Steve Cishek’s struggles this season have not only cost him the ninth inning, they’ve caused the Marlins to recently explore the idea of signing veteran stopper Rafael Soriano, who did not sign as a free agent this offseason. The Marlins’ interest in the Scott Boras client appears to have been fleeting, as no sooner than a day after they were rumored to be “very much engaged” in talks with Boras, the team is now said to be out of the Soriano market.
Their interest in Soriano, however, underscores the fact that the Marlins may not be content to utilize in-house options in the ninth-inning. A.J. Ramos figures to see the bulk of the closing opportunities for now, with Mike Dunn and perhaps Bryan Morris getting occasional looks as well. However, none of the three comes with significant closing experience in the Majors — Ramos does have 83 minor league saves — and the Marlins entered 2015 gunning for a postseason berth after spending big to extend Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich in addition to bringing in Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, Michael Morse and Ichiro Suzuki this offseason.
With that in mind, it’s worth speculating on a few potential external options that could help Miami patch what could be a ninth-inning hole moving forward. Because speculating on available relievers/relief prospects could be an endless endeavor, I’ll limit the possibilities in this post to those with previous closing experience, though it certainly can’t be ruled out that the Marlins would use Ramos going forward and instead fortify the bridge to the ninth inning with a newly acquired power arm. All that said, a few speculative options…
Francisco Rodriguez/Jonathan Broxton, Brewers: Prior to K-Rod’s two-year deal with the Brewers, the Marlins were the last reported team in the mix for K-Rod, offering him as much as $10MM over a two-year term. Rodriguez landed $13MM to return to a familiar setting in Milwaukee, but things have soured at an unbelievably quick rate at Miller Park. The Brewers have baseball’s second-worst winning percentage, they’ve already dismissed manager Ron Roenicke, and the expectation seems to be that they’ll eventually sell off veteran pieces in an attempt to restock the team with young talent. K-Rod could certainly help them achieve that goal, and we know that the Marlins were interested in him on a two-year deal as recently as three months ago. As for Broxton, he’s earning $9MM and has struggled this season, but he’s notched an elite K/BB ratio and struggled primarily with homers. His 23.1 percent homer-to-flyball ratio figures to regress anyhow, but a move to Marlins Park could accelerate that process.
Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies: Papelbon’s abrasive personality, diminished velocity and fairly significant contract are no secret. However, none of those three seemingly negative factors have stopped the right-hander from delivering some of the best results of any closer over the past two seasons. Papelbon is owed $13MM in 2015 (of which about $10.3MM remains), and he has a vesting option at the same rate for the 2016 season that would almost certainly kick in if the Marlins installed him in the ninth inning. As such, the Phillies would likely need to eat some of the money owed to Papelbon, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. recently expressed a willingness to do so in order to move Cole Hamels, so one would think that the same holds true of Papelbon.
Aroldis Chapman, Reds: The Reds are hanging around in the NL Central for the time being, but they’re without Homer Bailey for the entire season and may soon lose Devin Mesoraco for the majority of 2015 as well. That will make it tough for Cincinnati to remain in the thick of things in what should be a highly competitive NL Central that features three clubs with winning records as it is (the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs). Chapman would be a difficult piece to pry from GM Walt Jocketty and his staff, but he’s earning $8.05MM this season and may see that price soar beyond the $11MM mark in his final trip through arbitration this winter. If the Reds end up rebuilding, Chapman’s electric arm does little good on a rebuilding club.
Joaquin Benoit, Padres: It’d be a bit unconventional for the Padres to trade a dominant setup man while the team is striving for an NL West division title or, at the very least, a Wild Card berth. Nothing about A.J. Preller’s tenure as Padres GM has been considered all that conventional, however, and San Diego is rife with power arms — so much so that they had to begin the season with Kevin Quackenbush in the minor leagues. Benoit has plenty of closing experience and isn’t a long-term piece in San Diego, as he is a free agent at season’s end. Benoit is earning $8MM this season and has a club option for the same rate that comes with a $1.5MM buyout.
