman — go so horribly wrong?

Poor decisions on the hitters signed in free agency have been a big part of it.

But one reason stands above all else in explaining why the Marlins’ latest rebuild has crashed and burned, at least so far: An inability to identify and develop big-league hitters, which has neutralized the Marlins’ impressive work in acquiring gifted young pitchers.

The Marlins ultimately couldn’t replace the quality of most any of the bats they traded when the rebuild began — Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich and J.T. Realmuto — or one they acquired and then traded last year, Starling Marte.

“Our offense needs to be better,” owner Bruce Sherman said recently in an interview with the Miami Herald. “We will be reviewing our processes for developing our position players in the minors.”

A Miami Herald analysis revealed this startling statistic:

Of the 33 position players ranked among MLB.com’s top 30 Marlins prospects from 2018 through 2020 (the first three years of Sherman’s ownership), only one — shortstop Jazz Chisholm — so far has developed into an above-average hitter, while one other — Brian Anderson — has become a slightly below-average hitter after a promising start to his career.

Of the 31 others, many have been unable to hit big-league pitching (in varying sample sizes), and many have had modest offensive production in the minors.

Of those 31, it’s too soon to judge perhaps a dozen of them. But of those dozen, perhaps only half or so seem to have a realistic chance of becoming productive big-league starters.

And the others? It’s a wasteland of busts and unfulfilled promise.

“It’s been disappointing, and it has definitely hurt the rebuild,” manager Don Mattingly told the Miami Herald last week, when asked if he’s surprised that so few of the team’s hitting prospects have developed.

“For clubs like us, you have to be able to produce some guys to really be successful. You have to. That was the whole model when the group [Sherman and since-departed Derek Jeter] came in, is to be sustainable, and that means bringing guys up through the system.

“And if there are times you need a [free agent or trade] piece here and there, that’s when you do it, not to have to get pieces to try to build. That sustainable model, you have to be able to develop players and pitchers. That’s probably been the most disappointing part of not being able to piece this thing together.”

In our analysis, we didn’t include players who were listed for the first time on mlb.com’s 2021 and 2022 Marlins prospect lists, because most of the newest additions are a year or less into their professional careers.

A look at the 33 position prospects and how it all went so wrong, with an asterisk by the names of players who no longer are members of the Marlins organization:

WORKED OUT

Infielder Chisholm: Was hitting .254 with 14 homers and 45 RBI and 12 steals in 60 games before his season-ending back injury. Chisholm revealed this week that he played all season with a meniscus tear sustained in spring training.

But the Marlins didn’t necessarily even win that trade; Zac Gallen, dealt to Arizona, has a 2.52 ERA in 28 starts for the Diamondbacks.

Anderson: Has hit .257 with 57 homers in 522 games but has struggled to stay healthy and is hitting just .225 in 89 games this season.

THE BUSTS OR DIDN’T WORK OUT

Lewis Brinson: Hit .203 in 1,056 plate appearances for the Marlins and was designated for assignment by the Giants this week.

Among Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz and Jordan Yamamoto, it’s difficult to envision a worse return than what the Marlins received from the Brewers for All-Star outfielder Yelich.

* Outfielder Harrison: Once considered a five-tool prospect, Harrison had only 76 plate appearances as a Marlin, with 12 hits and 37 strikeouts (.176) before Miami dropped him from the 40-man roster. He’s 2 for 11 with the Angels this season. He sealed his fate with a locker room altercation with Starling Marte last season before Marte was traded to Oakland.

* Second baseman Diaz: He raised hopes by hitting .305 with 26 homers in Triple A in 2018, but then hit .185 in 145 games as a Marlin and was designated for assignment. It didn’t help that he left the team during the COVID-shortened season. The Marlins thought he should have played with more intensity.

He hit .275 with 23 homers for the Giants’ Triple A team this year.

While the four prospects acquired for Yelich fizzled, Yelich won the 2018 MVP and has hit .286, 113 homers and 333 RBI in nearly five seasons with Milwaukee.

“You’re counting on the guys you traded for in Lewis, Isan, Monte,” Mattingly said. “Most of our trades were pitching trades early on. The Milwaukee trade was not; it was about trying to find some offense. Those [four] guys might end up being good one day. But you hate to walk away from letting a guy like Yelich get away and not pulling something out of that trade.”

Outfielder Connor Scott: Jeter’s initial first-round draft pick - and the last pick made by previous farm director Stan Meek — was traded to Pittsburgh in the Jacob Stallings deal and has been mediocre in Double A with the Pirates (.247, 49 RBI in 109 games this season). One Marlins official mistakenly thought he could become another Yelich.

