Once again, Miami has become the most opportunistic place for a young player to call home. After a busy offseason in which they sold off nearly all of their biggest names (again), the club is in the midst of a spring campaign in which multiple starting and bench positions still needing filling. With just 19 locks for the 25 man roster, of the 53 players remaining in camp, many of them still have a good chance at cracking the Opening Day roster.
The last time the franchise re-branded, the careers of players such as Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Scott Olsen were jump-started. Who will it be this time? Halfway into spring training and after the first round of cuts, favorites have begun to emerge. In this installment of Spring Training Power Rankings, we take a look at those who have made a good first impression upon Mike Hill, Don Mattingly and the rest of the Marlins brass as well as those who in some cases are surprisingly facing an uphill battle.
Final Bench Spot
Off: Eric Campbell, Isan Diaz
Cuts: Johnny Giovatella, Jonathan Rodriguez
Cuts: Monte Harrison
Starting Rotation (2 spots)
|Sandy Alcantara||4 G, 12 IP, 7 H, 4 R (3 ER), 2 HR, 3 BB, 7 K, 2.25 ERA, 0.83 WHIP
Alcantara is the other prime piece in the trade with the Cardinals for Marcell Ozuna. A tall and slender 6’4″, 170 specimen, Alcantara gets the most out of his body, throwing from an extremely high downward plane, hiding the ball well, and sneaking up on hitters with his drop into the zone. He is free and easy in his repeatable delivery generates simple velocity on his heat which usually sits in the 94-95 MPH range but which he can ramp all the way up near triple digits when necessary. Sierra’s second pitch is a sinker that sits on average at 93 but can reach 98. The late arm-side run on it is downright filthy when he is commanding it. However, it is very hittable when he isn’t commanding and it floats over the heart of the plate. Alcantara’s third pitch is an 86-90 MPH change which has a lot of effort to it. He throws it with the same arm speed and action as the fastball allowing him to mask it and mix it in advantageously but he also has the tendency to overthrow it, in which case hitters are able to tip and anticipate the break. The rest of his arsenal, an 82-84 MPH power curve and a 83-87 MPH slider, are not much more than get-me-over mix ins right now and as some scouts have mentioned, it would probably be wise for him to pick one to develop and let the other go.
Early this spring, Alcantara has similar command issues, hitting two batters, walking three and giving up two homers but has been equally impressive when he has been on. At this point for the 22-year-old on a Marlins team without much to lose, the thing that is going to help him the most is innings pitched while being coached professionally. With perfected command and with even more velo possible as his body fills out as well as a perfected arsenal of secondaries, this could be a future ace of the Marlins’ staff.
|Justin Nicolino||3 G, 6 IP, 5 H, 3 R (2 ER), 1 HR, 2 BB, 6 K, 3.00 ERA, 1.17 WHIP
For Florida native Justin Nicolino, his first four years in the Miami organization have been a bit of a see-saw battle. After three dominant years in the minors in his first three years with the club which amounted to a 3.12 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 3.03 K/BB in 427.1 IP, Nicolino’s career as a big leaguer began. All in all, it’s been… well… disappointing. As the command artist has struggled with on-and-off command, he’s been hit to the tune of a .297 BAA, a 4.65 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP. Last year, things hit an all-time low for Nicolino as he battled injury and spent the bulk of his season in AAA. Such adversity affected Nicolino greatly and, as Craig Davis writes, despite being the father of a newborn, he never stopped working even if it meant taping a baseball to his hand in order to improve his grip. He’s also resurrected a fourth pitch slider, a pitch he hasn’t thrown since 2013. He’s used it regularly this spring and it plays well off of his running fastball and further sets up the to-contact slow curve.
