When Bruce Sherman & Co. bought the Miami Marlins and Derek Jeter was named CEO in 2017, I hoped that the arrival of a player accustomed to winning would help reinvigorate the franchise. I was hesitant, however, because of Jeter’s lack of front office experience. But anyone, I told myself, was better than the duo of Jeffrey Loria and David Samson.
Looking back, it appears the organization just traded one problem for another. Apart from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the franchise had not enjoyed a winning season since 2009, well before the team became the Miami Marlins and new ownership took over.
We all know the changes Jeter made during his first year running the team: a fire sale of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna in an attempt to rebuild the franchise. One of those moves was a success—trading Ozuna for a package of prospects that included Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen is one of Jeter’s biggest accomplishments with the Miami Marlins. The Stanton and Yelich trades, however, were less successful. Just one of the seven players obtained in return for them (Starlin Castro) produced above replacement level in South Florida.
As the rebuild began, the Marlins went 63-98 in 2018 and 57-105 in 2019. With the help of a 60-game schedule and expanded playoffs in 2020, the 31-29 Marlins snuck into the postseason for the first time since 2003. They beat the Cubs in the NL Wild Card Series before a swift three-game sweep from the Braves in the NL Division Series.
Inherited from previous ownership, president of baseball operations Michael Hill had remained in the front office during that period, but when his contract expired in October 2020, Jeter took it as an opportunity to handpick a successor. The following month, the Marlins announced they were hiring Kim Ng as their new general manager. The move was historically significant with Ng being the first woman general manager in any of the four major North American sports. The hiring also appeared to signal a change of direction for a franchise that was stagnant.
Jeter said the following in part of a prepared statement: We look forward to Kim bringing a wealth of knowledge and championship-level experience to the Miami Marlins. Her leadership of our baseball operations team will play a major role on our path toward sustained success. This sounded fantastic and was a move that was necessary because of Jeter’s complete lack of baseball ops experience. “Her leadership of our baseball operations team” sounded like she would make those crucial decisions, a role she earned after 30 years of experience in Major League Baseball with 21 of those years working in teams’ front offices.
Here is Ng’s resume prior to joining the Marlins (h/t Sarah Langs, MLB.com):
- 1990-1996: Chicago White Sox front office
- 1990: Intern in front office
- 1991-94: Hired full time as a special projects analyst for front office
- 1995-96: Assistant director of baseball operations
- 1997: American League front office
- Director of waivers and records
- 1998-2001: New York Yankees front office
- Assistant general manager (youngest AGM in baseball at 29 years old)
- 2002-2010: Los Angeles Dodgers front office
- Vice president
- Assistant general manager
- Oversaw pro-scouting
- Took part in decision-making conversations on player transactions, including trades and free agency
- Interim farm director (2004)
- 2011-2020: Major League Baseball’s Commissioner’s Office
- Senior vice president of baseball operations
That’s an extensive amount of experience that came with a lot of success. During Ng’s time in front offices, she was a part of eight postseason appearances. Specifically with New York, the Yankees made the playoffs all four years she was there and won the World Series three times. She worked directly with Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman who had this to say after Ng was hired by the Marlins: As assistant general manager with the Yankees, she was indispensable to me when I first began my tenure as the GM.
With her wealth of experience, knowledge, and a history of success, the hiring seemed like a no-brainer, especially considering this was Jeter’s post-playing career resume when he took over with the Marlins:
However, the first two seasons with Ng at the helm looked much like the previous three. In hindsight, we know why: Derek Jeter remained the lead decision-maker, hindering Kim Ng from running the franchise as she intended.
During Jeter’s time as CEO, the franchise’s decisions were said to be made in collaboration with others in the front office. The issue is many of these collaborators were Jeter cronies whose many qualification for their positions was having New York Yankees ties.
One of those people was Gary Denbo, who stepped into the role of vice president of player development and scouting a week after the Sherman-led ownership deal was approved. Denbo was with the organization from October 2017 until June 29, 2022, a few months after Jeter left the Marlins.
In May 2019, Ken Rosenthal wrote a very detailed article for The Athletic about how Denbo was “tearing up a franchise and creating enemies along the way.” It’s a fantastic account of Denbo’s early years with the Marlins that I recommend you read. There are a few things that I found illuminating in Rosenthal’s reporting that I’d like to touch on here.
Denbo was described as “an unyielding authoritarian” by former employees and colleagues who say he “engaged in verbal abuse, fat shaming and blatant favoritism toward certain Marlins personnel.” Many people who worked with Denbo during his time with the Yankees and Marlins that found him difficult to work with, including this anecdote Rosenthal described:
Unwilling to tolerate differences of opinion, Denbo would favor certain Yankees employees and all but ignore others, walking past them without saying hello. Camps formed within the organization. Those Denbo trusted were devoted to him; those he excluded felt marginalized, even belittled. A staffer who disappointed Denbo or disagreed with him could move quickly from the former group to the latter.
