If there’s one thing to be encouraged about in this Marlins’ rebuilding program, it’s the progress of several of the young starting pitchers, nearly all acquired by trade in the past 15 months.
The Marlins exited the season with at least 10 — and perhaps as many as 15 — legitimate starting pitching candidates for the future. Many of them will compete for 2019 rotation openings behind Jose Urena and potentially lefty Wei Yin Chen, who was the National League’s best pitcher at home and worst on the road and finished 6-12, with a 4.79 ERA in 26 starts.
The Marlins are expected to explore trades for Dan Straily, and it’s no certainty he will be tendered. Still, it’s not out of the question that Straily (5-6, 4.12 ERA in 22 starts) could return and be in the rotation.
Urena (9-12, 3.98 in 31 starts) is arbitration eligible for the first time, and the Marlins won’t rule out a trade if they get a good offer.
A look at the Marlins’ long-term starting pitching possibilities and the team’s assessment of them:
▪ Sandy Alcantara (2-3, 3.44 ERA in six Marlins starts; 6-3, 3.89 at Triple A New Orleans): One of the centerpieces in the Marcell Ozuna trade with St. Louis, Alcantara had mixed results after his call-up but allowed one run and struck out 10 in seven innings on Sunday against the Mets. Unless he badly regresses next spring, he’s a good bet to be in the 2019 rotation.
“He’s got a bigger pitch package than most of our guys,” manager Don Mattingly said. “He’s got a four seam, a two seam. He’s got a decent breaking ball. His changeup is pretty good. He’s got that body that you know will continue to grow and keep getting stronger. Next year turns into a different animal for him because he’s not a rookie anymore, and he becomes a guy with a little more expectations on his shoulders.”
▪ Pablo Lopez (2-4, 4.14 in 10 starts after posting a 1.44 ERA in 12 minor-league starts): If there were odds on who will be in the Marlins’ rotation in two years, Lopez would be near the top, perhaps behind only Alcantara.
Though Lopez was shut down in early September with a right shoulder strain, he won’t need surgery and Mattingly expects him to be fine for spring training.
“There’s a lot to like about Pablo,” Mattingly said. “His game-to-game mentality, his grasp of all areas of the game. He’s our most advanced young guy in terms of having a real good self-evaluation of himself.”
▪ Left-hander Caleb Smith (5-6, 4.19 in 16, 88 strikeouts in 77 innings): His season ended in late June when he decided to have surgery on a lat sprain, but the Marlins expect him healthy for spring training. Did he do enough to project him to be in the 2019 rotation?
“I think you could put a could be on that,” Mattingly said. “It’s hard to put a probably, like a should be, like he totally dominated and then he got hurt. [With his starts], there were good ones, there were bad ones. But there was enough good there that kind of shows this could be a guy in your rotation to give you quality starts.”
▪ Trevor Richards (4-9, 4.42 in 25 games and 130 strikeouts in 126 innings): His changeup is exceptional, but the belief internally is that he needs to come up with another effective pitch.
“He will have to develop a breaking ball to take it to another level and be more consistent, but there’s been a lot of good,” Mattingly said. “He doesn’t get rattled.”
▪ Jeff Brigham (0-4, 6.06 in four Marlins starts; 5-2, 3.44 in Triple A New Orleans and 4-1, 1.18 at Double A Jacksonville).
“Jeff Brigham is a great story,” said Michael Hill, the Marlins’ president/baseball operations. “Looked a little nervous his first outing here. But we saw a power slider up to 96 mph between Double A and Triple A, and that’s really how he got to the big leagues.”
He’s one of a half dozen or more who could be competing for a back-end-of-the-rotation spot next spring. But the Marlins wish he had pitched better during his September callup.
▪ Zac Gallen (8-9, 3.65, 136 strikeouts in 133 innings at Triple A New Orleans): Acquired with Alcantara and two others in the Ozuna trade, he was hit hard in spring training but pitched decently at Triple A. Should get a chance to compete for a rotation spot in the spring.
▪ Nick Neidert (12-7, 3.24, with 154 strikeouts in 152 innings at Double A Jacksonville). Acquired in the Dee Gordon deal with Seattle, Neidert, 21, “had a tremendous year as one of the youngest players in a Double A rotation,” Hill said.