Out of options, Nicolino realizes this is his make-it-or-break-it window with the Fish. Currently, he’s doing enough to earn a roster spot and at least a handful of regular season starts, but if he falters at all, there’s a ton of depth behind him and a DFA with his name on it.
|Elieser Hernandez||4 G, 10 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 1 HR, 0 BB, 9 K, 2.70 ERA, 0.80 WHIP
The depth I speak of starts right here. Elisier Hernandez is a Marlins’ Rule 5 draft pick formerly of the Astros and will need to remain on Miami’s 25-man all season long or be returned to Houston. Hernandez is an interesting guy in that he doesn’t have any one single pitch that really stands out. Rather, he has four average offerings that he gets away with due to a good feel for the game and a head for his craft. A master of mixing pitches even though he lacks much of a velo mix (everything sits between 86-92), Hernandez is a to-contact thrower who owns a rising four seamer which generates weak contact and a ton of weak can-of-corn pop outs. He balances that out with a sinking two seamer that garner him routine ground outs and he turns in swings and misses and the frequent K on a nice out-pitch changeup with arm-side fade. A 3.98 ERA (3.52 FIP) via a 10.52 K/9 and 2.98 walk rate in 63 innings in AA last year despite a slightly high .310 BABIP, Hernandez also stranded 73.0% of his runners, proving he has the composure and command structure to get the job done in any situation. At this point, I foresee Hernandez starting the year in the pen and being the first man to get a shot in the rotation in the not-so-unlikely event of a member of the rotation struggling.
Off: Chris O’Grady, Dillon Peters
Cuts: Merandy Gonzalez, Pablo Lopez, James Needy
Projected Opening Day Roster:
LF Derek Dietrich
CF Lewis Brinson
RF Cameron Maybin
3B Martin Prado *
3B Brian Anderson
1B Justin Bour
1B Garrett Cooper
SS J.T. Riddle
2B Starlin Castro
C J.T. Realmuto
C Tomas Telis
UT Miguel Rojas
BN Peter Mooney
BN Isaac Galloway
RP Brad Ziegler
RP Kyle Barraclough
RP Junichi Tazawa
RP Drew Steckenrider
RP Nick Wittgren
RP Brian Ellington
RP Elieser Hernandez
SP Jose Urena
SP Jarlin Garcia
SP Dan Straily
SP Sandy Alcantara
SP Justin Nicolino
* = player will begin season on DL
Christian Yelich got exactly what he wanted: out. At the end of the offseason, Yelich became the last victim (or, if you ask Christian himself, benefactor) of the Marlins’ latest firesale, getting shipped off to Milwaukee for a package of prospects.
Yelich’s relationship with his new bosses started off rocky and quickly deteriorated. After the Giancarlo Stanton trade, Yelich publicly stated that the relationship between he and the team was “irrevocably damaged“. He even threatened to miss a fan-friendly event to which he was contractually obligated. The lay of the land being what it was, there was a very good possibility the Marlins — even though they controlled Yelich until 2023 — were going to be forced to settle for improper value, especially after Yelich, who was expected to compete for last season’s batting title, had a bit of an off year, slashing .282/.369/.439 and posting a 3.9 WAR, down from 5.3 in 2016. Not only did that not happen but Yelich fetched the Marlins a better haul than each of Stanton, Dee Gordon and Marcell Ozuna.
Lewis Brinson – OF
2017: AAA – .331/.400/.562, 13 HR, 39 XBH, 62/32 K/BB, 11 SB
The centerpiece of the return is former Brewers’ top prospect, 2017’s #13 overall prospect and undoubtedly new Marlins’ number one prospect, Lewis Brinson. In being traded to the Fish, Brinson returns to his childhood home where he will play for the team he grew up watching. When he wasn’t at Sun Life Stadium, Brinson spent his days at Coral Springs High School where he quickly made his name well known, hitting .473/.623/.872 in his junior year, numbers which earned him district Player Of The Year honors in 2011. At the time, head coach Frank Bumbales saw in his center fielder what has since become evident to the entire baseball world.
“He leads by example,” Bumbales said. “He gives 100%. He’s a really special kid.”
Brinson continued to lead by example in his senior year, hitting .394/.516/.732 in 91 plate appearances, once again leading the Colts to their third straight district title. He graduated with four school records which still stand today: career runs (92), career RBI (95), doubles in a season (13) and RBI in a game (8).
Talking with Brinson’s former teammates, they echo their coach’s sentiments, saying their center fielder was a leader both on and off the field.
