A few Miami Hurricanes gathered outside of their dugout Tuesday and used their cell phones to take pictures of 41-year-old, Hall of Fame-bound right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, who was out shagging balls during batting practice.
Except for Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins played all their marquee position players in their final exhibition tuneup of the spring, providing lifetime thrills for the college kids.
Jose Urena, who started the Marlins’ 7-1 victory over UM at Roger Dean Stadium, didn’t have any Hurricanes fighting to take his photo. But the 23-year-old Dominican right-hander could have a fan club down the road.
He and left-hander Justin Nicolino, the organization’s pitcher of the year in 2014, are the two young arms down on the farm most ready to make the jump to the big leagues if need be. But the Marlins aren’t trying to rush either of them up.
“In previous years he and Nicolino probably would have been in the big leagues already for us,” Marlins president of baseball operations Mike Hill said. “They would have experienced some success in Double A, and we probably would have yanked them to the big leagues.
“But we’ve really tried to change that thought process and be fair to the player, allow them to have the necessary growing pains in the minor leagues so when they do get in the big leagues there are fewer growing pains and they can hit the ground running.”
A year ago, the Marlins were loaded with talented arms at the Double A level: Anthony DeSclafani started Opening Day for the Jacksonville Suns, and Andrew Heaney, the top left-handed pitching prospect in the minors in 2014, was right behind him. Both were among the 13 pitchers who made their way into the Marlins rotation in 2014 after Jose Fernandez was lost for the season in May.
And both struggled.
DeSclafani, who made 21 starts in Double A before his call-up on May 14, was 2-2 with a 6.57 ERA in 13 appearances, including five starts for the Marlins. Heaney, who made 26 starts between Double A, Triple A and the Arizona Fall League (in 2013) before he was called up in June, was 0-3 with a 5.83 ERA in seven appearances, including five starts for the Marlins.
Both are now gone, traded to the Reds and Angels, for second baseman Dee Gordon and pitchers Dan Haren and Mat Latos.
Nicolino, who led the Southern League in wins (14) and ERA (2.85) in 2014 but had just 81 strikeouts, appreciates the value of seasoning before making the jump. He went 3-2 with a 4.96 ERA in nine starts after making the jump to Double A in 2013. In 2014, he found his footing, helping lead the Suns to the league title in 28 starts.
Urena, who went 13-8 with a 3.33 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 25 starts for the Suns, had never pitched above High-A until 2014. He has been with the Marlins since he was 16.
“In a way it’s kind of an honor because they see value in you and they want you to be ready, full-go,” Nicolino said. “For me, I want to be fully ready. I know it’s tough to go up there and stay up there. The most important thing for both me and Jose last year was just being consistent. We went up there and threw a lot of innings. I think it kind of showed there toward the end we were both able to finish strong and do what we have to do up there.”
The next logical step for both pitchers, Hill said, is Triple A New Orleans, where they will face more seasoned players, many of whom have played in the majors.
“In terms of improvement and steps, Justin Nicolino and Jose Urena probably made the biggest strides of any pitchers in our system,” Hill said. “There were questions going into last year as to whether Jose’s secondary pitches would allow him to stay in the rotation, truthfully.
“His slide and his changeup were probably both below-average pitches coming into last year. But he found a changeup grip that was comfortable for him and he found a slider grip for him that really allowed him to throw it with confidence. Once he was able to throw it with confidence, he had a well-above-average fastball that he could attack hitters and had three weapons to get them out.”
In other words, he’s still growing.
“Over the last few years we’ve really made that a focus to create as much depth as we possibly can,” Hill said. “Not just at the major-league level, but at every level so when you are thrown injuries or adversity you’re going to face you can absorb it and not miss a beat.”