In fact, he might have had the most encouraging year of all the Marlins’ high-end pitching prospects who didn’t pitch in the majors this season.
▪ Jorge Guzman (0-9, 4.03, with 101 strikeouts and 84 hits and 64 walks in 94 innings at Single A Jupiter). Acquired in the Giancarlo Stanton trade with the Yankees, Guzman didn’t win any of his 21 starts, which is pretty stunning. But Hill said the winless record is misleading.
“In spite of the fact he didn’t get a win this year, the growth he has made with his mechanics and delivery and repeatability are really going to pay dividends because his stuff is off the charts, when you think about his fastball,” Hill said. “His changeup has developed and his slider has turned into an above-average pitch for him as well. It’s a matter of consistency until you see him crash through and have success at this level.”
He could begin next season at Double A. The Marlins still view him as a starter, though some scouts from other teams predict he will be a closer.
▪ Robert Dugger (7-6, 3.79, with 107 strikeouts in 109 innings in Double A Jacksonville): Acquired from Seattle with Neidert and Christopher Torres. He did enough this year to make himself a legitimate prospect. “Had a tremendous season,” Hill said.
▪ Jordan Yamamoto (4-1, 1.55 in seven starts at Single A Jupiter with 47 strikeouts and 26 hits allowed in 40 innings). Perhaps the fourth-best prospect acquired in the Christian Yelich deal with Milwaukee (behind outfielders Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison and infielder Isan Diaz), Yamamoto missed the start of the season with an injury but was very effective when he returned.
One scout said he lacks dominant stuff, but his numbers opened eyes internally. “Jordan finished healthy most importantly and showed a lot of promise,” Hill said.
▪ Left-hander Trevor Rogers (2-7, 5.82 in 17 starts at Single A Greensboro): Rough season for the Marlins’ 2017 first-rounder. He had 86 strikeouts but allowed 85 hits in 72 2/3 innings. Has a lot to prove.
▪ Left-hander Braxton Garrett, the team’s first-round pick (seventh overall) in 2016, didn’t pitch this season after last year’s Tommy John surgery but remains a very strong prospect, health permitting.
There are a bunch of other fringe starting prospects such as Elieser Hernandez (2-7, 5.21), Jarlin Garcia (3-3, 4.91 with Marlins; 2-2, 4.81 at Triple A), lefty Dillon Peters (2-2, 7.16 with Marlins; 6-7, 5.61 in Triple A), Ben Meyer (5-4, 4.24), Merandy Gonzalez (2-1, 5.73 with Marlins; 3-6, 4.32 at Double A).
Incidentally, Tyler Kolek, selected second in the 2014 draft, allowed 11 runs in 15 2/3 innings and has pitched 19 innings over the past three seasons because of Tommy John surgery in 2016 and continued arm problems in the aftermath. He no longer qualifies as a top prospect.
But even with uncertainty about Kolek and Rogers, the starting pitching depth acquired adds up, during the next half decade, to potentially be the most competitive battle the Marlins have had for pitching rotation spots in many years. It also raises the possibility of flipping one or two arms for a bat eventually.
“It should be very exciting [competition] for starting rotation spots,” Hill said. “We always average about 12 starters a year. When you go through that exercise of lining up starting pitching, you are confident there is not a drop off because you got starting pitching depth.”
Keep in mind that the Marlins must pay Chen $20 million and $22 million the next two years and while they assuredly wish they never signed that contract, at least Chen was effective at home this season (1.62 ERA), albeit dreadful on the road (9.27 ERA). That’s the biggest home/road ERA disparity in modern MLB history.
“The biggest thing for him is pitching healthy,” Hill said. “We saw in the past when he was healthy he could give you quality innings. He started the year off slowly but he had a tremendous August and has continued to perform well pitching here. All of that gives him confidence to know he is the pitcher we signed three years ago and can help this team win games.”
▪ Two years after the death of Jose Fernandez, his agent, Scott Boras, spoke to Sirius XM’s Craig Mish about what could have been with the Marlins, saying their core with Fernandez, Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and others resembled the Yankees’ championship core with Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada. Here’s his podcast with Mish.
Here’s part 1 of my series with a look at who the Marlins view as potential starters at every position when they’re ready to be a contender.