“Even though I only played with him for one year, I can honestly say he was one of the best players I’ve ever played with because he knew how to hit homers but he also knew how to find gaps and get around the bases,” Joseph DeMicco said. “But as good as a hitter that he was, he was even better on defense. With he speed, he could get to anything, no matter where it was hit. Anything. And his arm was explosive. Definitely a five tool type guy. I really think Marlins fans are going to like him.”
Dylan Ebel who has known Brinson since middle school praises him for his positive attitude and what he is capable of bringing to a team’s intangibles.
“I first played with him in 8th grade so to see how far he progressed has really been spectacular,” Ebel said. “He always kept his head down and put the work in to get better each and every day. That type of grind and work ethic rubbed off on others on the team, made people just want to be better, play harder and always doing it with a smile.”
Upon graduating as the 16th best overall player and sixth best center field draft prospect nationally as well as the fifth best overall and third best positionally statewide and garnering first team All-American and All-Region honors in 2012, Brinson forwent a four-year commitment to the University Of Florida when he was selected 29th overall by the Texas Rangers.
“I’ve been a Marlins fan growing up, and I still am, but I’m a bigger Texas Rangers fan now,” Brinson said at the time.
Now, Brinson and his fandom are coming home, just in time for his first full Major League season.
Brinson comes to the Marlins after hitting .287/.354/.502 over 2,134 minor league ABs, including .331/.401/.562 in 300 AAA chances last year before making his Major League debut. Once described by scouts as projectible but very raw, Brinson jumped at least one level in each of his minor league seasons and enters spring training as MLB’s 27th best prospect and as a shoe-in candidate to start for the Marlins in center field.
Standing 6’3″, 170, the Tamarac native used to swing from a straight front leg upright stance which caused him to fall off to his left side, limited his plate coverage and made him succeptible to pitches on the outer half. After a 96/33 K/BB season in 2014, Brinson made the adjustment to his current stance, a much more closed approach in which he stays much farther back in the box, his back foot nearly touching the back of it. Since the adjustment, Brinson’s K rate has fallen from 25% to 18% last year. His swing will still get a bit long on quality pitches on a low and outer black but his new stance has improved his plate vision and extension.
What Brinson is yet to acquire in body mass he makes up for with his superior bat speed which allows him to generate easy power. He will occasionally find the fences but will more frequently hit the gaps and from there, let his speed — grade 60 on the 20-80 scale and alotting him a 4.25 second-to-home-to-first time — go to work for him. Brinson still has some work to do, especially in the swing-and-miss department, in order to realize his full potential but recent production has alotted him to surpass boom-or-bust status and enter elite prospect maturation. Place Brinson’s ceiling at Andrew McCutchen-lite and his floor somewhere around Shane Victorino. This year’s PECOTA rankings favor the latter that assessment. Where McCutchen was a 2.5 WAR player last year (and a career 2.5 WAR player), they predict Brinson to hold a 2.8 WAR this season, highest among rookie outfielders. Needless to say, this hometown hero should be a fun player to watch and should be leaned on heavily by the franchise.
Monte Harrison – OF
2017 (A-A+) – .272/.350/.481, 21 HR, 51 XBH, 139/43 K/BB, 27 SB
The main accompanyment to Brinson is Monte Harrison. While being two levels lower than Brinson, a fellow outfielder, Harrison proved last year that he is also a potential fellow 20-20 threat and quite possibly is a threat for even more power. Playing between A and A+, Harrison slashed .272/.350/.481 with 21 long balls and 51 total XBHs. He also tore it up on the basepaths to the tune of 27 swiped bags. Much more the physical specimen than Brinson, Harrison stands 6’3″, 220. Still, with a career 87-15 SB/CS (85%), 27 of which came this past year, Harrison manages to be quite nimble on his feet. As phsyically imposing yet still athletic as he is, with a career 28.55 K% and 3.08 K/BB, there’s a lot of work to be done in the upper levels of the minors here. With an inconsistent timing trigger, poor pitch recognition and equally poor plate discipline, he needs to improve top down in his approach. While it’s conceded that he will never be a for-average hitter, Harrison has plenty of projectible talent in his raw power and superb bat speed. If he can learn the zone, improve his vision and gain the ability to hit to his opposite side more often, negating the shift and improving plate coverage, there’s realistic potential for Harrison to become a member of the 30/30 club someday.
