With the second round of cuts made, spring training battles for an Opening Day roster spot are coming down to the wire. Here’s a look at who is primed to start the year in the minors and who is beginning to house hunt in the Miami area.
* Stats in this post reflect those preceding play on 3/23.
One major development that occurred this past week involved starting third baseman Martin Prado. Playing in his fifth game for his home country Venezuela (and hitting .368/.429/.526 while doing so), Prado pulled up lame while running into second base. He was removed from the game and has since been sent back home to Miami to undergo further testing on a gimpy hamstring. The inittal from Don Mattingly who didn’t sound too optimistic when breaking the news is that Prado would undergo an MRI Saturday. Prado’s Marlins’ teammates, trying to voice words of encouragement to an evidently disappointed Captain, didn’t sound too cheerful either. The MRI results were revealed Monday. They show that Prado has a grade 1 strain of his right hammy. He will definitely be out for Opening Day and could be out for an extended period of time. According to Mattingly, there is no timetable for Prado’s return. It leaves the Marlins with a hole at third base and a roster spot a lot more wide open than before. So how do the Fish fill those voids?
Fourth Bench Spot
Got off to a .385/.357/.846 start before suffering an injury of his own when he was hit in the face by a throw to second base. However, the injury proved to be minor. After passing all necessary tests including concussion protocol, Rojas came back no worse for the wear. Now hitting .444/.448/.704 this spring. If Prado is out for an extended period of time, the Marlins will likely platoon Rojas with Derek Dietrich at third base. Though the lefty (and more powerful) Dietrich will get the bulk of the starts at third most days, Rojas will start against lefties and will see an uptick in starts on starters’ days off at second base, shortstop and left field. He could also factor into the equation at first against lefties. If the injury to Prado is lengthy, Rojas’ versatility should spell at least a busy first half for the super utility and is the precursor for a very active season for the 28-year-old. Rojas got into 123 games last year for the Marlins but mostly as a defensive replacement, getting just 194 ABs. Seeing a different pitcher for the first time in 92 of his 194 ABs rather than getting the opportunity to see his opponent’s stuff and time them, Rojas posted a meager .247/.288/.325 with a lowly 5.2 BB%. Although infrequently, when the late inning replacement has seen a pitcher for a second, third and fourth time in his career, he has had success. In those 154 ABs, Rojas has hit .266/.342/.338. So getting in games earlier and staying in games later should work wonders for his slash line.
Has the most experience in the upper minors out of all other candidates and is still hitting this spring, currently slashing .321/.424/.393 in 28 ABs. Strikeouts have always been the main concern for Juengel and continued to be last season in AAA when he K’d at a career high 17.6% rate. However, he helped offset that a bit by walking at a 7.4% rate, the best he’s done since 2013 in low A. With the Zephyrs last year, by way of a neutral .300 BABIP, he posted a .263/.325/.431 slash line, very respectable, servicable and translatable numbers for a MLB bench bat. Even though he is as much a likely candidate to be sent down once Prado is back as he is the favorite to earn the last bench spot out of camp, If Juengel, who plays both left and first in addition to a passable third, can continue to work deeper counts as he did last year and be coached to refrain from pulling off on his swings, the rest of his mechanics, all of which are at least average and include plus power that alotted him 12 homers last year and 17 in AA in 2015, he could eventually become a mainstay on the Marlins’ bench.
UPDATE: A day after this writing, Juengel was cut from spring training and optioned back to AAA. My only guess for his early dismissal is because the Marlins are worried about his career high 17.6% K rate from last season but that’s extremely nitpicky considering Juengel also walked at a 7.5% rate, had a .168 ISO, had a career high .431 SLG and was having a fantastic spring. Perhaps the Marlins just don’t like Juengel’s game. Whatever the reason, he will be a Baby Cake to start 2017.
A Brandon, Mississippi native, he’s shown a country strong power bat this spring, slashing .282/.333/.692 with a team leading five homers. However, it has come at the expense of 12 Ks in 39 ABs. As has been the case with Moore in his MiLB career, a tenure which borders on journeyman status and one in which he has an extremely elevated 23% K rate, this is a major area of concern for him. At age 30 with his stone cast and coming off a year in which he played just 29 games before being cut by the Braves, there’s plenty of doubt as to if Moore can keep this type of hitting up, even in an off-the-bench capacity. He also only has defensive eligibility at first and left field. With one of Dietrich or Rojas being used as a starter every day, the Marlins will probably look to someone a bit easier to get into games for the final bench spot, especially in such a close competition offensively. All of that said though, Moore has definitely turned some heads this year and could get a shot to return to some sort of the form he showed as a 23 and 24-year-old when he hit 31 homers in back-to-back seasons in A+ and AA back in 2010 and 2011. For the short term though, look for Moore to start the year in AAA.
