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Heyman | Under Marlins new boss things have to change — and are

Jon Heyman

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Jun 9, 2018; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins chief executive officer Derek Jeter (right) talks with Marlins Principal owner Bruce Sherman (left) while the Marlins are celebrating their 25th Anniversary at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

When the new Miami Marlins’ management team took over after the 2017 season following the purchase by iconic Yankee Derek Jeter and principal investor Bruce Sherman, unlike a lot of new groups, they didn’t immediately make wholesale changes – though there were a few notable firings and force-outs that created headlines.

For the most part, though, they kept folks out of necessity and expediency (contracts were about to expire, and there was no way to replace everyone) and they did so out of fairness (there was no time to make proper evaluations, especially since it was hard to tell who did what since the chain of command was ill-defined in many cases).

Instead, the Marlins are experiencing turnover as they go; it’s happening organically, and perhaps uncomfortably in a couple cases.

Gary Denbo, the former Yankees hitting coach and executive who is the director of player development and scouting, has spent every waking hour surveying the system, and people close to him suggest he is, unsurprisingly, appalled by much of what he sees.

Meanwhile, nervous workers (and some in very high places themselves) have grown tense, even anxious. It’s probably a predictable outcome when a Yankees perfectionist is tasked with fixing a perennial loser (no winning seasons since 2009). Denbo, Jeter’s favorite hitting coach from his playing days and handpicked leader, is determined to turn the Marlins from a near laughingstock into a winner – a Yankees South, if you will.

Denbo’s track record of success as an executive with the Yankees, and his determination to do everything he can to turn the organization around, would make him a worthy candidate. But one thing seems clear; the ride isn’t going to be a joy for everyone involved.

Denbo’s primary focus, according to him and others, is “accountability,” and especially to have a “renewed” emphasis on accountability, and some former Marlins executives don’t disagree that that’s what’s needed. One unusual thing about the old Marlins regime is that it appears decisions could come from anyone, and weren’t always made by the person who was accountable (for instance, some of newly-reassigned scouting director Stan Meek’s draft choices were made by other favorites of past ownership), and some big decisions were made or at least most influenced by folks below baseball president Michael Hill, which had to make it hard for Denbo to ascertain who to credit for what, and who to blame for what.

“We’re hoping to develop a sense of urgency to become the best organization in baseball. That is the objective,” Denbo said flat-out in a recent phone interview. “I left a great organization that was really going well. And I’ve got an opportunity to come down here and build an organization.”

Predictably, there have been many ruffled feathers already. Denbo did a superb job his three years in charge of the Yankees’ farm system (the results speak for themselves, but there was some discontent among co-workers and underlings there by the end, with what someone called a “my way or the highway” style).

“He knows what he’s doing but he’s a tough guy,” one Yankees person said about Denbo.

Denbo doesn’t get into all the specifics of what he must do with the Marlins, but he sure doesn’t sugarcoat things, as is his style.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.

Some who have worked in the organization say Denbo has his work cut out for him, that the Marlins have long been a place with priorities that are all messed up.

“It’s a place that rewards the wrong thing,” one former Marlins person said. “It’s all about self preservation.”

That will change.

But for now, it’s also a place that’s about as uncomfortable as can be.

“Morale is at an all-time low,” one current Marlins employ said.

Yet another Marlins person agrees with that assessment, saying it’s a stressful working environment. Perhaps that’s a predictable result; after all, a perfectionist has been tasked with fixing institutional imperfections top to bottom.

Denbo has a big mess to clean, but according to some folks still employed by the team (there are starting to be changes; more on those below), he doesn’t do it with much diplomacy. Sources say he was unhappy infielder J.T. Riddle took longer than he’d wanted to report to Triple-A New Orleans (though less than the three days allotted by the CBA), causing Denbo to tell the coaching staff there not to play him for a day. When the game went long, and Riddle wound up pinch hitting, word is that within minutes there was unhappy call from Denbo to the clubhouse, saying something along the lines of, “What was it about don’t play him you didn’t … understand.”

Denbo responded that he preferred to keep in-house conversations private.

Upset Marlins people, who don’t appreciate a perceived insinuation that they are very fallible, and note that it was one of the new employees from the Yankees (not Denbo) who accidentally erased some scouting reports on the cusp of the draft (Denbo responded that there was no computer snafu that handicapped to them in any way).

The Marlins do have some terrific people, and Denbo says he is aiming to keep those, and find the right roles for others who aren’t in them. But in the meantime, he’s apparently scaring some folks.