Harrison translates his power profile at the plate into a power arm in the outfield. He runs good routes via good reads and a good first step to the ball off the bat and he has more than enough speed to cover any outfield position, disallowing bloop hits and holding virtually anything hit in front of him to a single base. While he’s been a center fielder most frequently in his MiLB career, Harrison projects best as a future every day right fielder. For a ceiling comparison, look somwhere between Yasiel Puig and Justin Upton. Needless to say, Monte Harrison will be the man to watch in Jacksonville this season.
Isan Diaz – SS/2B
2017 (A+) – .222/.234/.376, 13 HR, 33 XBH, 121/62 K/BB, 54 RBI
Diaz is a 2017 second round prep draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Springfield, Massachusetts. Diaz moved to the Division I high school to garner more draft attention in his junior season. In his senior year, he did that and more. After a .492/.625/.898 campgaign, he was named Western Massachusetts’ baseball Player of the Year for 2017. Infinitely humble, Diaz gives credence to those closest to him for allowing him to burst onto the national scene that year and take a huge step closer to making his childhood imagery come to life.
“I have to give credit to my supporting cast: my family, my teachers and everyone who helped me. Without them, I wouldn’t have continued to strive to get too where I wanted to get to,” Diaz said. “The constant reminder of making my dream come true and what was in front of me helped a ton.”
After breaking into pro ball as a 17-year-old, Diaz had similar immediate success, charging out of the gate his first three seasons, hitting a combined .291/.377/.515 between the Arizona Fall League and Pioneer League. He then parlayed that into a .264/.359/.469 first full pro season with the Wisconson Timber Rattlers, Milwaukee’s low A affiliate in 2016, his first with the Brewers’ organizaion after he was involved in a trade. These accollades, combined with a total 36 homers and 129 RBI allotted Diaz to climb up to the fifth ranked prospect in the Brewers’ deep system entering 2017, just his age 21 season. That was when Diaz, for the first time in his baseball career, failed to exceed expectations, hitting just .222/.334/.376 with a career hih 26.48 K rate. However, Diaz doesn’t look on last season with feelings of failure. Rather, he chalks it up to a positive part of the maturation process.
“I honestly believe last year was a great learning experience for me, knowing how it feels to have success and how it feels to fail. It’s always fun to succeed but when you fail that’s when you have too still be the same player and still be a great teammate as you were when you were having success,” Diaz said. “I believe I’ll be ready for this season and whatever comes to the table, trying to help the team and be the best teammate I can be both on and off the field.”
You wouldn’t guess it by looking at his 5’10”, 185 pound frame but one of Diaz’s best tools is his power capacity. By getting his entire body involved in his swing, showing good repetition in balancing his load and getting his barrel extended, Diaz has a career 3.12 home run percentage and a career 43.02 XBH percentage. According to Diaz, extra bases aren’t at the forefront of his mind when he’s in the box; it’s just something that occurs on its own.
“I believe that the power is something that comes out naturally,” Diaz said. “I don’t ever try to hit home runs; my main focus is always to reach base and hit the ball hard wherever it’s pitched.”
Unfortunately for Diaz, the good power numbers have come at the cost of a lot of K’s. In each of his last two seasons, he’s racked up over 100 strikeouts. This issue stems from a hole in his approach common to hitters like Diaz who thrive when they can get their arms fully extended and struggle when they get jammed and their eyes are taken away: the inability to cover the up-and-in pitch. Though he concedes strikeouts are something he needs to work on, Diaz still plans on being himself at the plate and keeping his game simple.
“I know it’s something I have to try my best bring down, but I’ve learned that by thinking about strikeouts and trying to not strikeout that’s when you strike out more,” Diaz said. “So my approach stays the same, the only difference now is knowing with two strikes I’m still trying to driving the ball.”
