There was a bit of offseason speculation about the possibility of the Marlins trading right-hander Pablo López in an attempt to balance the roster. Miami had a surplus of starting pitching but a lackluster offense, and multiple reports indicated they could deal from their rotation to address the lineup.
That didn’t really wind up transpiring, aside from Miami including depth arm Zach Thompson in the deal that brought back Jacob Stallings from the Pirates. Otherwise, the Fish signed Sandy Alcantara to a long-term extension and held onto López, Elieser Hernández and their collection of highly-touted younger arms. Perhaps general manager Kim Ng and her staff wish they’d more aggressively shopped Hernández given the magnitude of his struggles thus far, but holding onto López certainly looks to have been the right call.
The Venezuelan-born righty has quietly been one of the sport’s better arms for the past few years. López was an unspectacular back-of-the-rotation starter for his first two seasons, but he elevated his game during the shortened 2020 campaign. López posted a 3.61 ERA while striking out batters at a solid rate for the first time, a promising 11-start showing he’d hope to replicate or improve upon over a full schedule. He was well on his way to doing so last season, pitching to a 3.03 ERA with an above-average 27.1% strikeout percentage and an excellent 6.1% walk rate in 101 frames through July.
Unfortunately, López suffered a right rotator cuff strain around the All-Star Break. That injury cost him virtually the rest of the season, as he only returned for a 1 2/3 inning appearance during the final weekend of the year — long after the Marlins had been eliminated from postseason contention.
Perhaps the shoulder issue complicated whatever efforts Miami might’ve made to deal him over the winter. Potential acquiring teams may not have valued him as highly as they’d had a few months before because of the health uncertainty. Maybe Ng and her staff never would’ve seriously entertained dealing López anyways, viewing him as the kind of rotation building block that could get the club back to contention. Whatever the case, López has picked up right where he’d left off pre-surgery, putting him on track to earn his first career All-Star nod.
Across 11 starts, the 26-year-old has a 2.18 ERA while averaging six innings per appearance. That’s the 10th-lowest ERA among 87 pitchers with 50+ innings entering Friday, and he finds himself in the top 30 in both strikeout/walk rate differential (19th at 19.5 percentage points) and ground-ball rate (26th at 46.8%). López has induced swinging strikes on 13.7% of his offerings, the highest rate of his career and the #11 mark league-wide. He’s freezing hitters for a fair number of called strikes, and batters are making less contact than ever when they have swung.
López has seen velocity drops on both his fastball and cutter relative to last season, perhaps a moderate concern given the shoulder issue. He’s averaging 92.8 MPH on his four-seam, a middling number that’s down a tick from the 94.1 MPH average he’d owned before last year’s surgery. His cutter is down three MPH, although that could be a deliberate alteration to generate more two-plane movement. Whether intentional or not, the slower cutter has been a better swing-and-miss pitch than last season’s harder but shorter version.
More than anything, however, the changeup is the key to López’s success. That pitch has continued to thrive. He’s always had a plus offspeed offering, but he’s using it more and with greater success than ever. López is throwing his changeup a career-high 37.5% of the time, a virtual equal rate to his four-seam fastball usage. Among starters, only Tyler Anderson and Shane McClanahan has gotten hitters to swing through the pitch more often, per Statcast. The changeup has continued to be an elite weapon even as López has more frequently featured it in his arsenal.
As he’s doubled down on his 2021 success, the 6’4″ hurler will be of plenty of interest to pitching-needy contenders in advance of the August 2 trade deadline. Nothing forces the Marlins to seriously consider offers, of course, and Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported yesterday they currently “have no plans” to trade López.
That’s no surprise, as Miami sits only four and a half games out of the final Wild Card spot in the National League. They’ve started just 25-30 and would have to climb four teams to get into playoff position, but they’ve also outscored opponents by 21 runs on the year. Winning eight of nine games over the last-place Nationals certainly helps, but the Fish entered 2022 intending to compete and could point to their run differential to argue they’re better than their record indicates. Regardless, they’re close enough to the Wild Card race it’d be more eye-opening if they were planning to move López at the moment.
If the team struggles over the next six weeks, perhaps they’d reconsider that course of action, but there’s no pressing contractual urgency to make a deal. López is playing on a modest $2.45MM salary, and he’s controllable via arbitration through 2024. The asking price on two and a half years of cheap control for a starter of this caliber would be astronomical if the Fish were to make him available at all.
That won’t stop other clubs from inquiring if Miami fades in the standings, and one could argue the plethora of young arms on the horizon and the injury risk associated with any pitcher should lead Ng and her staff to be genuinely open to offers. It isn’t hard to find recent examples — the Tigers with Matthew Boyd, the Orioles with John Means, etc. — of teams holding firm to high asking prices on controllable starters, only to see those pitchers lose much of their trade value to injury or performance regression. The Marlins would no doubt prefer to have López taking the hill for meaningful games in Miami than see him don another uniform, though, and Heyman’s report makes it seem even likelier he’ll remain in South Florida for the foreseeable future.