It’s easy to pile on the Marlins, whose late-Loria era contention efforts fell flat and left a roster mess. There have been a few debatable decisions under the Derek Jeter regime as well, though it’s only fair to wait before issuing any kind of final judgment on the team’s divestment of several high-quality young position players. Predictably, the team is the worst in the National League by a rather comfortable margin.
There are some silver linings in the area of the rotation, though, and it’s worth shining a light on them. There are some genuinely interesting arms at or near the majors. In the right light, you can even make out the outlines of a pitching core that could form the platform for a contender.
The two biggest pieces were both picked up via trade. Initially, the deal that brought in Caleb Smith (link) was notable mostly because it cost the Fish pop-up prospect Mike King. But Smith was under-the-radar solid in a half-season of MLB rotation work and has trended way up thus far in 2019. Through his first seven starts of the new year, Smith owns a 2.11 ERA with 11.8 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 over 42 2/3 innings. A bit of regression may be in order, but the breakthrough seems to be real. The southpaw is carrying a hefty 16.7% swinging-strike rate through increased usage of his offspeed offerings.
Smith’s showing has overshadowed the promising work of Pablo Lopez, who’s posting 9.2 K/9 against 2.1 BB/9 with a 4.03 ERA through 38 frames in seven starts. There’s lots to like about the contact Lopez is generating with his four-pitch mix. He’s allowing hard contact at a meager 28.8% rate while drawing swings and misses at a sturdy 11.5% clip. Meanwhile, he’s inducing grounders 51.0% of the time and infield flies on 15.6% of the balls put in play against him. No wonder ERA estimators think he’s due for positive regression. Lopez came to the organization as a little-hyped piece in the 2017 David Phelps trade (link).
Indy ball find Trevor Richards already showed off his filthy changeup last year. He’s trending up in the ERA department (4.10 vs. 4.42) but has taken a bit of a dive in his peripherals. Still, he has improved to a strong 13.1% swinging-strike rate. Richards should continue to be a useful back-end starter and will still be shy of arbitration eligibility at the end of the season. Jose Urena isn’t turning in his best work right now, but has turned in two sub-4.00 ERA seasons and is still pumping 96 mph heat. There’s a bit more upside in the powerful right arm of Sandy Alcantara, a key piece of the Marcell Ozuna deal (link), though he’s also yet to fully harness his talent. At 23 years of age, he’s learning on the fly.
That covers the present rotation mix. Only Urena is in arbitration, who is still controllable for two more seasons beyond the present. It’s hardly an elite unit, but it’s got some legitimately interesting and potentially high-value arms.
Waiting in the wings is one of the most intriguing players in the organization. Zac Gallen also came in the Ozuna deal but wasn’t nearly as hyped. The 23-year-old had a solid showing last year in his first full season at Triple-A but has taken things to a new level thus far in 2019. Through 40 1/3 frames over six starts, he’s carrying a 1.12 ERA with 10.7 K/9, 1.1 BB/9, and a 49.4% groundball rate. And Gallen isn’t alone. Elieser Hernandez, a Rule 5 pick who unsurprisingly struggled in the bigs last year, has been humming as well. He’s sporting a 1.16 ERA in 31 innings over his own half-dozen starts, with 12.5 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9. Nick Neidert, who came in the Dee Gordon deal (link), has struggled to open the year but could be a near-term option if he can bounce back. Jordan Yamamoto, Jorge Guzman, and Jordan Holloway are other fairly well-regarded prospects rising through the system and possessing 40-man spots.
The highest-upside arms are still a ways off from the majors, though that likely suits the timeline just fine. Sixto Sanchez, the crown jewel of the J.T. Realmuto trade (link), is widely considered the organization’s top prospect and a potential front-line starter. Many saw that kind of upside from recent first-round draft pick Braxton Garrett before his career was interrupted by Tommy John surgery. He’s showing swing-and-miss stuff right now at the High-A level, though he has a ways to go to reestablish himself. Fellow former first-rounder Trevor Rogers is off to a solid start in his second full professional season.
So, we can see that the Marlins have found a few hidden gems — even if they’ve also failed to hit many immediately obvious home runs with their highest draft picks (ahem, Tyler Kolek) and biggest trade pieces. They’ve also unearthed one of the most interesting relievers in baseball in Nick Anderson.
Silver linings, of course, are all the more visible because they stand out against the darkness surrounding them. In this case, there’s more to the story than the general organizational malaise. The rotation picture itself is interesting not only for what’s there, but for what isn’t.
Even as they were busy gathering up some of the surprising arms listed above, the Marlins parted with a stomach-turning collection of MLB arms. Anthony DeSclafani and Andrew Heaney haven’t been as valuable as their talent level would suggest owing to injuries, but still would be nice assets to hold. Brad Hand was another dearly departed pitcher, though he thrived as a reliever after failing to stick as a starter in Miami.
But it really stings to consider four other recent departures: Luis Castillo (link); Chris Paddack (link); Domingo German (link); Trevor Williams (link). Rather remarkably, all of those former Marlins farmhands rank among the fifteen most valuable starters in all of baseball (by measure of fWAR) in the early going in 2019.