Even though he does have some work to do in the K department, the high numbers in that category shouldn’t be indicative of his plate vision. Instead, refer to Diaz’s nearly equally high walk totals and career walk rate of 12.3%. A good pitch identifier with equally good vision and timing, if Diaz can get his K total in check and continue to improve against lefties (he hit .255 and OPSed .734 against same-side pitching last year despite hitting it at just a .245 BA, .696 OPS in 2016, figures which were aided by a .386 BABIP), there will be nothing working against him reaching his 20/20 type ceiling.
Just four years into his professional baseball career, this is the second time Diaz has been involved in a trade and had his offseason interrupted in order to relocate. However, this time, it’s a small price to pay in exchange for him being much, much closer to his east-coast based support system.
“I’m very excited to be a Marlin and I can’t wait to see this team in a few years to come,” Diaz said. “Playing on the same coast is great you know closer to home, closer to family and just excited to be here and excited for all those who came over in trades as well.”
Overall, Diaz is a very sought after commodity — a power first middle infielder who has above average speed and plays at least average defense. While there is some question as to how Diaz is going to perform after suffering a hamate bone fracture that ended his season last year prematurely and while he will have to repeat single A advanced in Jupiter this season, if he comes back 100%, his swing is unaltered and he learns to cover the upper inside half of the plate a bit better or at least lay off of it and continue to improve against same-side pitching, Diaz could reach his ceiling of Dan Uggla — a player of extremes in the K/BB department but also in the power categories and cornerstone starting second baseman (and fellow jersey number 6) — by 2021, his age 23 season. He will be an interesting prospect to follow.
Jordan Yamamoto – RHP
2017 (A+) – 111 IP, 9-4, 2.51 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 113/30 K/BB, 3.77 K/BB, .280 BABIP
The final return piece in the Yelich trade is righty Jordan Yammamoto, a Hawaiian native, the second in Marlins history after Charlie Hough. He was also the second Hawaiian selected by the Brewers in the 2014 MLB Draft. In the first round that year, Milwaukee selected Yamamoto’s island mate and highly touted lefty Kodi Mederios who at the time of his selection, was already drawing comparisons to Madison Bumgarner. However, when the two met in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I baseball tournament, it was the northerner and Honolulu native Yamamoto who shined brighter.
“It was a high-tension game because Kodi is a great pitcher and I was up for the challenge,” says Yamamoto who threw a two-hit complete game shutout. “It was a game that I think I will hold against him as a friendly joke.”
Through the pair’s first three years in professional ball, despite being drafted eleven rounds later than Mederios, the story has been the same: it’s been Yammamoto who has grown up quicker. Where Mederios has mustered a 5.19 ERA, a 1.51 WHIP and a in 324.1 IP, Yamamoto has held down a 4.19 ERA, a 1.33 WHIP and a 3.60 K/BB in his first 329 IP. However, for Yamamoto, his career hasn’t been trying to outdo anybody. Rather, it has been about learning from his squadmates, letting them learn off of him and most importantly, beinh himself.
“When [Mederios and I] got drafted, it became a helping situation and all we did was push each other to be better. We were roommates for many years and we would try to help each other through it all.” Yamamoto said. “It’s all about staying within myself and not overdoing anything. Be the same pitcher. As in the last years and letting my defense back me up because I believe in my teammates that they will have my back through thick and thin.”
After cutting his teeth in rookie ball in 2015, Yammamoto entered his first full pro season with the low A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in 2016. After coming out of the pen in six of his first nine appearances, Yammamoto transitioned to the rotation full time in mid June. Rather than being snakebitten (pun intended) by the increased workload and amount of innings, a common downfall for many young players in their first full season, Yammamoto didn’t seem to be bothered by either factor. In fact, some of his best work was done in his final four starts of the season, three of which were quality starts and amounted to a total of 23 IP, a 0.78 ERA and a 0.57 WHIP. Collectively that year, Yammamoto held opponents to a minuscule .223 BA and .661 OPS by way of the second most Ks in the Midwest League (152) and its best K/BB% (21.8). His ERA wound up at 3.82, 12th best in his league and his WHIP at 1.20, 7th best. All of this occurred while he was working against the league’s second highest BABIP, a very tough-luck .342.
