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Since he became a partial owner and the chief executive officer of the Marlins in September 2017, the Fish have dismantled their roster. They’ve traded popular superstars. They finished 63-98 in 2018 and could easily lose 100-plus games in 2019.
Jeter’s vice president of player development and scouting, Gary Denbo, was pilloried by colleagues and former Marlins employees in a scathing recent piece by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.
We’ll delve deeper into the Jeter-era follies shortly, but let’s pause for a moment to give him and his cohorts a reprieve.
At least one of their moves looks like an outright steal: the trade that brought left-hander and emerging ace Caleb Smith from the Bronx to South Beach.
In November 2017, the Marlins acquired Smith, along with first baseman Garrett Cooper, from the Yankees for right-hander Michael King and $250,000 in international bonus-pool money.
Smith, meanwhile, owns a 2.11 ERA, a ludicrous 0.89 WHIP and has averaged 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings for the Marlins.
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It’s only May, but the 27-year-old is building an NL Cy Young case.
A 14th-round pick by the Yankees in 2013, Smith wasn’t popping up at the top of any prospect radars early in his pro career. He posted a 7.71 ERA in 18.2 innings with the Yankees in 2017, and he had a 4.19 ERA in 16 starts last season while battling a lat strain.
Suddenly, he looks like the surprise breakout of 2019 and a star on the ascent.
We’re in small-sample territory. Regression is on the table. But as Smith prepares to take the hill Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays, he’s a must-watch commodity on a Miami team that’s anything but.
Speaking of the Rays, their own Blake Snell went from a 4.04 ERA in 24 starts in 2017 to an AL-leading 1.89 ERA and a Cy Young Award in 2018.
The 26-year-old is a bit younger than Smith and was a first-round pick (52nd overall) in 2011. But they’re both in the range when pitchers sometimes figure it out and turn the corner from promising to superlative.
FanGraphs’ Devan Fink outlined one explanation for Smith’s leap forward:
Driving this success isn’t big fastball velocity; he only averages 92.5 mph with the pitch, putting him in the 52nd percentile across baseball. Instead, his spin rate is what makes the pitch so hard to hit. Smith’s 2404 rpm on the fastball puts him in the 84th percentile across the league. This means that his fastball “drops” less from when it leaves his hand to when it crosses home plate.
Smith has used this spin rate to his advantage, living in the upper portion of the strike zone, following the current trend that has overtaken the league. And to both lefties and righties, Smith survives on throwing the fastball up and away.
The league could adjust. It probably will. For now, Smith’s refined approach is working and is giving Fish fans a rare recent opportunity to stand up and cheer.
“I don’t think [batters] see the ball real good off Caleb,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly told reporters. “He’s one of those guys who hides the ball real good and is sneaky.”
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OK, now back to Jeter and Co. They took the reins from polarizing owner Jeffrey Loria in ’17. The Marlins won the World Series in 2003 on Loria’s watch, but he was also known for dismantling rosters as quickly as he constructed them and possibly swindling Florida taxpayers to build Marlins Park.
In his wake came Jeter, who owns only 4 percent of the team but was cast as the frontman.
Then out went Giancarlo Stanton in a deal with the Yankees that offered salary relief for Miami but also jettisoned a generational slugger. The new management group also traded the rest of Miami’s outfield, sending Marcell Ozuna to the St. Louis Cardinals and Christian Yelich to the Milwaukee Brewers.
That latter trade was particularly painful, as Yelich won NL MVP honors with the Brew Crew in 2018 and might reach the 60-homer threshold in 2019.
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It’s been bad, it’s been ugly, but it’s rarely been good since Jeter went south.
So far, Smith is the rare exception.
Even if Smith’s success continues unabated, he won’t change the perception of Jeter and Miami’s ownership group overnight. They need to climb out of the division cellar and make more favorable deals.
But for Jeter—a beloved, consistent winner in New York—it’s a bright spot in an otherwise bleak career chapter. Plus, he fleeced the franchise with which he made his name.
For Smith and Miami, it might be the beginning of something special.