Who (or what) is to blame for Marlins pitching prospects failing?

Ethan J. Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post put up this scathing commentary on the Marlins’ recent difficulty raising homegrown pitchers. Without getting to his point, the fact that the Fish have not gotten much out of their early-round pitching pickups is not avoidable:

Player Draft Round IP ERA B-Ref WAR
Jeff Allison 2003 1 0
Logan Kensing 2003 2 133 5.21 -1.5
Taylor Tankersley 2004 1 118 4.58 0.5
Jason Vargas 2004 2 116 2/3 5.25 -0.3
Chris Volstad 2005 1 546 2/3 4.74 2.2
Aaron Thompson 2005 1 0
Jacob Marceaux 2005 1 0
Ryan Tucker 2005 1 (Suppl) 37 8.27 -1.3
Sean West 2005 1 (Suppl) 112 2/3 5.03 -0.5
Brett Sinkbeil 2006 1 2 13.50 -0.2
Total 1066 5.02 -1.1

No matter who is at fault for these results since the 2003 draft, it is difficult to argue that they have come out well at all. The Marlins picked up just over 1000 innings of pitching that was pretty close to replacement level ball. But is that the fault of the organization’s drafting or the team’s player development? I can’t really be the judge of that, as I do not know any of those parties, but I can think of two systematic problems that the Marlins may have that could contribute to the problem.

Rushed business

The Marlins may not be developing young pitchers because young pitchers are being promoted too quickly for the organization. This was a serious problem back in the early post-fire sale days, when the Fish had no choice but to bring up young starters who may not have been ready to pitch in the majors. However, more recently the Marlins have seen problems with having to bring up guys who aren’t too early to fill in rotation needs because of the team’s lack of resources. Keep in mind that, prior to signing Javier Vazquez to a one-year deal last offseason, the Marlins had not signed a free agent starter to a major league contract since before 1997. The team has mostly stayed away from acquiring pieces via free agency, so it is only natural that they have had to fill holes with young starters through their minor league organizations, particularly when the team’s depth is challenged due to injury.

Three examples come immediately to mind. In 2008, the Marlins promoted Chris Volstad to the majors. At the time, Volstad was 21 years old, had never struck out more than 17 percent of batters faced at any level in the minors, and had never walked fewer than six percent outside of his debut season in Single-A. He had previously gotten away with just ground balls in order to avoid homers and extra-base hits. He threw about 133 innings in Double-A that were not entirely impressive, with his success coming from a skill that would have been more difficult to repeat in the majors. Volstad was likely a good deal unprepared, and it should not surprise anyone that he never worked on improving his repertoire in order to miss more bats or focus on a ground ball and control style often used by other ground ball heavy pitchers.

Two more promising starters were brought up by the Marlins prematurely due to a lack of depth. Sean West pitched over 100 innings in the big leagues in 2009 despite not showing that he was ready in Double-A that season or in High-A the year before. He was two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery and had lost a good deal of control post-injury, but he was thrust into a starting role for a 2009 team that remained in decent contention for some time. He did not pitch well and has not since. In a similar vein, Brad Hand was also brought up this year because the Marlins had suffered injuries to their starting staff. He too did not appear ready for major league play in 2011, but was thrust into a role due to injuries. He looked awful in the majors after having major control issues in his first extended stint in Double-A.

Drafting philosophy

But it could be more than the Marlins’ demanding situation at the level of the majors. What could also be contributing in addition to the fact that the team at times needs to promote pitchers quickly is that they also tend to draft pitchers who require the most amount of developmental time. Of the 10 pitchers listed above, only five of them were college pitchers, while the remaining came out of high school. Out of the ones that made the majors, four were from college, but one was the completely inept Brett Sinkbeil. Only three pitched meaningful innings. That means three of five guys from high school have made the big leagues, and only one has actually succeeded; West is on his way out after being completely useless since 2009, and Tucker was a disaster from the onset.

While it may not be as risky to draft a high school starter as it used to be, the general consensus remains that among first-round draft choices, college pitchers do better than high school pitchers. Yet the Marlins are always looking for toolsy pitchers in the first round, often to no avail. It isn’t as if their college choices did a whole lot better, and occasionally you will land a Josh Johnson type, but for every JJ you might get 10 empty-handed first-rounders. And if the Marlins have to push these players out consistently in order to fill holes in the major league roster, then it may be difficult to allow them the proper time to develop. You would think that an organization like the Marlins that constantly needs major league talent developed from within would utilize more college players who are closer to being major league ready.

Those are just two possible problems endemic to the Marlins’ situation that may be contributing factors. I still don’t know what part of the Marlins’ minor league organization is struggling when it comes to pumping out premium prospects. I don’t even know whether these problems are truly that problematic, as I’m not privy to what is happening within the team’s personnel decision meetings. But for my money, I would not be surprised if the team’s constant prospect promotion is sapping their high school heavy talent in the minors.

Tags: Brad Hand Chris Volstad Miami Marlins Sean West

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