Closing Time: The Future Of The 9th Inning In Miami

After flying through the minor league system in just four seasons, posting a 231/110 K/BB and a 3.40 ERA, Steve Cishek took over closing duties for the Marlins on a full time basis in 2012. From then until the end of last season, he was as close to a sure thing as the Fish had ever seen in the ninth inning, converting 88 of his 94 save opportunities. At just 29-years-old entering this season, it appeared as though, after some years of searching, the Marlins had found their long-term go to guy in save situations. However, this season, it has all come crumbling down. With his velocity down and his breaking stuff up, Cishek blew three of his first five opportunities.

The Fish tried to let Cishek work his issues out on his own but after last night’s latest debilitating loss to the Dodgers in which Christian Yelich hit a go-ahead two run homer in the top of the ninth only to have it undone by a walk-off homer given up by their closer, the Marlins have no choice but to take action and remove Cishek from the closing role. For the time being, the Marlins have said they will go with a closer by committee approach with AJ Ramos getting the bulk of the save opportunities. While he has been able to limit long balls in his career, a huge plus for any high leverage situation pitcher, unless he can make a complete turnaround in the amount of walks he gives up per nine innings (5.07), Ramos will come and go as Miami’s closer. There have been rumblings that the Fish are interested in Rafael Soriano but at 35 years old, having entered the All-Star break with an ERA under 1.00 only to end the year with it sitting at just about 7.00, and having not pitched since last September, a month in which he blew two of his four save chances, he is far from a sure thing either.

So, assuming the current trends continue with Cishek, Ramos and Soriano, where else are the Marlins to look for answers when it comes to a door-slammer? And what is the state of the long term answer to their sudden ninth inning woes? Let’s have a look at some options.

Carter CappsCarter Capps
AAA
2015 Stats: 13 IP, 3 ER, 0 HR, 6.9 BB/9, 8.3 K/9

A highly touted third round draft pick by the Seattle Mariners who had a strong first 18 games in his rookie season, Capps came to the Marlins in return for Logan Morrison after he scuffled a bit during the 2013 season when it came to giving up runs. Despite his struggles with the big boys that year in keeping runs off the board, he struck out 66 in 59 innings. After being sent down at the end of the season, it appears as though Capps was able to figure the rest of his game out between the seven games he tossed for the Mariners’ AAA affiliate and the next season’s spring campaign. His 2014 regular season numbers defend that assertion. After giving up just two runs and holding down a 2.83 K/BB over 11 innings with the Zephyrs in 2014, Capps got his first shot in a Marlins’ uniform. He held down a 2.35 FIP and struck out 25 hitters to just five walks, all but assuring himself a spot in the Miami pen this year. But after an unimpressive spring in which he gave up five runs in just 4.2 IP, Capps was sent back to the minors. His slow start to 2015 has continued with the Zs. Though he has done well in the way of limiting earned runs, he has gotten knocked around to the tune of a 5.5 hits per nine innings. Most alarming, Capps’ strikeout numbers are way down and his walk total is high. However, struggling to find a handle on his pitches early on is nothing new for the 24-year-old fireballer. Over his first eight major league games in 2012, Capps posted a 10/6 K/BB only to end that season at the 28/11 mark. Again in 2014, Capps walked six in his first seven games only to end the season at a total of 14 free passes over 27 games at different levels, including the 17 games he spent in the majors. If these two seasons are any indication, Capps, now at 13 IP, is at the mark where he usually turns it on. When he is on, Capps is nearly unhittable and has a perfect closer’s makeup. With a fastball sitting consistently at 95 miles per hour and often reaching triple digits and an above-average out pitch slider in the mid-80s, he hides the ball very well and is the physical embodiment of a fan cranked up to the highest setting. While he may be a bit of a risk, he is a much more worth-while risk than the likes of AJ Ramos and Rafael Soriano. If the Fish are willing to take chances like that, they should have no problem giving Capps a look.

