Unable to afford another quality veteran pitcher to augment their rotation, the Marlins at least have some intriguing options internally: two promising young left-handers and a veteran who appears to have righted himself after two disastrous years with the Cubs.
If Jarred Cosart pitches very effectively this spring, as the Marlins hope, he would project as the team’s fourth starter behind Jose Fernandez, Wei-Yin Chen and Tom Koehler.
That would leave right-hander Edwin Jackson and young lefties Adam Conley and Justin Nicolino as the top options for the fifth spot. Two could stick if Cosart struggles, with David Phelps also in the mix.
Jackson, 32, bombed for the Cubs after signing a four-year, $52 million contract before the 2013 season.
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He led the National League with 18 losses in 2013, was third with 15 more losses in 2014 and won only 14 games over those two seasons while allowing 487 baserunners in 316 innings and producing a bloated 5.60 ERA.
But a move to the bullpen rejuvenated Jackson. He pitched well in relief for the Cubs last season (2-1, 3.19) before being released in July, then went 2-2 with a 2.92 ERA for the Braves out of the bullpen. The Marlins signed him at the minimum in January, with the Cubs paying all but $500,000 of the $12 million he is owed.
Despite thriving in the bullpen, “I still look at myself as a starter,” Jackson said. “There’s still something I want to prove to myself, not to anyone else.”
Of his disastrous Cubs experience, Jackson said: “Anything that could happen did happen. I pitched well enough to be in the rotation [last year]. I would pitch once every eight, nine days last year and didn’t complain.”
After allowing opponents to hit .281 and .302 against him in 2013 and 2014, Jackson limited batters to a .218 average last season, including a .167 clip in 24 innings with the Braves to close the season. He attributed his improvement to being “in a better rhythm.”
Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said Jackson’s “stuff hasn’t diminished at all.” The team believes pitching coach Juan Nieves and roving pitching guru Jim Benedict can extract more from him.
If Jackson wins a starting spot, he likely would need to hold off two talented second-year players.
Among the Marlins’ pitching prospects, Conley, 25, was the most impressive last season, finishing 4-1 with a 3.76 ERA, with 59 strikeouts in 67 innings. He allowed no more than three earned runs in any of his final eight starts.
The former second-round pick out of Washington State is 34-21 with a 3.52 ERA in 3 1/2 minor-league seasons.
“I’ve shown I can get major-league hitters out,” he said.
The key for Conley “is my hand speed and fastball arm slot, when batters think it’s a fastball and realize it’s not.”
His fastball averaged 91.2 mph last season, and Conley said he made changes to his delivery to “create more power.”
That’s important, because 66 percent of Conley’s pitches were fastballs last season, compared with 19 percent changeups and 15 percent sliders.
“I look at the radar gun all the time now,” he said. “Jose Fernandez told me to look at the radar gun between pitches.”
He said that helps him determine what he wants to throw next.
Nicolino, conversely, isn’t particularly worried about velocity. His fastball averaged just 88.7 mph last season, and he excels when he’s keeping hitters off balance by changing speeds. He had low strikeout numbers in the minors and just 23 in 74 innings last season.
“Nicolino is never going to be a strikeout guy,” said former Marlins manager and general manager Dan Jennings, who’s now with the Washington Nationals. “He’s going to be a pitch-to-contact guy, a location guy. Conley can strike people out with his slider.”
Nicolino’s overall numbers (5-4, 4.01 ERA in 12 starts) weren’t bad, but he had two poor starts in September, allowing seven runs in one blowout loss and five in another.
“I don’t think we saw the best of Nicolino,” Hill said.
Nicolino said the key for him is throwing his “changeup off my fastball to both sides of the plate and not getting into a pattern. In my [poor] starts, there was more of a pattern.”
▪ Relief pitcher A.J. Ramos said his exhibition debut might be delayed slightly because of a strained right calf that is somewhat limiting him.