Marlins pitching prospect Tyler Kolek’s first full season in the minors fell short of his lofty expectations.
But the Marlins feel Kolek, who is often compared to former team ace and fellow Texas native Josh Beckett, has the time to develop into a major contributor in their future starting rotation.
“He’s a tremendous young talent and we’re excited for what the year holds for him,” Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said. “He’s a physically gifted young man and he understands now what pro ball is all about and what he needs to do to lock in and be successful.”
As minor-league camp opened last week, Kolek, 20, began the process of restoring the faith that he was worthy of being the No. 2 overall selection in the 2014 draft.
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Kolek’s most enticing trait for scouts while at Shepherd (Texas) High School was his lively fastball that once clocked as high as 102 mph. But the 6-5, 260-pound right-hander went 4-10 with a 4.56 ERA in 108 2/3 innings (25 starts) for Single A Greensboro last year.
Walks were also a major issue.
Kolek averaged 5.05 walks per nine innings and only 6.71 strikeouts, according to FanGraphs. The prior season in rookie ball, Kolek pitched 22 innings and went 0-3 with a 6.95 runs allowed average, a 4.50 ERA, 13 walks and only 18 strikeouts.
“I feel like my fastball is getting to where it needs to be,” Kolek said. “It’s just about making adjustments learning from it. I got in trouble a little bit with not getting fastballs down in the zone and not getting ahead of batters.”
In Beckett’s first year in the minors at age 20, he went 2-3 with a 2.12 ERA, 61 strikeouts and only 15 walks with a 1.01 WHIP and allowed only 14 runs in 59 1/3 innings. Beckett made his major-league debut the following season and eventually became the Marlins’ ace on their 2003 World Series championship team.
Kolek is the Marlins’ top-rated prospect, although they don’t have any listed among baseball’s top 100 by Baseball America or MLB.com.
Some experts predicted the Marlins would choose Cuban-born lefty Carlos Rodon (9-6 as a rookie last year with a 3.75 ERA in 23 starts and 139 1/3 innings pitched), who was taken third after Kolek by the White Sox and already started last season in the majors — a move that in theory could have provided them with one more assured starter in the rotation going into this season.
“You don’t want to say that Year 2 is crucial, but he can either make last year easily forgotten or he can confirm that last year is exactly what it was,” said J.J. Cooper, a managing editor for Baseball America. “He’s still young, but if you’re the Marlins, after two full seasons, you really need to see a step forward this year.”
Pitchers drafted out of high school as high as Kolek prior to 2014 have had little to no success since the Marlins took Beckett with the No. 2 pick in 1999. Since that time, no high school pitcher taken in the top 5 has made more than a brief appearance in the majors, due to either injuries or not living up to potential. High school pitchers taken in the top 10 that have panned out have been rare as well — Zack Greinke (No. 6 overall in 2002), Clayton Kershaw (No. 7 in 2006) and Zack Wheeler (No. 6 overall in 2009).
Most scouts’ appraisal of Kolek according to Cooper is that he can throw the breaking ball and the slider, which will likely develop into his strikeout pitch, but didn’t show consistency with either.
“I thought he had a really positive year in the minors last year although the numbers don’t reflect the progress that he made,” Hill said. “Like with any young pitcher, I think he was trying to do too much. It’s natural. Guys feel like they have to do more and get [to the majors] faster. They don’t realize it’s a process and that we want to get a foundation established.”
The Marlins’ recently-hired pitching guru Jim Benedict is already working with Kolek, who threw a 35-pitch sim game Saturday in Jupiter, on developing his fastball command as well as consistent off-speed and breaking pitches that have not been his strong suit so far.
“[Kolek] fits every profile you’d ever want in a big-league starting pitcher,” Benedict said. “That’s where the development of the changeup comes in. Guys in the draft that come in with power and velocity find out later they have to change speeds, go every fifth day and find out they have to do all these things that they weren’t drafted for. He’s responded to that and really matured in a short period of time.”
Benedict worked with Kolek during a pitcher’s minicamp in January and a prospect camp in February. Hill said Benedict and the team’s new minor-league pitching coordinator, Michael Cather, are providing insight to Kolek on how to make the proper adjustments to the pro level and develop into a long-term winning pitcher.
“Every player has to go through a little bit of adversity,” Hill said. “Everything is in line with him. His delivery is where we want it. His secondary pitches are continuing to improve along with his above-average fastball. I think you’ll see the fruits of all of his hard work begin to show this upcoming season.”
Tuesday: Marlins LHP Justin Nicolino vs. Mets RHP Noah Syndergaard, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.