Nick WittgrenNick Wittgren
AAA
2015 Stats: 13.2 IP, 3 ER, 2 HR, 1.9 BB/9, 7.6 K/9

Wittgren is a sizeable 6’3″ 210 pound country grown righty who comes from quite the pedigree. After attending high school in Louisianna, Wittgren went to Purdue where all he managed to do was strike out 94 batters to just 22 walks, save 22 games, give up just two homers, and post a collective 2.54 ERA over his first two college years. At that point, the Marlins had seen enough to take Wittgren from the Boilermakers at the end of just his junior season. Wittgren has rewarded the Marlins’ confidence in his ability by flying through the minor league system in just two seasons. A three pitch pitcher, Wittgren has used a low 90s fastball, a good moving low 80’s curve and a a good riding low 80’s changeup to stifle opposing hitters to the tune of a 1.061 WHIP and a 5.94 K/BB ratio. Last season in 66 AA innings, Wittgren converted 20 of his 25 save opportunities successfully while holding down a 4.00 K/BB. On the early season this year, Wittgren has struck out 15 and walked just two. While he has given up two long balls in his 12 IP, that can be attributed to the 23-year-old’s nerves at the highest level he has ever pitched at. This is the immediate future of the closer role for the Marlins beginning preferably at the beginning of next season once Wittgren has a year of AAA experience under his belt. However, circumstances may call for Wittgren to begin his major league career sooner than that. Stay tuned.

Juancito MartinezJuanctio Martinez
A+
2015 Stats: 17.1 IP, 3 ER, 0 HR, 3.1 BB/9, 11.4 K/9

A one time outfielder who never offered much in the way of offensive production, Martinez made the move to the mound at the end of the 2013 season. Tossing the ball for the first time for short season Batavia, Martinez literally came out of nowhere and just started firing pure heat. Using the same arm that alowed him to collect 18 outfield assists over his first six seasons, the 6’1″ 170 pound righty held down a 2.39 FIP, a 3.00 K/BB, and saved six games over his first 28.2 IP. His 33 strikeouts were good enough for sixth on last season’s Muckdogs squad even though he tossed at least 11 innings less than all of those ahead of him. His 1.19 WHIP ranked him tenth in the entire New York Penn League. This season, Martinez held down a perfect ERA over his first 12 games and 16 innings before finally having an off night his last time out. Despite the off night last Tuesday, Martinez still holds down a 2.07 FIP and a 22.5 K/BB. His 0.98 WHIP ranks him amongst the Florida State League’s best hurlers. The control Martinez possesses for a guy with under 40 innings of work under his belt that nearly touches triple digits on a regular basis is nothing short of remarkable. Should Martinez continue on his current pace, there is no reason why he shouldn’t get a look at making his first major league squad in two year’s time. For a guy who seemed to be nothing more than a late-inning defensive replacement (if even that) just a year and a half ago, the Marlins have to be thrilled to have brought Martinez’s pitching skill out from under the shroud of mediocrity. Remember this name because should he stick with the Marlins, you will be hearing it come up a lot in the future.

