New leadership, same challenges for Marlins
JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — When Miami Marlins executives Mike Hill and Dan Jennings started working together in 1995, their job was to create a scouting department for the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
“We had zero staff, zero paperwork, zero scouting manuals,” Jennings says.
“Dan’s office was a little better than mine,” Hill says. “Mine was literally a closet.”
Nearly 20 years later, limited resources remain a challenge, with Hill and Jennings now running the Marlins for famously frugal owner Jeffrey Loria. When Larry Beinfest was fired last September after 12 years with the team, Hill replaced him as president of baseball operations, and Jennings was promoted to succeed Hill as general manager.
Hill and Jennings have been with the Marlins since 2002, but now they’re in charge of a franchise where little has gone right since the team moved into a new ballpark two years. A brief, uncharacteristic spending spree by Loria became a fiasco when the subsequent roster dismantling antagonized fans, and the Marlins staggered to consecutive last-place finishes, losing 100 games last year.
Hill and Jennings will try to lead the Marlins back to contention while drawing on diverse backgrounds. Jennings is an Alabama native who had a brief tryout as a pitcher in the Yankees organization, then paid his dues by driving up to 50,000 miles on his car every year while scouting 300 games. Hill is an Ohio native who was an outfielder, first baseman and running back at Harvard, then rose through baseball’s ranks to become the only African-American currently in charge of a major league team’s baseball operations.
“We complement each other in our strengths,” Hill says. “Our backgrounds are obviously different. Dan has more of a scouting background. I don’t consider myself completely analytical, because I have put on a uniform and played the game. But I try to think everything through.
“We both like good players. That’s the bottom line.”
Marlins president David Samson says it’s fun to watch Hill and Jennings interact.
“It’s like family, right?” Samson says. “They have different talents, and you put them together and you end up having a baseball operations department that can create winning.”
Loria’s tight payroll makes it difficult to win, and he has a reputation as a micromanaging owner widely blamed for constant turnover in the clubhouse and manager’s office. But Hill and Jennings both defend their boss of more than decade, saying that while he indeed is part of the decision-making process, he asks good questions that lead to a sensible consensus.
Jennings says people would be surprised to learn what Loria’s really like — as Jennings was when he first met the Marlins owner in 2002 and interviewed for a job.
“All I ever knew of Jeffrey Loria were things I had read, and it had not been very favorable, right?” Jennings says with a laugh. “Within five minutes, you would have thought we were next-door neighbors. We talked for four-plus hours and it was great. I was going, ‘How can people say these things about this guy, and this is how he comes across?’”
Over the past six years, Jennings says, six teams sought to interview him for GM position, and each time Loria denied permission. But Jennings says his long-term contract and job security with the Marlins tempered his frustration, and now he gets a shot at the job he long wanted.
Jennings’ expertise is in player evaluation and procurement, while Hill takes the lead on contracts and budget matters. But both say their duties will often overlap, and while final decisions rest with Hill, most will be made collectively.
“I use the word ‘we’ a lot, and Mike does, too,” Jennings says. “If we need to include Jeffrey, we will. There’s a lot of discussion, a lot of familiarity and a respect factor. You feel good about making a good decision.”
“We can talk openly about anything,” Hill says. “We know there are no egos. Dan can tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear, and I’ve always felt comfortable doing that for him. There are no secrets, no ulterior motives, and there’s no fear of alienating one another, because we know each other and have been together so long.”
The Marlins have never won a division title, and they haven’t been to the playoffs since their improbable run to the World Series championship in 2003. Their payroll this season will, as usual, rank among the smallest in the majors.
But Hill and Jennings plan to build a consistent winner with pitching and a strong farm system, both areas of strength this year. Limited resources can be overcome, they contend.
“If we don’t have the ability to do something in free agency, we’ll get where we need to go by making a good draft pick or a good trade or finding another way,” Hill says. “We will exhaust every avenue to make sure we’re successful.”
The team that spends the least doesn’t have to lose to the most. Hill and Jennings are firm believers, and working for the Marlins, that’s a requirement.