UPDATE: With Juengel being cut, Moore becomes the favorite to make the Opening Day roster. However, he will probably be on a short leesh. Once his bat goes cold which it is almost sure to do, he will probably be sent down.
Matt den Dekker
Shook off a 1-14 slump by going 6 for his last 15 with a two homer game, getting his spring RBI total up to a team leading 12. The way he’s gone from hot to cold at the drop of a hat twice this spring has been the way of things for den Dekker for most of his pro career, most of which he has spent in the minors where he has piled up a .272/.339/.440 slash line over seven seasons. He’s spent portions of four seasons in the majors, coming almost exclusively off the bench and posting a .236/.318/.359 line. den Dekker’s extremely streaky offensive game, his multitude of strikeouts (combined 23% K rate between MiLB and MLB) and the way he can make solid contact when he does barrel up remind me a lot of a Cody Ross light type player. Defensively, den Dekker is pretty gifted and is the area of his game that makes him an above average bench player and late inning replacement. With eligibility at all three outfield spots and time spent at all of them, he has posted a +10 DRS in 786.2 MLB innings. He makes his best reads and covers ground best in right field where he has a +4 DRS and a 3.1 UZR. A poppy doubles first bat and more than solid glove and arm, the Marlins could do much worse than den Dekker in a fourth/fifth outfielder capacity. He will continue to battle Tyler Moore for the final roster spot in the last two weeks of spring training. If he can’t catch Moore offensively, he will begin the year in AAA but will probably see at least some time with the Fish this year, marking off his third of five NL East uniforms worn.
Continues to dazzle this spring, hitting .368/.415/.658 giving him the second best OPS on the team this spring (among those with at least 30 ABs), reaching base in 11 of his 18 appearances and playing solid third base defense. Although fans are clamoring for Anderson to make the team and start at third over a Rojas/Dietrich platoon, the Marlins will do the prudent thing with their best positional prospect. Anderson, who has never played in AAA and has only played 86 games above A ball, will be sent to New Orleans to begin the season. However, if the approach he started to flash last year with the Suns when he vastly improved his contact rates and plate presence shrinking his season K rate from 20.6% in 2015 to 17.1% and improving his walk rate from 7.5% to 10.4% as well as the type of contact he exhibited against some of baseball’s best prospects in the Arizona Fall League this past autumn where he hit .302/.377/.440 for the AFL Championship winning Solar Sox, it will be very hard to hold this kid down for long. With Prado blocking him at third base and his infield arm still quite inaccurate for this level of development (one of his only downfalls to his defensive game which holds great instincts, including precise reads off the bat and a fantastic first step to the ball and a flashy glove), Anderson’s future could be at first base. At 6’3″, 185, he certainly has the build for the position and plays it with the same great range to his right as he does to his left when he’s at third. Wherever he winds up, Anderson’s plus power hitting game by use of a sweet quick stroke, plus bat speed and strong hands is coming to fruition at a very advantageous time. Even though he will start the year in AA, with similar play as he has shown this spring against some of baseball’s best, it shouldn’t take him very long to make his MLB debut. Look for the lefty masher to get his call as early as June in a possible first base platoon with Justin Bour. If the Marlins stay committed to the JB/J.T. Realmuto experiment at first, in the very least, play some sort of role for the Fish by season’s end.
A free agent signee in 2015 after he was released by the Royals with whom he spent just a single season, Sierra has absolutely killed the ball in Jacksonville last year, slashing .336/.414/.519. Despite missing a total of nearly two months with two different injuries, Sierra still slugged nine homers, second on the team and 16 doubles, third most. Playing well above the AA level of competition, he walked nearly just as much as he K’d (44/41 K/BB). His hot bat has continued to show itself this spring as he is hitting .417/.462/.583. That BA and OBP lead the Fish among players with at least 30 AB. A 6’1″ 185 pound righty who favors his pull side but can go to all fields with a beautifully violent jump-out-of-his-shoes type of swing that is balanced by solid mechanics including a stationary head and good step into the ball from a split stance and an accurate front foot timing trigger. On the rare occasion Sierra doesn’t get extra bases out of the box, he is a threat to turn his singles and walks into scoring chances due to plus speed. In his MiLB career, Sierra has stolen 81 bases in 132 chances (61%).
