Miami Marlins go back to the future following roster purge

The Marlins’ unpopular sell-off of many of their star players might have caused angst among fans, but it also resulted in a stockpile of young talent.

02/17/2013 12:00 AM

07/31/2014 5:15 PM

Because the Marlins’ spring training clubhouse is not large enough to accommodate everyone, a bank of temporary lockers sits in the middle of the room to handle the overflow.

Call it the island of promise.

Call it the stockpile of possibility.

Call it the one silver lining — if you’re a Marlins fan — in the twisted wreckage of an offseason that saw the roster turned to rubble by a giant sledgehammer.

“It’s pretty special,” beams Marty Scott, the Marlins’ vice president of player development. “The general public was upset in the fall when we gave away some of our big-name guys. But, from my standpoint  .”

From Scott’s standpoint, it’s a blessing.

The name tags above the lockers in the middle represent one of the top stables of young talent in the majors, a building block the Marlins are counting on to put the organization back on the winning track.

Jose Fernandez, perhaps the top homegrown pitching phenom the Marlins have had since Josh Beckett, sits there. So does outfielder Christian Yelich, whose swing, scouts say, is as silky as they come.

They’re the Big 2. But they’re not the only ones.

There’s pitcher Adam Conley, outfielder Marcell Ozuna, outfielder Jake Marisnick, pitcher Andrew Heaney and catcher J.T. Realmuto. There are still others within the Marlins’ farm system — but not in big-league camp this spring — also prominent on the organization’s radar, such as left-hander Justin Nicolino.

The Marlins obtained Marisnick and Nicolino in the Toronto trade.

“That is your future,” said Larry Beinfest, the Marlins’ president of baseball operations. “It’s your pipeline.”

It’s the bedrock on which rests the best chance for the Marlins to rise from the still glowing embers of a massive player sell-off that followed a second consecutive last-place finish in the National League East.

The Marlins never use the word “rebuilding,” though that is exactly what they’re in the process of doing. When they traded off Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez and just about anyone making a seven-figure salary, the Marlins acquired top-end young talent, much of it still in the incubation stage of development.

“I don’t really believe in patience, in terms of fans being patient, with a major-league club,” said Beinfest, who understands the fan fury that came with the latest purge. “It’s major-league entertainment, and that’s what they should expect.”

Which is why Beinfest and others aren’t dismissing the 2013 Marlins outright, even though the odds are stacked so high against them that it would not be a surprise to anyone if they lost 100 games. Another last-place finish could be in the offing.

But if the prospects develop as many expect, the Marlins shouldn’t remain in the cellar for very long.

Last year, Baseball America listed the Marlins 28th (out of 30 organizations) in its annual talent rankings. This year, after the Marlins loaded up on prospects in their series of unpopular trades, the publication vaulted them to fifth.

Baseball America ranks Fernandez as the sixth-best overall prospect in baseball, and has Yelich at 18 and Heaney at 40. It’s a vast improvement from what existed before Scott took over player development in September 2011.

The minor-league system was threadbare.

Once, when Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria asked who could be promoted from the minors at a particular position if the need arose, Scott replied: “Nobody.”

“It was, point blank, lack of depth, especially at the upper levels [of the minor-league system],” Scott said. “There wasn’t anybody we could call on.”

That’s changing.

“Our depth last year was from [Single A] Jupiter on down,” Scott said. “This year it’s from [Double A] Jacksonville on down.

“Next year we’re going to be solid.”

Most eyes will be on Jacksonville this summer. That’s where Fernandez, Yelich, Conley, Ozuna and Marisnick are expected to start the season. The trio of Yelich, Ozuna and Marisnick could be the Marlins’ outfield of the very near future. Yelich and Fernandez could get called up to the Marlins this season.

“I think we have a crop of young prospects that are closer [to the majors] than maybe we’d had the past couple of years,” Beinfest said.

Beinfest also acknowledged that, because of the additional depth of talent in the minors, the Marlins now have more to offer in trades than they’ve had the past couple of years.

“The bottom line with prospects, either they play for you or help you get other people to play for you,” Beinfest said.

The players sitting in the middle lockers probably won’t stick around camp for long this spring. They’ll be given a taste of big-league experience before being assigned to their minor-league teams.

But everyone expects them to return, if not this season, sometime in the very near future.

“I’m not the kind of guy who will say I should be here right now,” Yelich said. “Someone gave me good advice one time, which was, ‘don’t worry about how fast you get there. Just make sure you’re ready when you are.’ That’s really all you can control.”

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