In June 2014, the Miami Marlins made 39 personnel moves involving their Triple-A minor-league affiliate, the New Orleans Zephyrs.
When the Marlins began making a flurry of moves this month, mostly between June 8 and 18, Zephyrs manager Andy Haines noticed his own calm.
He had received a hint of what was to come right after the season started April 9, when four key players were called up within a four-day period, including catcher J.T. Realmuto, a top prospect.
“This year, I’m a little bit less shocked at all the roster moves,” said Haines, 38, who is in his second season with the Zephyrs.
Having had success in the Marlins’ lower minor leagues, Haines knew what Triple-A was about before he signed on. But seeing things up close was an eye-opener.
“Last year, I’d be sitting here, and three or four of our players would be moved, and I’d say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” Haines said. “But it’s just what this level is. You just find ways to put the pieces together.”
The Zephyrs exist to develop players so they’ll play at a higher level when they get to the Marlins and to provide support in case of injuries and slumps. But that goes against the grain of traditional managing.
“The toughest challenge I have as a manager is balancing winning and development,” Haines said. “The way I was raised and taught was to believe everything is about the team. So, on a nightly basis, you get tested because you have to do what’s best for a certain player (and not what’s) best for the team.”
If a left-handed reliever struggles against right-handed batters, for instance, the manager would allow him to pitch against a left-hander, then bring in a right-hander to face the right-handed hitter.
“But you might have a lefty who needs to get better against right-handed hitters,” Haines said, “so you leave him in knowing this is best for the player because he needs to learn to do it.”
A clear example came May 23 against the El Paso Chihuahuas at Zephyr Field. Starting pitcher Travis Blackley had only thrown in extended spring training games since Miami signed him April 25. But the Marlins wanted to see him “stretch out” to gauge his progress. He gave up five runs on nine hits in five innings, but Haines wasn’t going to pull him unless he really got shelled.
“And we get calls during games that says, ‘Hey, don’t use these two relievers’ because there’s uncertainty with the big league team,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about the strategy of what a National League game entails. You can study it all you want; until you go through it, managing 144 games in a season is the only thing that’s going to prepare you.”
Accustomed to winning, Haines said he was frustrated when the Zephyrs finished 2014 with a 70-74 record. Omaha manager Brian Poldberg also was in his first season, but the Storm Chasers won the Triple-A World Series. Omaha had gone to the World Series the previous season but lost.
“We were very lucky with injuries with the big-league club, (the Kansas City Royals),” Poldberg said.
But Poldberg said that, although development remains a priority, winning is important.
“The higher you go, the more it’s about winning,” he said. “In Double-A, it’s maybe 50-50 between development and winning. Up here, there’s still a development factor, but you have to get guys ready to go to the major leagues, compete and win, so the winning gets to 70-30.”
That doesn’t appear rampant in Triple-A.
“It’s more about getting players ready for the roles they’ll play in case the big league team calls down,” said Glenallen Hill, manager of the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Colorado Rockies’ top affiliate. “There are very few games that you manage in the traditional sense, at least for us. But I don’t get frustrated. It’s about the players. My ego, from the first day I decided to coach, has been taken out of the equation.”
Triple-A baseball also can make for a different kind of locker room. With the Zephyrs, there were phenoms such as Realmuto and pitcher Justin Nicolino, who came from Double-A Jacksonville, on their way to the big leagues.
Then, there are those such as second baseman Derek Dietrich, shortstop Miguel Rojas and utilityman Reid Brignac, who are former major leaguers hungry to get back. (Dietrich was called up June 12.) There often are others such as Juan Diaz and Austin Wates, who are finding it difficult to get past Triple-A. Others are coming up from Double-A because they’re playing well, and still others, such as first baseman Michael Morse, are coming down from the Marlins because they are slumping or on rehab assignments.
“It’s a different dynamic,” Haines said. “Some guys are just in a different place mentally. Sometimes a teammate goes to the big leagues, and maybe (other players) think they’re more deserving to go. That’s a tough pill to swallow because the major leagues is life-changing. So it’s very difficult to keep them focused on what’s going to help their careers — which is the competition and the team. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them focused.”
Being their own third base coach, which takes Triple-A managers out of the dugout and concentrating on running the team, is another challenge. But Haines said that although things are different in Triple-A, there’s no question it’s preparing him for a job as a major league manager.
For one, Triple-A players are paid more than the managers, just like in the major leagues, and a big part of the job is managing all the personalities and egos, much like at the highest level.
“I think one aspect of the job is, if you can put pieces of the puzzle together and kind of respond to these challenges as a manager, developmentally it’s a very, very good place to learn how to manage a roster and mange people,” Haines said.
Hill, who played in the majors with seven teams, said the biggest thing preparing him to manage at that level is managing players’ confidence.
“You have to keep them in the mindset of controlling what they can control and working on the things on a daily basis that don’t take away from their strengths but it addresses their weaknesses in a very competitive environment,” he said.
After last season with the Zephyrs, Haines guided the Salt River Rafters to the Arizona Fall League title in a league with a stable roster full of top prospects. It was his third in minor league baseball, along with leading Windy City to the independent Frontier League title in 2007, his first as a manager, and Greensboro to the 2011 Atlantic League championship.
The Zephyrs, 34-38 after they opened an eight-game road trip with a win Friday night, may be headed to their second consecutive losing season and sixth in eight years. But several Z’s players have contributed to the Marlins this season. Nicolino, 22, appears on his way to a high-level career, as is Realmuto.
Dan Jennings, who doubles as the Marlins’ general manager and manager, said he knew it would take a little time for Haines to get used to Triple-A.
“It’s all about the quality of people, and then you put them in the capacity and let them grow and evolve,” Jennings said. “He goes out to the Fall League, and the people — the players, the coaches — just love him. For someone who hasn’t played in the major leagues to gain respect as quickly as he has …
“He doesn’t cut corners, there certainly will be no excuses and the guy’s a winner. He certainly knows how to do it right.”