Adam Conley still figures to be the favorite.
But Jose Urena and Justin Nicolino are making their cases.
And Marlins manager Don Mattingly said the decision on who will man the final slot in the starting pitching rotation likely won’t be made until the final days of spring training.
“You really just look at both guys [Conley and Urena] and [Nicolino] and look at how do you put these guys in the best position and put us in the best position?” Mattingly said.
The Marlins revealed four of their starters Friday, with Edinson Volquez leading off on Opening Day, and Dan Straily, Tom Koehler and Wei-Yin Chen following him in that order.
Conley appeared to be a lock for one of the spots at the start of the spring.
But inconsistency and a 9.35 ERA in three starts raised some concerns.
Conley, 26, might have quelled those a bit after his latest outing on Friday night.
“It’s still not as sharp as I will be, but for me it was a huge improvement,” Conley said.
Conley, who went 8-6 with a 3.85 ERA last season in his first full year in the majors, pitched three scoreless innings on Friday and allowed only three hits with zero walks or strikeouts.
“For me, I’m not typically a guy that thinks too much about what I’m doing on the mound,” Conley said. “But the past month, I was doing a lot of that. I just had things going on that I was thinking about and working on that took away from the competitiveness of it, and the priority of going out there and getting hitters out.”
Conley threw 40 pitches, 23 for strikes, and threw 30 more pitches in a simulated bullpen session afterward.
“I thought he was aggressive and efficient and a lot better,” Mattingly said. “I like that he was on the attack. He wasn’t afraid of his stuff.”
Urena also looked strong again Friday with five strikeouts, zero walks and three hits allowed in four innings. He also escaped a bases-loaded jam with back-to-back strikeouts. Urena’s velocity topped out at 97 mph, and he kept it consistently in the 94-to-96 range.
“We tried to attack the hitters and try to attack the bottom of the zone,” Urena said. “I felt good about all that we did.”
Nicolino started Saturday’s 1-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals and threw five scoreless innings with one walk and three strikeouts on 71 pitches.
“The beginning of the spring was a little shaky, but we were also working some things out,” Nicolino said. “I made some adjustments to my mechanics, and we’re happy with what we’re doing.”
With Jeff Locke not likely to return until late April at the earliest, Urena (5-14, 5.76 career ERA) and Nicolino (8-10, 4.52 career ERA) could find themselves being part of the planned eight-man bullpen going into the season should the Marlins name Conley the fifth starter.
Urena is out of options, so it’s likely the Marlins would choose to keep him in either role in order not to lose his services.
Conley’s track record still could weigh heavily into the Marlins’ ultimate decision.
“It’s hard to come in and see a few outings and try to make a decision based on that,” Mattingly said.
“You’ll base some of it on past history. We’re also looking at all three guys and how they fit into our whole package for the season.”
▪ Locke threw off a mound Saturday for the first time since being shut down with bicep tendinitis. Locke said he threw 15 pitches and felt strong. Mattingly said realistically Locke won’t be ready to pitch until at least late April or early May.
▪ Mattingly said catcher A.J. Ellis caught five innings in a minor-league game and plans for him to catch one of the split-squad games the Marlins will play on Tuesday. Ellis has been out since Feb. 26 with a left hamstring strain.
▪ Sunday: Marlins LHP Chen vs. Cardinals RHP Mike Leake, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.
▪ Monday: Marlins RHP Koehler vs. New York Mets (TBA), 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.