The Miami Marlins moved a little closer Friday to finalizing the starting pitching rotation that will open the upcoming season.
The club sent seven players to the minors — including starter Adam Conley, who has gone 19-14 with a 4.61 ERA in 56 major-league starts in the past three seasons.
The Marlins optioned Conley and lefty Dillon Peters to Triple-A New Orleans, and sent Jarlin Garcia, a lefty reliever transitioning to be a starter, to Double-A Jacksonville.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly recently announced that Jose Ureña would take the mound on Opening Day on March 29 when Miami takes on the Chicago Cubs, and that Dan Straily would pitch the following night.
The remaining candidates competing for the three spots left figure to be Sandy Alcantara, Odrisamer Despaigne, Jacob Turner, Caleb Smith and Justin Nicolino. Wei-Yin Chen, who is recovering from an elbow issue and won’t be ready for the start of the season, could also earn a spot eventually.
Conley, who became a dependable rotation piece in 2016 going 8-6 with a 3.85 in 25 starts before suffering a hand injury in August of that season, struggled with consistency in 2017, going 8-8 with a 6.14 ERA in 20 starts (22 appearances). Conley’s 6.17 ERA in his starts was the fourth-highest of any of the 125 major league starters last year with at least 100 innings pitched.
“For me, it’s been a good camp for [Conley] because I was truly concerned,” Mattingly said. “He was throwing 86 [mph], 85, 84 and he wasn’t hurt. He’s truly made a huge jump back into the mix because we’re seeing 93, 94 [mph]. I think him getting his body in the right position, using his leverage, getting everything in synch, is working.”
After suffering the injury, Conley showed reduced velocity on his fastball, which dipped to the high-80s in miles per hour as he got deeper into starts.
Conley, 27, has been working this spring to make improvements to his delivery, adding more deception by raising his release point, and tweaking his grip when throwing his fastball and slider. Conley has shown increased velocity again, touching 94-95 mph in spring outings.
The improved results left Conley encouraged despite the fact he will start the season in the minors.
“It’s almost like I’m riding this wave of new information and improvements that I’m excited about,” Conley said. “Obviously, the big part of me wants to pitch in the major leagues, wants to compete against the best players in the world. But there’s a part of me that feels the relief of needing to go do that with so many other things going on.
“If I had a choice you know where I’d send myself. I just look at the back side of that and think this is a great opportunity for me to take all the new information I’ve been given, all the help that I had, everything new going on for me to go ride this wave that I’m on to sharpen and hone those skills, which ultimately leaves me with five starts in the big leagues and absolutely dominate in those starts in September or something then it would all be worth it.”
Peters, who fractured his thumb last April, went 1-2 with a 5.17 ERA in first six major league starts last year. Peters has struggled this spring with a 6.35 ERA in 5 2/3 innings, walking eight batters and striking out nine.
“Dillon just hasn’t been as sharp as he’d like and we know he’s better than this,” Mattingly said. “It just didn’t happen for him this camp.”
The Marlins want Garcia, who pitched 53 1/3 innings in relief last year, to continue building up in the minors for now. Garcia has pitched only four innings in Grapefruit League games this spring.
“We knew that build-up would take a little more time and didn’t need to happen at this level,” Mattingly said. “I think he knew that was part of the plan. Once he let us know he wanted to be a starter we knew this day was coming just because of that.”
Alcantara, the hard-throwing rookie acquired in the Marcell Ozuna trade from the Cardinals, remains a possibility for the rotation if the Marlins feel he’s ready immediately and doesn’t need more seasoning in the minors. Alcantara has a 2.25 ERA in 12 innings entering Friday’s start in Jupiter against his former team.
Turner, who is in his second stint with the organization, is 1-0 with a 2.31 ERA in 11 2/3 innings. Despaigne has pitched 14 1/3 innings and has a 2.51 ERA. Smith, who came over in a trade with the Yankees, has a 2.45 ERA in 11 innings. Nicolino, who could also make the Opening Day roster as a reliever, has made 33 starts in three major-league seasons going 9-12 with a 4.82 ERA.
The Marlins also reassigned talented middle infield prospect Isan Diaz as well as pitchers Chris Mazza, Drew Rucinski and Alex Wimmers to minor league camp.
Saturday: Marlins RHP Jose Ureña vs. Houston Astros RHP Charlie Morton, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.
Sunday: Marlins LHP Caleb Smith vs. New York Yankees RHP Luis Severino, 1:05 p.m., Tampa.