“His way was the only way,” one former Yankees colleague says. “He was always right.”— Ken Rosenthal, The Athletic
Another said they had “never encountered someone in baseball—or in life, honestly—who seemed to go so far out of their way to treat other people badly.” Marlins personnel began to “[grow] nervous in his presence, knowing he was prone to snap, his face turning red, his language turning foul.” Many former Marlins employees told The Athletic that Denbo’s personality and decision-making were the main reasons they left their positions with the team.
Furthermore, as Rosenthal detailed in his 2019 story, Denbo’s intolerance of differing opinions led to the departure of beloved assistant farm director Brett West who “learned quickly that the fastest way to fall out of favor with Denbo was to disagree with him—for example, by offering a dissenting evaluation on a player, the type of opinion that sparks constructive debate in virtually every organization.”
True collaboration is a necessary part of running successful organizations. It’s not collaboration if disagreement and debate spur such vitriol from one of the key people in charge.
Along with a toxic atmosphere, it seems like the scales were tipped in the opposite direction under Jeter: the general manager with 30 years in the business was forced to get decisions approved by the CEO with none.
It’s been about one full year since Denbo followed Jeter out the door. That has finally allowed Ng to do the job she was hired to do: run the team. With the benefit of increased financial support from principal owner Bruce Sherman—increased Opening Day payroll about $13 million from last season—Ng’s made moves both big and small to yield more on-field success than the Marlins have had in years.
Trading Pablo López for Luis Arraez is the most obvious move. Arraez leads all qualified hitters with a .383 batting average, .434 on-base percentage, and his 149 wRC+ is seventh-best in baseball. Arraez has been much better than advertised on defense, posting 3 defensive runs saved at second base, part of the Marlins being the best positioned infield defense this year. Teammates also rave about his energy and work ethic, per Jordan McPherson of the Miami Herald.
Solidifying the bullpen was also a point of emphasis this offseason. The Marlins acquired A.J. Puk from the Athletics for JJ Bleday. Two tough outings last week have bloated his numbers a bit, pushing his ERA from 2.77 to 4.03. But overall, Puk has been solid during his first season as a closer. The team also traded for right-handed reliever JT Chargois who has been another solid arm in the bullpen. Chargois was acquired along with prospect Xavier Edwards from the Rays for two minor league players. Edwards was the Rays’ No. 7 prospect at the time of the trade and he’s now leading the International League’s batting title race.
Some of Ng’s transactions seemed inconsequential at the time, like when the Marlins traded for journeyman Jonathan Davis on May 22, shortly after Jazz Chisholm Jr. went on the injured list with turf toe. Davis had back-to-back three hit games in his first two starts and far exceeded his career track record by slashing .266/.326/.418 while Chisholm was on the IL. Playing time thinned out went Jazz returned, and a few games later, Davis suffered an unfortunate knee injury.
Miami then called on Dane Myers, the 27-year-old utility man they plucked from the Detroit Tigers in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. Myers has been fantastic during his first six games, going 9-for-22 with four multi-hit games.
Ng also signed veterans Yuli Gurriel and Garrett Hampson to minor league free agent deals this offseason. Gurriel has put up league-average offensive numbers and Hampson has provided defensive versatility.
The biggest free agent signings have proved to be the least successful moves made during the 2022-23 offseason. Johnny Cueto’s season has been incredibly disappointing, to say the least. He suffered a biceps injury 30 pitches into his first start and looked terrible in his recent rehab starts. It’ll be interesting to see how long a leash the team has with him when he returns to the mound after the All-Star break (reportedly as a reliever).
Jean Segura is the other big free agent signing. He got off to a dreadfully slow start, but has looked much better at the plate recently. Since returning from the injured list on June 27, Segura is slashing .333/.388/.400 with improved quality of contact numbers.
I don’t think the hiring of manager Skip Schumaker should be overlooked either. The rookie manager has done an incredible job of both in-game management and transforming the dynamic between the coaching staff and players. As reported in the Miami Herald last week, players appreciate the level of communication from Schumaker. Skip and his staff are also bringing a level of individualized preparation to hitters that has “revolutionized the way Marlins hitters do their homework on opposing pitchers,” Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald detailed in early July.
Not every acquisition is going to be a perfect one, but Ng and her staff have done a good job identifying under-the-radar bats in Davis and Myers and pitchers who have fit well in high-leverage bullpen roles. These victories on the margins, which were so few and far between for Miami during the previous half-decade, have helped sustain the team’s success despite disappointing performances elsewhere.
At 53-39, the Miami Marlins have set a franchise record for total wins in the first half and the fanbase is as energized as ever. The team is 14 games above .500 with a firm grasp on the first NL Wild Card spot.
It’s almost as if, with 30 years of front office experience, general manager Kim Ng was fully capable of constructing a winning roster and staff all along. And that’s because she was.
Photo courtesy of Miami Marlins