Addison Reed, D-Backs: Perhaps replacing one struggling closer with another wouldn’t really do the team any good, but the Marlins could look to buy low on Reed, who blew his second save Wednesday night and has an ERA of 7.20 in this season’s small sample of 10 innings. Homers were Reed’s undoing in 2014, but the 26-year-old has maintained good strikeout and walk rates since transitioning to the National League, and Miami’s spacious park could alleviate some of his issues with the long ball. Earning $4.875MM in 2015, Reed is controlled through the 2017 season.
Jason Grilli/Jim Johnson, Braves: Each member of Atlanta’s primary eighth/ninth-inning duo comes with significant experience as a closer, with Grilli currently occupying the role for manager Fredi Gonzalez despite Johnson’s superior numbers. Johnson’s numbers plummeted after his control evaporated in 2014, but he’s pitching well this season, with improved command and strikeout numbers in addition to his typically elite ground-ball tendencies. He’s on a cheap one-year deal and would be affordable for any club, though Grilli is hardly expensive in his own right. Grilli is on a two-year, $8MM contract with the Braves, and though his ERA is an unsightly 5.23, he’s posted a brilliant 17-to-4 K/BB ratio in 10 1/3 innings. Assuming his .391 BABIP regresses, Grilli should be just fine moving forward.
Neftali Feliz, Rangers: The former top prospect and Rookie of the Year is controlled relatively cheaply through the 2016 season — he’s earning $4.1MM in 2015 — and has pitched well in the early stages of the season. Gone is the fastball that averaged 96-97 mph prior to Tommy John surgery, but Feliz’s 93.7 mph average has been enough to get the job done. His strikeout rate is up from 2014, and his fly-ball tendencies figure to play better in Marlins Park than in Arlington’s Globe Life Park. The Rangers have once again been ravaged by injuries, and if they become sellers this summer, Feliz figures to generate interest.
Tyler Clippard, Athletics: As recently noted on Fangraphs, the A’s have been one of baseball’s unluckiest teams, due largely to bullpen deficiencies. Clippard currently sports an aesthetically pleasing ERA, but his strikeout and walk rates have gone in the wrong direction and suggest trouble could be on the horizon. If he turns it around, however, he could hold some appeal for a team in need of a ninth-inning arm. It may seem counterintuitive for Oakland to deal arguably its most talented reliever, but GM Billy Beane showed a willingness to deal from his Major League assets at the trade deadline in 2014. It’s also far from a guarantee that the A’s can climb out of the early hole they’ve dug; they currently trail the Astros by eight-and-a-half games, and given the number of expiring assets on their roster (Clippard, Scott Kazmir, Ben Zobrist), they may elect to retool this summer if the ship cannot be righted. His $8.3MM salary might be steep for Miami, but Oakland could kick in some money to facilitate the deal.
The Marlins’ farm system ranked 24th in the eyes of ESPN’s Keith Law and 26th in Baseball America’s late-March rankings, so there’s not a ton of elite talent to work with in trades. However, many of the listed options here are either buy-low candidates or some with reasonably high contracts that might limit the potential return for the selling club.
It should also be noted, of course, that Cishek may perform well in lower-leverage settings and eventually reclaim the role. The Marlins, one would think, certainly hope for that to be the case. But Cishek’s velocity is down two miles per hour from the 2014 season and nearly three miles per hour from its peak. He’s also walked eight hitters in 11 1/3 innings this season after previously exhibiting good control in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Perhaps most troubling of all, his once powerful sinker has plummeted from generating 56-60 percent grounders to just 25 percent in 2015. It should be stressed that we’re looking at a sample 11 innings when examining Cishek’s struggles, but there are unquestionably red flags that may override the oft-used “small sample size” caveat at this point.