Barry Jackson

Here’s the Miami Marlins’ thinking with their open rotation spots

Miami Marlins starting pitcher Adam Conley (61) pitches against the Padres last August. The Marlins want to see his velocity improve.
Miami Marlins starting pitcher Adam Conley (61) pitches against the Padres last August. The Marlins want to see his velocity improve.

Marlins pitchers and catchers report to Jupiter on Wednesday and it’s never a good sign when it’s February and you have no certainty about who will comprise more than half of your pitching rotation. Chatter on the candidates to join Dan Straily and Jose Urena as Marlins’ starters:

▪ Lefty Wei Yin Chen. The Marlins say he’s throwing after pitching in only nine games last season because of elbow problems. But manager Don Mattingly said Wednesday that he is not expected to be ready for opening day.

He was decent when he pitched last season (2-1, 3.82 ERA) and has lost less than a mile from his fastball since he went a combined 27-14, with an impressive 3.44 ERA in 2014 and 2015 for Baltimore before signing a back-loaded five-year, $80 million contract with the Marlins and then breaking down physically.

Besides paying him a $10 million salary in 2018, the Marlins also must pay him $8 million in deferred signing bonus money June 30. They will be ruing that if he’s ineffective or again disabled early this summer. There’s a good chance he will be Miami’s highest-paid player in 2019 (at $20 million) and 2020 ($22 million), and his contract is untradable unless he has a Comeback Player of the Year-type season.

▪ Lefty Adam Conley. His regression from 2016 (8-6, 3.85 ) to 2017 (8-8, 6.14 and a demotion to the minors) was one of the Marlins’ biggest disappointments of 2017, along with the unraveling of Tom Koehler (now with the Dodgers). One Marlins official said Conley tends to overthink and isn’t as receptive to coaching as some Marlins people would like.

Another confounding problem is declining velocity; his average fastball went from 92.1 in 2016 to 89.9 in 2017. He struck out 124 in 133 innings in 2016, just 72 in 102 2/3 last season. And batters hit .283 against him last year.

“Adam you’d just like to see some consistency in his delivery, velocity,” manager Don Mattingly said Saturday. “If velocity is way down, it’s tough for him to have success. It doesn’t have to be 95, but it kind of needs to be in the 90 range.”

▪ Lefty Dillon Peters. Exceptional in three seasons in the minors (2.72 ERA), Peters had a 5.17 ERA in six Marlins starts last season and gave up too many base-runners (49 in 31 innings, including 19 walks). He was great against the woeful Phillies and Braves but had much less success against far better teams (Washington, Milwaukee, Arizona). One Marlins official said he needs to be in better shape.

“Dillon is a guy last year who showed promise for a start or two,” Mattingly said. “Had a good spring training. I think command for him [is an issue] … we’ll see if that’s working itself out.”

• Lefty Jarlin Garcia. The former reliever is being converted to a starter, a role he handled in the minors. He had a 4.73 ERA last season but batters hit just .235 off him. Miami believes there’s upside there.

▪ Right-hander Odrisamer Despaigne. The overall career numbers with San Diego, Baltimore and Miami are unimpressive: 11-22, 4.71 ERA. But five of his six starts for the Marlins last year were quality starts and he limited a potent Washington team to one run in seven innings. Plus, he throws harder than he did in San Diego (fastball up to 92.6).

“Despaigne is another guy we like and feel like he’s multi-roled,” Mattingly said.

▪ Lefty Justin Nicolino. Because he’s out of minor league options, this feels potentially like the end of the line for Nicolino, who was Baseball America’s No. 72 overall prospect when acquired in the November 2012 salary dumping deal with Toronto. With mediocre velocity, he needs to be nearly perfect with location to be effective and he hasn’t been that nearly often enough.

He allowed 86 base-runners in 48 innings and batters hit .324 off him last year. He was slightly better as a reliever (.297 off him in 12 games) than as a starter (.336 in eight games).

“Nico’s a guy, we’ll see what he looks like. We kind of already know,” Mattingly said.

▪ Lefty Caleb Smith. The lefty acquired from the Yankees had terrific minor league numbers: 9-1, 2.41 ERA in 19 games, including 17 starts, in Double A and Triple A, with 97 strikeouts in 98 innings. He pitched 18 2/3 innings with the Yankees, striking out 18 but failing to get out of the fourth inning in either of his starts, allowing four earned runs to Seattle and two to Tampa.

He has a low 90s fastball and his former manager in Double A Trenton, Bobby Mitchell, told Baseball America that opposing players would come up to him at third base and mention that, despite knowing that his change-up was coming, they “still had no chance to hit it.” Because of that change-up, Baseball America’s Jim Callis said he’s “actually more effective against right-handers.”

▪ The kids. All of the pitchers acquired in the Giancarlo Stanton/Marcell Ozuna/Dee Gordon/Christian Yelich trades probably need more minor league seasoning, but the Marlins haven’t ruled out keeping any of the most advanced for their big-league rotation if they impress this spring.

So keep an eye on right-handers Sandy Alcantara (7-5, 4.31 in Double A) and Zach Gallen, the Cardinals’ 2016 third-round pick out of North Carolina who was 4-5 with a 3.79 ERA in Double A last season and 1-1 with a 3.48 ERA in four Triple A starts.

“I’m ready,” Alcantara said. “I’m able to get my fastball in triple digits and control my fastball.”

▪ Long shots. Two Rule 5 draft picks face long odds: Brett Graves (23-21, 5.00 in his career and has never pitched above Double A and allowed batters to hit .289 off him last season) and Elieser Hernandez (4-5, 3.98 in advance A ball last season).

So is right-hander Jacob Turner. The journeyman, entering his second stint with the Marlins, was 2-3, with 5.08 ERA in 18 games for Washington, including two starts, and is the best known of a bunch of non-roster invitee pitchers.

And don’t forget Chris O’Grady, who toiled six years in the minors but was a pleasant surprise after a May call up, pitching seven shutout innings against the Reds to finish 2-1 with a 4.36 ERA in 13 games, including six starts. On a good staff, he would be a long reliever, if even on the team at all.

Related stories from Miami Herald