“He’s got a military mentality – the bad kind,” one Marlins employee says. “He manages out of fear.”

Denbo pleads guilty to making honest assessments, and telling it like it is – or he sees it.

“I’m very direct,” he responds to the criticism of being tough. “I’m very honest with people. I believe in accountability. Sometimes when you are direct and truthful with people, a lot of people will respond to that. Not everyone does.”

Sometimes new regimes will make wholesale changes without getting to know the troops. It’s difficult to know people perfectly after a tense few months – and the Marlins do have some great people, of course, but there’s an issue with the “culture,” which had become “systemic,” according to the former employee.

The plan is to build from within — “we will invest in player development and scouting,” he said.

But the first thing to do is to evaluate the non-playing personnel – to keep or promote the best ones, to find new roles for some others and weed out a few (more on that later). There may be some significant pruning.

“I don’t want to say anything bad about people who were already here. But obviously, things weren’t going well,” Denbo said. “If you’re not winning and you’re (also) losing money, then things have to change. Things had to change.”

That former Marlins person doesn’t envy Denbo, but he also knows some great workers are going to be left behind; or as he put it, “Some good people are going to be victims of the bloodletting.”

One new casualty is widely respected catching instructor Paul Phillips, who is universally beloved and was seen as a key to J.T. Realmuto’s development into a star (Realmuto is said to love Phillips), who recently turned in his resignation in what other employees call a big loss. Phillips, who left to join Sportssense out of Nashville, Tenn., a cognitive neuroscience company that has a device that evaluates how the brain processes information and can be applied to baseball, declined comment.

“He’s terrific, a hard-working guy,” one Marlins person said.

Phillips joins a slow procession out the door that’s been picking up steam. Longtime scouting director Meek was relieved of those duties this week following the draft (word is, Meek didn’t have the final calls on the picks and that his power was usurped by some combination of Denbo and “the analytics guys,” before agreeing to become an adviser to president Michael Hill, a holdover from the previous regime), and the word came down: More changes were coming.

And they have.

Three prime cross-checkers – Steve Payne, Stave Taylor and Mike Cadahia — were let go. And it seems more likely there are more moves to come. As it is, those defections came on the heels of some resignations. Double-A pitching coach Storm Davis left to take care if his ailing father-in-law. Brett West, the assistant director of player development, resigned (he also declined comment). Robby Corsaro, a Southern California area scout, left to work for a player agency. Benny Latino, another scout, left to work for the Dodgers.

Initially in the new regime, there were only a few changes. High-ranking, high-priced executives Jeff McAvoy, Mike Berger, Jim Benedict and Marc Delpiano were let go even though Jeter’s group has to pay each about $2 million over the next three years, with all landing with winning teams and the respected Benedict going to the Cubs and revered Delpiano going to the Yankees. Some attention was given to the severing of ties with legends Jeff Conine, Tony Perez, Andre Dawson and Jack McKeon, which might have gone smoother (first they were fired, then after bad reviews came in, some were offered steep pay cuts instead) and more attention went to executive/scout Marty Scott, who was ailing at the time.

The exits all brought some degree of discomfort, but perhaps nothing like what’s happening as a no-nonsense perfectionist attempts to tackle any imperfection in his path.

Jon Heyman is an MLB Insider for FanRag Sports, featuring breaking news, information and his Inside Baseball column, which appears on FanRagSports.com every Thursday. Heyman also has been an insider at MLB Network since the channel launched in 2009 and is a regular contributor to WFAN in New York, where he appears weekly on the Joe and Evan Show and previously appeared on the Mike and the Mad Dog Show. He also appears on WSCR in Chicago, WBZ-FM in Boston and the Petros and Money Show on Fox in Los Angeles. Heyman comes to FanRag Sports from CBSSports.com, where he worked for five years and wrote the popular Inside Baseball notes column. Before going to CBS, Heyman worked for five years at Sports Illustrated and SI.com, where he was a senior writer and started an Inside Baseball Column. Heyman worked for 16 years at Newsday in New York, where he was the Yankees beat writer, a baseball columnist and finally a general sports columnist. Heyman started his career at the Moline (Ill.) Daily Dispatch, then moved to the Los Angeles Copley Newspapers (Torrance Daily Breeze and Santa Monica Outlook) before going to Newsday. Heyman at one time also served as a national baseball writer for The Sporting News. Heyman is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The Santa Fe, N.M. native grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y., on Long Island.

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