Jeter: “When you compete, you’re competing to win”
JUPITER -- The baseball team that tore it all down to start again opened its 27th season with its first full-squad spring workout Monday, and you’d have been forgiven to expect a layer of gloom to surround the under-construction Miami Marlins as they set up camp here 90 minutes north of downtown.
The roster is bereft of stars, catcher J.T. Realmuto the last of them to be shipped out in trades for prospects. A competitive roster two years ago has been completely flipped for a ground-up rebuild.
“You know all the things we’ve done that may not be popular right now,” as majority owner Bruce Sherman put it Monday.
Yes, but since a full summary would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, we’ll simply remind that Giancarlo Stanton was traded after winning the 2017 NL MVP and Christian Yelich was traded and then won the 2018 NL MVP.
So the young, no-name Fish, a.k.a. The Replacements, are 1,000-to-1 against winning the World Series this season, via Bookmaker.eu, the longest odds in all of MLB. Betting odds don’t get much longer unless they involve donkeys winning the Kentucky Derby.
Meanwhile charismatic Marlins CEO Derek Jeter, with Sherman beginning his second season running the club, has become adept at parrying timetable questions on when the team might be, you know, good. When the patience and faith being asked of Marlins fans might finally see its reward.
“Mr. [George] Steinbrenner expected you to win every game you played,” went the Yankee icon’s parry Monday.
But (you knew this was coming, right?) despite all the reasons for at least short-term basement expectations, the vibe around this team is closer to giddy than gloomy.
It’s quite a thing to see and hear, actually. It isn’t just the rote optimism inherent in spring; you know, the stuff that brings the poets out with smell-of-fresh-cut-grass and crack-of-the bat.
This is an organization and a clubhouse that actually believes in what it is doing and where it is headed.
“Black cloud?” said president of baseball operations Michael Hill on Monday. “It’s a beautiful day here!”
He smiled and lifted both palms to verify no rain in sight from the vivid blue above -- and a future as bright as the sky.
Could they be right? Might the blueprint be spot-on?
Being angry about the latest fire-sale is so last year. Let’s accentuate the positive and list some things a Marlins fan should feel good about moving forward:
▪ Pitching, pitching, pitching: Fronted by Opening Day starter Jose Urena, the Marlins have seven legitimate starters jockeying for five spots in the rotation. That includes high-ceiling Sandy Alcantara (who arrived in the Marcell Ozuna trade) and promising Caleb Smith (who came in the Stanton deal). It does not include Sixto Sanchez, the Phillies’ No. 1 prospect obtained for Realmuto. Sanchez’s upside? Electrifying. Top of rotation. Think Jose Fernandez.
▪ A burgeoning farm system: In the club purchased from Jeffrey Loria two years ago, Jeter/Sherman inherited a franchise that was 29th (next-to-last) in Baseball America’s organizational rankings. Today the Marlins are 13th, the biggest leap over that span. Suddenly the chain of development is full. And Miami has the No. 4 overall pick in this June’s draft, meaning another elite prospect on the way.
▪ Potential future stars to watch: In addition to pitchers Alcantara, Smith and Sanchez mentioned above, the Marlins love the potential of position players who also came in trades, including Jorge Alfaro, Monte Harrison and Lewis Brinson, along with international free-agent signing Victor Victor Mesa. Alfaro, also from the Realmuto deal, has “arguably the strongest arm in Major League Baseball, and legit power,” says Hills. The Fish also are still high on Brinson, who hit .199 last year. (Remember Derrek Lee? At the same age he hit .206 in 1999, was demoted to the minors, then hit 107 home runs over the next four seasons).
▪ The broadening scope of the talent search: “We want to be big in the international market,” as Jeter put it. Evidence was reaching into Cuba for top prospect Mesa, and insisting international funds were a part of the Realmuto trade with Philadelphia. The club is presently building an academy in the Dominican Republic to groom future players.
▪ Stuff behind the scenes you don’t see: The bells ‘n whistles, you’ll see. The ballpark enhancements, the new food menu, more entertainment, the new logo and colors. Far more important is what’s hidden, such as the beefed-up scouting department, an increased emphasis on analytics and an overhaul in the strength and conditioning program. The new president of businsess operations, Chip Bowers? He came over from the champion Golden State Warriors.
▪ A ‘Yankees South’ feel to the makeover: Jeter in charge. Gary Denbo the VP of development and scouting. Mel Stottlemyre Jr. the pitching coach. Curtis Granderson signed for a veteran presence in the outfield and clubhouse. Jorge Posada the new special adviser. Jeter hasn’t been shy about plumbing his Yankees background and bringing in a lot of guys used to winning. That can’t hurt.
“This is a long-term commitment,” said the majority owner Sherman. “We want to win now, win in the future and win continually.”
Said Jeter: “We are trying to build something that will be special.”
No timetable. No guarantees.
For now, it’s just a lot of promise as we find out together if this will be a promise kept.