Andre RienzoAndre Rienzo
AAA
2015 Stats: 33.2 IP, 11 ER, 3 HR, 2.9 BB/9, 8.6 K/9

Rienzo, a South American export, is a 6’3″ 190 pound righty whose major league career got off to a bit of a premature start. Despite only managing to hold down a 4.06 ERA over 46.2 IP in 2013 and having an ill-tasting cup of coffee to end that year in the majors, depth problems caused the White Sox to start Rienzo’s clock early and make him part of their 2014 rotation. The 25-year-old received a predictable rude welcome to the majors that season, starting 11 games and getting lit up to the tune of a .275/.356/.463 line against. After being sent back to the minors at the end of 2014, the Marlins targeted Rienzo as a low-risk option and swung a trade with the White Sox for aging reliever Dan Jennings. Since putting on a Marlins uniform, Rienzo has been tossing some of the best baseball of his career so far this season at the back end of the Zephyrs’ rotation. He has pitched into the fifth inning in all of his starts and has only given up more than three runs once. Relying more heavily on generating contact rather than Ks, Rienzo is using his breaking pitches a lot more early in counts rather than trying to ramp up his average four seam fastball. It has worked wonders for his game. While inducing 37 ground outs and 53 flyouts through his first 33 innings, Rienzo has held down an ERA under 3. His minuscule line drive rate would suggest that Rienzo has his pitches moving and moving well. Despite all of Rienzo’s improvements this season though, it is hard to imagine a guy with a very average low-90’s fastball without much command has much of a future as a starter. However, should this version of Rienzo continue to show itself, what he can be is a decent late inning reliever. The fact that Rienzo can induce contact and with it a pluthera of groundballs and flyballs would probably best suit his usefulness for roles in which he inherits runners and gets important inning-ending outs. However, this season, Rienzo has made some good strides in pitching from the windup and is generating enough whiffs with his good offspeed stuff to warrant a look in either the setup or closing roles where his offspeed repertoire would be a good change of pace. It is for that reason that he makes our list of possible candidates.

Sean DonatelloSean Donatello
AA
2015 Stats: 14.2 IP, 5 ER, 2 HR, 2.45 BB/9, 9.20 K/9

A fourth year pro drafted by the Marlins out of Connecticut where he posted an undefeated 20-0 record by giving up just 19 earned runs over 150 innings pitched, Donatello took his first shot at closing games in 2014 and fared pretty well. Though he gave up a heightened amount of hits (10.9 H/9), Donatello limited the amount of runs he allowed to cross, holding his total season FIP under 3. Despite having to deal with the rigors of jumping a level late in the season from A to A+, Donatello’s control as well as his whiff rate stuck with him. On the year, he struck out 64 and walked just 10 (6.4 K/BB). Keeping the ball down, he allowed less than one home run per nine innings (0.8). In other words, at 23, despite allowing a bit too much contact, Donatello was everything you can hope for in young closer material. Fast forward to this year. After making another jump, this time to AA Jacksonville, it seems as though Donatello has figured out how to miss bats at a much higher rate. Through his first 15 innings, he has converted 9/10 save opportunities, best in the Southern League, while holding down a 1.02 WHIP. The most encouraging stat Donatello is holding on to is his H/9 which is sitting at 7.39, the best he has ever posted in his major league career. Using a solid four pitch repertoire including a fastball topping out in the mid 90s (up a few MPH from the low-90s stuff he was tossing in college), a hard running 85 mile per hour slider, an effective changeup which sits at 82, and mixing in a slurvy 78 mile per hour curveballl, Donatello’s stuff is very well rounded and only getting better. In Donatello and Wittgren, the Marlins have two former teammates who may find themselves battling it out for the closing job come 2016.

Luis CastilloLuis Castillo
A
2015 Stats: 16.1 IP, 7 ER, 1 HR, 2.20 BB/9, 9.92 K/9

No, not that Luis Castillo. But this guy’s future may be as bright as that guy’s was when he was 22. A Dominican import, the sizeable 6’2″, 170 pound Castillo came to the Marlins this offseason from the Giants in return for Casey McGehee. Pitching in the same league he is pitching in this season, the Sally League, Castillo tossed 58.2 innings for the Giants’ single A affiliate, converted 10 of 12 save ops, and posted a 2.64 K/BB. The stats have started out in similar fashion this season with the Grasshoppers. In 16.1 IP, he has struck out 18 to just 4 walks and converted three save opportunities. But, understandably so for his age and current career placement, Castillo is a work in progress. Right now, even though both of them are very good pitches (a high 90s fastball and a good mix of speeds changeup), Castillo needs to work on staying more closed when delivering and trying not to overthrow. It would also be nice to see him develop a third pitch. The good news is there is plenty of time for Castillo, just 22, to work on all three of those things. Right now, he is a very interesting looking prospect who, with proper development, could possibly turn in to a type-A relief pitching prospect. Considering what the Marlins gave up for him, there’s reason to be excited here.

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