The 28-year-old rounds out his game in the field by exhibiting a downright ridiuclous throwing arm that has allotted him 90 outfield assists, nearly all coming from right field. Sierra’s offensive success both with the bat and with his legs as well as his prowess with the glove and arm translated to the majors extremely well in 2014. As a member of the White Sox bench, Sierra showcased his potential by hitting .276/.311/.417 with three homers, eight doubles and 28 RBI. He also contributed four outfield assists. Because of his injury hampered 2016 season, Sierra will likely begin the year in AAA where he will attempt to keep his strikeout totals in check, a tough task for him so far in his career at the highest level of the minors (22% K rate over four seasons) and in his his short time in the majors (26% K rate in 180 games). However, if he can do so, he will own a pretty complete all-around skill set. Even though the 6’1″, 220 pound specimen is 28, he still has plenty of potential to succeed as a major leaguer. Upon the need for another outfielder and with the aforementioned improvements to his patience, look for Sierra to get that shot with the Marlins shortly.
Cuts: Yefri Perez, J.T. Riddle, Austin Nola
Being called by his former Reds teammate Ramon Cabrera, he had a solid outing a few days ago, tossing five innings of 3-hit, one run ball and striking out six with 32 of his 33 pitches going for strikes. Despite his overall dim spring campaign, none of his competition is outplaying Straily. So unless the Marlins move David Phelps out of the bullpen, it’s time to peruse the probability of him taking this roster spot. In the aforementioned start against Detroit, Cabrera inside-outed Straily’s locations perfectly and worked off his changeup despite solely relying on first pitch fastballs, allowing him to induce weak contact all day against a powerful lineup. Again, Straily’s command wasn’t perfect but he and Cabrera were able to out-think hitters and stay effective. While there is no room for a third catcher on the roster much less one who plays every fifth day thus no room for Cabrera to be Straily’s personal catcher, the Marlins would be wise to have A.J. Ellis, who has a lot more experience calling soft-tossing finesse guys, start whenever Straily takes the hill, at least early in the season. Against righties, this would come at the expense of losing J.T. Realmuto’s bat in the lineup but considering how Straily has looked throwing to Realmuto this spring, it seems like a necessary evil until he and J.T. get more familiar with each other.
Also coming off of a solid four inning start in which he gave up just one earned run on two hits and a walk, Nicolino seems to be regaining the feel and command over his stuff. In his last two outings, he’s gone a combined seven frames giving up just the one previously mentioned run on the one walk and five hits. Thirty of his last 35 pitches have gone for strikes. Despite coming into the spring as the overall darkhorse to win this roster spot especially after a remedial 2016 season which he spent going back and forth between AAA and the Marlins with command issues, he is showing the most confidence in his stuff and is probably Straily’s best and only competition. Consistency has been a huge problem for Nicolino in his career thus far so it wouldn’t be surprising if he went back to not getting the most out of his stuff as we saw last year. However, since my last power rankings, he has been advantageously utilizing his tall frame and gone back to throwing downhill and keeping the ball where he has to keep it, low in the zone and on both sides of the black. The known soft tosser has even shown an uptick in velocity, getting his heat up to as high as 93. It may only be a few spring training starts but at the present moment, Nicolino is performing the best he ever has against major league hitters. While it may not be enough to warrant him a spot in the rotation out of camp, should that continue through the end of his spring campaign, he will at least begin the year in the bullpen and, if Straily struggles, he will be the first in line to take the final rotation spot.
Coming off a 4 IP, 3 H, 4 BB, 4 K effort, his longest and best of four so far this spring. Throughout his career, Urena has had trouble stringing outs together and getting settled in to his starts. That has been the theme for him again this spring and in this game (although it was decent and he limited damage). He allowed a baserunner in each of his four innings and worked into a lot of deep counts. While Urena may still have a slight chance to start as a last resort or on a team with horrendous starting pitching depth (like your 2017 Miami Marlins), his control issues and tendency to overthrow paint him as a future mop-up and middle reliever. As of this moment, Urena is most likely a candidate to start the year back in AAA but could be up sometime this year in that capacity.