Quick, what's the first thing that pops to mind when you hear "Miami Marlins"? Odds are your mind's drifted to "Jeffrey Loria," "SEC probe," or "fire sales" — very possibly all of the above. Given the franchise's history, those associations are largely deserved, no matter what kind of spin you want to put on it all.
But none of that, or even Marlins management ordering protesters be tossed from the stadium on Opening Day, tells the full story. When Jose Fernandez mowed down the Mets in his major league debut Sunday, it was a reminder that the Marlins should be known for something much more positive: developing big-time players, and getting them to the big leagues earlier than just about anyone else.
Watching Fernandez plow through the Mets’ lineup, you'd never know this was a 20-year-old kid with 11 starts at high Class A ball as his most advanced professional experience. Derided by skeptics as a one-pitch pitcher, Fernandez did rely heavily on his fastball in his first big league start, firing 51 heaters out of 80 pitches thrown. That fastball also averaged nearly 96 mph, topping out at 98. It wasn't just pure velocity either. Watch the highlights from that game, especially the pitch he throws around 33 seconds; no one's hitting a 97-mph riding fastball with that kind of movement.
But we saw flashes of his other offerings, too, and for one day at least, they were nasty. Twenty-two seconds into the video, we see a strike-three curve, the pitch the Cuban-born Fernandez calls "The Defector," which completely froze Ike Davis. The scouting reports rate Fernandez's curve (which can look a little like a slider, or slurve) as a pitch with upside. Then there was this filthy changeup to Lucas Duda; if that's Fernandez's third-best pitch, kid's got a future in this game. The final result Sunday: five innings pitched, one run, three hits, one walk, eight strikeouts. That made Fernandez just the fourth 20-year-old starter in the past 97 years to strike out eight or more batters in his major league debut.
For all his obvious talent, we try to keep small sample sizes in perspective round these parts. The more interesting story is what the Marlins saw to convince them that handing an opening-week job to a 20-year-old pitcher made sense, especially in a season that even the biggest optimist would call a clear rebuild.
First, a player must prove he can dominate a league, says Marlins scouting director Stan Meek. When Miguel Cabrera made his 2003 debut as a 20-year-old, he'd already hit .365/.429/.609 in 303 plate appearances in Double-A's Southern League. When Giancarlo Stanton made his own age-20 debut in 2010, he'd hit .313/.442/.729 with a ludicrous 21 homers in 53 games, also in the Southern League. A 21-year-old Josh Beckett got a cup of coffee with the '01 Marlins after going 14-1 with a 1.54 ERA and 203 strikeouts in 140 innings at High-A and Double-A that year.
In Fernandez's case, you could certainly argue that pitchers face a steeper learning curve than do hitters, that really young pitchers might be more susceptible to injury, and that 11 starts at High-A ball, even when they net 59 strikeouts, no homers, and a 1.96 ERA in 55 innings, don't constitute a mastery of the minor leagues. But the added ingredient, Meek explained, goes beyond results, or even physical tools.
"A lot of guys have physical ability," he says. "But mentally they might not be able to handle the stress, especially at the big league level. When you find those special talents, then see that they can handle things mentally, that's when it's time to challenge them."
As subjective as scouting can be already, scouting a player's mental state and makeup is even more touchy-feely. But there's still a process involved. In evaluating Fernandez, the Marlins looked at his body language, especially against big league hitters during spring training. "He had expectations," Meek says, "not hoping something would happen, but confident in the belief that it would happen."
Meanwhile, Joe Capozzi's profile of Fernandez in the Palm Beach Post painted a picture of a fearless pitcher. "I’ve been in jail, I’ve been shot at," Fernandez said in the piece. "I’m not scared to face David Wright."
That first dominant start aside, the Marlins know the risks involved in the early promotion. There's the likelihood that baseball ops president Larry Beinfest, general manager Mike Hill, Meek, and others will get criticized if and when something goes wrong. More tangibly, there's the money question. The Rays, a lower-revenue team with real playoff aspirations, routinely hold back supremely talented prospects, in part to let them polish their game as much as possible before making the Show, but in large part also to push back the free agency and arbitration clock as much as possible. Yet while Tampa Bay vies for a playoff push without 2012 Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers (for now), the likely last-place Marlins gave Fernandez a job right from Opening Day. Meek admits such a promotion wasn't all that financially prudent, given Fernandez could conceivably reach free agency by age 25, before he even reaches his prime.
"But you try to do what's right for the player," he says. "There are certain guys where you know from an early age they belong. Stanton certainly. With Cabrera, it was that he was ready, and also that he gave us a better chance to win the World Series that year. If we feel the player can contribute in an impactful way in the big leagues, everyone, including the owner, will say, 'Do it.' Think of it this way: If a player's ready, how are we going to look at 24 guys in the clubhouse who know he should be playing, and say, 'Sorry, we've made the financial decision not to bring him up'?"
Taking those kinds of risks dovetails with the Marlins' swing-for-the-fences approach to drafting and signing players, too. Stanton lasted until the second round because many teams thought he wouldn't make contact; he still struggles to make contact now, but when he does, he often hits the ball a mile. With 2010 first-round pick turned elite prospect Christian Yelich, the Marlins didn't think he'd throw well and didn't know where they'd play him. But they drafted him anyway, figuring his powerful bat would work somewhere and at least in the minors so far, it has.
Over the years, the Fish have also sought out that most volatile of commodities: high school pitchers. In 1999, they drafted Texas high-schooler Josh Beckett no. 2 overall. Four years later, Beckett led the Marlins to their second World Series title. As the team made its push that summer, they lunged for a pitcher who looked like a potential Beckett in the draft. With the 16th overall pick, they nabbed Jeff Allison, a promising high school right-hander out of Massachusetts. Allison pitched six years in the minors but never made it past Double-A, his career washed out by substance-abuse problems. A tough break for all involved, but an acceptable risk to take, says Meek. "You can't be afraid to go for big-upside talent, even when the downside's big, too."
Going for high-risk, high-reward players, then bringing them to the big leagues early remains an approach that might or might not work out for the Marlins. The team clearly has an eye for premium talent. But it also has a penchant for roster teardowns, so much so that Stanton's name's already been mentioned in trade rumors, even though he can't become a free agent until after the 2016 season.
Stanton's already a star, Fernandez might become one soon, and Yelich might not be far behind. The next step is to keep them all in orange long enough for any of that to matter.