Most of the “experts” who rank Major League Baseball’s 30 farm systems seem to be in agreement that the Florida Marlins’ system has fallen from a steady presence in the top 10 to a residence somewhere in the bottom five.
A big reason for that low ranking, of course, is because nine of the Marlins’ top prospects from recent years are on the big-league club’s current 25-man active roster.
The Marlins can start an entire outfield of homegrown talent with Chris Coghlan, Scott Cousins and Mike Stanton. Star right-hander Josh Johnson (3-1, 1.68 ERA after his first seven starts) and first baseman Gaby Sanchez are also products of Florida’s farm system.
But rebuilding that system is a priority for the Marlins, as club vice president for player personnel and assistant general manager Dan Jennings emphasized during a telephone interview with Perfect Game late last week.
This year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft is June 6-8, and Jennings is confident the Marlins can make the most out of a draft in which they have only one selection in each of the first four rounds, including the No. 14 overall pick in the first round.
“The scouts and the player development people do a great job of finding (the prospects) and then grooming them up,” Jennings said. “I think (VP, player development and assistant GM) Jim Fleming and (scouting director) Stan Meek have done a tremendous job of keeping that pipeline of talent flowing through the system.
“It’s important to keep that pipeline flowing, and if you’re going to be successful in this day and time you have to grow your own.”
Jennings provides the Marlins an experienced hand when it comes to recognizing, drafting and signing the top prospects. He served as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays scouting director from 1998 through 2002 before accepting his position with the Marlins in 2003, and landed some big fish while with the Rays.
During his five years in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jennings was responsible for drafting Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and James Shields, among numerous others. He also selected Josh Hamilton with the top overall pick in 1999, but Hamilton flamed out in Tampa Bay due to drug and alcohol abuse. He resurrected his career after years away from the game and was named the 2010 American League MVP for the AL Champion Texas Rangers.
Current Tampa Bay scouting director, R.J. Harrison, was once quoted as saying of Jennings he “swings for the fences every round (of the draft).”
The Devil Rays were able to snag Crawford with the first pick of the second round in the 1999 draft after first getting to see him perform at the 1998 Perfect Game World Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla.
Crawford, who had signed a letter-of-intent to play football at the University of Nebraska, accepted a $1.55 million bonus to sign with Tampa Bay and now is in his first year of a seven-year $142 million contract with the Boston Red Sox.
“Our first look at Carl Crawford occurred down in Fort Myers, Florida,” at the 1998 PG World Showcase, Jennings recalled. “We had a cross-checker that saw him down there and he notified the area scout.”
After “discovering” Crawford at the World Showcase, Jennings and the Devil Rays continued to follow him. They benefitted from a strong relationship between area scout Doug Gassaway and Crawford’s uncle, Jack Crawford, who was a big influence in young Carl’s life.
Jennings praised the efforts of Perfect Game President Jerry Ford and the Crawfords for making that initial meeting in Fort Myers happen.
“I think it says a great deal about Jerry and Perfect Game being able to go into inner-city Houston and get a young man of that caliber there,” Jennings said. “It also told us a heck of a lot about Carl Crawford that he would make the effort to get to Fort Myers in January. It put his emphasis on how much he loved playing baseball into perspective for us.”
The experience cemented the relationship Jennings continues to enjoy to this day with Perfect Game.
“The showcase events that they have essentially the year around are great – not so much for identification purposes, although a lot of times it does that – because it allows the better players to play against better competition. You can get a truer read on a young man’s ability,” he said, adding that all three of his sons have attended PG events.
As an assistant GM for the Marlins, Jennings has more responsibilities than he had at Tampa Bay. He has excelled in the position and there were reports the New York Mets wanted to talk to him about their general manager opening last year before giving the job to Sandy Alderson.
Jennings takes his responsibilities with the Marlins seriously.
“I just try to keep my finger on the pulse of the 29 other clubs to look and see if there’s going to be a surplus of something they have that we need, or if we have a surplus of something that we could move someplace else and get something that helps us,” he said.
The Marlins got off to a decent start this season, and stood 20-14 (.588) through May 9, three games behind the NL East leading Philadelphia Phillies. The right-hander Johnson has developed into one of the most effective pitchers in the game, and Jennings likes where the team is at.
“We’ve always tried to constitute our ball club on pitching and defense, and our pitching right now has done a very good job,” Jennings said. “We’ve pitched very well, we’ve played good on the road and we’ve played well in close games. A lot of the things that we wanted to see coming out of spring training, thus far we’ve seen.”
The Marlins were World Series Champions in 1997 and 2003, qualifying for the playoffs both times as a wild card entrant. They have never won a division title in their 18-year history.
But there is certainly a lot of excitement surrounding baseball in Miami right now. The team will move into the new $389.4 million, 37,000-seat, retractable roof Marlins Ballpark next season, which will put the organization on a whole new playing field in more ways than one.
“Moving into a new ballpark next year is going to be the third greatest day in franchise history, with the other two being the winning of the World Series,” Jennings said.
The increased revenue stream the stadium is expected to provide should make the Marlins a bigger player in the free agent market. It will not, however, change the focus of the organization, according to Jennings.
“We would certainly have the opportunity to do that if the right pieces are there,” he said. “Make no bones about it – we like growing our own and we take a lot of pride in the scouting staff and in the development staff to go out and find young players and get them in our system so we can develop them the Marlins’ way.
“We feel good when we can identify a (player) as a young man, watch him get in our system and work his way to the Major Leagues.”
And that’s the way an MLB organization improves its farm system.