Outfielder Tristan Pompey: The Marlins’ third-round pick in 2018, out of the University of Kentucky, was released in June, two months after MLB suspended him 50 games for a second positive drug test. He hit .195 in the minors for the Marlins last season and is now playing in an independent league in Canada, where he’s hitting .238.

Outfielder Thomas Jones: A third-round pick in 2016, Jones hit just .177 with eight homers and 22 RBI in 59 games at Double Pensacola this season. He’s a .214 hitter in six minor-league seasons.

Infielder Riley Mahan: The Marlins’ 2017 third-rounder was released by the organization after hitting just .204 in Double A last season. Now 26, he hit .261 in the Giants’ system this year.

Outfielder Brayan Hernandez: A multitool prospect — whom the Marlins talked up after he was acquired in the Pablo Lopez deal with Seattle - was released in 2020 after hitting .179 in the low level minors. He’s now playing in Mexico.

Outfielder Braxton Lee: Acquired from Tampa for Adeiny Hechavarria, he made the opening day roster in 2018, went 3 for 17, was designated for assignment after that season and spent part of this year playing for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs.

Outfielder Magneuris Sierra: Hit .230 in 211 games for the Marlins through four seasons and was removed from the 40-man roster after last season. He’s hitting .170 in 44 games for the Angels this season.

But the Marlins got top pitchers Sandy Alcantara and Gallen in that Ozuna deal.

Mattingly mentioned Sierra last week, noting “I wish we wouldn’t have had to bring him up so early. We brought him up so early and he was overmatched. It felt like he needed to play a lot. Sometimes you get caught in those situations. St. Louis put him on the roster for a reason; now he’s doing OK, back in the bg leagues.”

Outfielder Isael Soto: Hit .221 in five minor-league seasons before the Marlins dumped him after 2019.

NOT LOOKING GOOD

Osiris Johnson: The Marlins’ second-round pick in 2018 — who can play the outfield and second and third base — is a .233 hitter in three minor-league seasons and .238 with 29 RBI in 85 games at three levels this season. He has just 19 homers in 225 minor league games.

James Nelson: The third baseman/corner outfielder — a 16th round Marlins pick who was traded in 2020 to the Yankees for reliever Stephen Tarpley — is hitting .214 in the Yankees system this season.

Chris Torres: The infielder — acquired in the Dee Gordon/Nick Neidert trade with Seattle — has appeared in only four games during the past two seasons — and none this season — because of injuries. He’s a .243 career minor-league hitter with just 10 at-bats this entire decade.

Joe Dunand: The Marlins’ second-rounder in 2017 — best known as Alex Rodriguez’s nephew — struggled in the minors (.234 career average) before hitting a home run in his MLB debut for the Marlins in May, when he was called up as a COVID replacement. He went 3 for 10 in three games, but the Marlins designated him for assignment less than a month later. The Braves signed him and also designated him for assignment.

Austin Dean: He hit .217 in 98 games for the Marlins in 2018 and 2019 before being traded to St. Louis for Diowill Burgos. He hit .235 in parts of two seasons for St. Louis and got eight at-bats for the Giants recently before being sent to Triple A.

Victor Victor Mesa: Has been an immense disappointment since agreeing to a deal with the Marlins in 2018, including a $5 million signing bonus. He’s a .234 hitter with seven homers in 273 minor-league games, Now 25, he hit .200 in 32 games in Triple A this season.

Bryson Brigham: Now 27 after seven years in the minors, the Mariners’ former third-round pick (acquired by the Marlins in 2018 for Cameron Maybin) has hit .249, 6, 30 in 98 games Triple A Jacksonville this season. He’s a minor-league free agent after this season.

Griffin Conine: Jeff’s son can hit for power (24, 74 RBI in 118 games at Double A this season) but hasn’t been able to get a handle on strikeouts. He’s hitting .215 in Pensacola this season with 183 strikeouts in 496 plate appearances. The Marlins would like to keep him and try to develop further.

Jose Devers: The skinny middle infielder, who went 10 for 46 in a somewhat promising Marlins stint early last season, missed much of 2021 after shoulder surgery, hit just .209 in 60 games between A and AA this season and is now out because of a wrist injury. He’s not viewed as a high-level prospect any longer.

STILL MUST PLAY OUT

JJ Bleday: The former first-round pick hit just .170 in his first 199 big-league plate appearances this season. Mattingly praised his plate discipline but said he fouls back hittable pitches and must shorten his swing. The Marlins hold out hope that he can be a serviceable starter or platoon outfielder; he does not project as a full-time center fielder in their eyes.

Jesus Sanchez: Looked like a long-term starter after hitting .251, 14 homers, 36 RBI in 64 games with the Marlins last season but just .205 with 20 RBI in 93 games with the Marlins this season, was demoted, began slowly at Triple A before going on a tear, hitting .285 with four homers and 20 RBI in 35 games in Jacksonville.

Other teams figured out holes in his swing, and the Marlins are waiting to see if he can adjust.

Lewin Diaz: Skilled defensively, Diaz still hasn’t proven he can hit big league pitching. He’s batting .181 (.229 on base) in 314 major-league plate appearances, including .167 in 145 this season. He homered Wednesday, his fourth in 46 games this season.

From what we hear, the Marlins are no longer counting on him as their everyday first baseman because he has not shown enough with the bat. At best, he could platoon for the Marlins; they haven’t used him against lefties.

“His swing is pretty efficient, but it has been inconsistent getting his body in the right position,” Mattingly said.

Peyton Burdick: Struggled in a Marlins cameo this season (.171 in 92 plate appearances). Potentially a fourth or fifth outfielder if he improves. He has an open stance, and pitchers have exposed him with sliders and balls outside of the strike zone.

Jerar Encarnacion: Intriguing, big-bodied prospect hitting .192, with three homers and 14 RBI in 77 plate appearances for the Marlins, including a grand slam in his debut.

Has hit .263 with 57 homers in 415 minor-league games. The Marlins project him as a DH but don’t think he’s necessarily an everyday player; they’re concerned with his plate discipline and defense.

Will Banfield: A defensively-gifted catcher and a second-round pick in 2018, Banfield has a .208 average in his first four minor-league seasons.

But here’s the good news: He has improved with the bat this season, hitting .267 in his first 31 games at Double A Pensacola. The organization believes catching prospect Joe Mack has a higher ceiling.

Brian Miller: The 36th overall pick in the 2017 draft has received only 11 big-league at bats. He’s hitting .291, 7 homers, 40 RBI in 102 games at Jacksonville and has a chance to be a backup outfielder. It would not be surprising if he leaves the organization as a free agent in the months ahead.

Kameron Misner: Drafted 35th overall in 2019, Misner was traded to Tampa Bay for Joey Wendle last November and is hitting .251, 16, 62 in Double A in the Rays’ system.

Jose Salas: It’s way too soon to judge the 19-year-old infielder, who can play second, third and short. He’s hitting .267 in 61 games at Low A Jupiter, .230 and 17 RBI in 48 games at High A Beloit.

Nasim Nunez: Also too soon to judge the defensively skilled Nunez, the 2019 second-round pick who’s hitting .261 with 14 RBI in 38 games at Double A Pensacola.

And this is impressive: Between Pensacola and Beloit this season, Nunez is 70 for 86 on steals.

The Marlins are encouraged by his offensive growth and see him as a potential top-of-the-order hitter. He’s arguably the best base-stealer in the minors.

Victor Mesa Jr.: Now a better prospect than his brother but with a backup outfielder ceiling, according to two scouts.

The three-position outfielder, only 20, has hit .244 with five homers and 50 RBI in 121 games at High A Beloit.

Ynmanol Marinez: The 21-year-old multiposition infielder has hit .259, 10 homers, 56 RBI in 114 games at High A Beloit.

MORE BAD DECISIONS

The Marlins also prematurely purged several young hitters who became productive elsewhere.

Outfielder Stone Garrett, the Marlins’ eighth-round pick in 2014, was cut by Miami in 2020 after hitting .250 in six minor-league seasons. He began working in real estate before he connected with a former Marlins scout on Linkedin, who helped him try out and sign a minor-league contract with Arizona; he improved significantly this season (.275, 95 RBI in Triple A).

He’s now hitting .293 with three homers and seven RBI in 65 plate appearances for the Diamondbacks.

Outfielder Harold Ramirez was designated for assignment late in 2020, after hitting .274 in two seasons for Miami. This season, he’s hitting .307 (better than any Marlin) with six homers and 54 RBI in 109 games for Tampa Bay. He might be the Marlins’ most productive outfielder this season if they had simply kept him.

In 2016, the Marlins traded first base prospect Josh Naylor, Carter Capps, Jarred Cosart and Luis Castillo to the San Diego Padres for Andrew Cashner, Colin Rea, Tayron Guerrero, and cash considerations.

Naylor was subsequently traded to Cleveland, where he’s hitting .258 with 19 homers and 72 RBI in 113 games; he’s a far better hitter than Lewin Diaz.

So the Marlins’ woeful results with hitters speaks to their difficulty identifying them and developing them, and in several cases, dumping them too soon.

Identifying which players will hit big-league pitching is an inexact science, and there’s some degree of luck involved.

But the Marlins’ blind spot with hitters has prompted Sherman to probe deeper into the problem.

Coming next: A look at the newer position prospects on the Marlins’ MLB.com top 30 prospect list and how they’re doing.