This past year, Yamamoto jumped up to A+. As his BABIP normalized down to .286, his ERA not only shrunk down to what it should have been last year — proven by his 2.53 FIP in 2016 –, he was even slightly better in disallowing runs, as it came to rest at 2.51, lowest in the Carolina League by more than half a point. Once again, Yamamoto relied heavily on the strikeout, fanning 111 (or 25.2% of his opponents) and his excellent control and command as he gave up walks to just 30 (or 6.7% of his hitters). As much as the strikeout has been a key to his success so far, Yamamoto says he doesn’t go into at-bats looking for a strikeout but rather to induce weak contact. However, if he works himself into a favorable count, Yamamoto says it’s strikeout or bust because as has been the theme throughout his pro career this far, he wants to take the chance he’s obtained through hard work and run with it.
“I do not look for strikeouts; I look for contact because my mentality is that hitters will get themselves out 7/10 times. I do not have overpowering stuff so I just pitch to contact and let my defense back me up because they got my back,” Yamamoto said. “But when I get hitter 0-2/1-2 I tell myself that the hitters can’t get a hit because I worked for this count and I will have to make the most of this opportunity.”
Last year, Yamamoto proved that he can successfully limit contact and damage, his a-priori when a hitter steps into the box. Along with a WHIP that stood at 1.09, third lowest in his league, he stranded 79% of the runners he allowed to reach base, another top mark amongst Carolina League hurlers.
Yamamoto’s arsenal consists of a 92-94 MPH fastball that he can ramp up a bit higher when necessary. It is by far the crux of his arsenal and his most frequently used pitch. It shows good run to both sides of the plate, especially to Yamamoto’s glove side where he flashes his best command. Despite limited size, Yamamoto planes dthe pitch well and can get some sink on it. His first breaker is a 85-88 mph power slider which has good late movement and gives hitters fits when he’s spotting it on the outside corner and. He piggybacks it off his fastball well and will throw both pitches in any count, keeping the opposition guessing. His distant third pitch is an 84-86 MPH changeup. The pitch flashes plus at times with late fade low in the zone. However, Yamamoto will need to develop a better feel and his command over the pitch as he gets ready to enter the upper minors.
Even though it seems Yamamoto was thriving in the Milwaukee system, he finds himself as the receiver of a change of scenery, relocating to South Florida, about as far away as he could possibly be from his home in northern Hawaii. Though he admits that some things will be different now, Yamamoto expresses good understanding for the industrial side of the game and that he can only control what he can control. Despite the relocation, Yamamoto says his effort and drive to improve will be the same in a Marlins’ uniform as it was in both his high school and Brewers uniforms.
“Nothing will be easy from here on out but I will do my best to make the most of the opportunity that has been presented to me,” Yamamoto said. “It is a great place for me. It is a business and like any other jobs, the boss will do what he/she thinks is best for the company. And if they have the belief in me that I can help this organization, then I will do everything in my power to help this organization.”
Look for Yamamoto to begin 2018 in A+ with the Jupiter Hammerheads and possibly be a quick promotee to AA Jacksonville.
Despite the situation with Yelich going bad to worse to getting to the point where they were insufferable from Yelich’s perspective, a fact which he wasn’t afraid to point out to the media, Mike Hill, Derek Jeter and the Marlins surface from the debacle not only getting all they could out of Yelich (especially after a down year statistically), they got an even better return out of him than they got out of the Stanton and Ozuna trades. For coming away with a surefire fan-favorite MLB ready five tool center fielder, a not-too-distant-future 30/30 professional threat, a powerful middle infielder and a ceiling 3-5 starter, this trade passes the grade with flying colors.
Two weeks ago, Derek Jeter and the new Marlins regime began the rebuilding process by trading second baseman Dee Gordon, the final four years of his five year, $50,000,000 contract and international bonus pool cash to the Mariners for three minor leaguers.
Before we look at the pieces coming back to the Marlins, I’d like to pay tribute to one of the most exciting and likable players to ever pull on a Marlins’ jersey. A maximum effort player in every at bat and every inning, Dee leaves the Marlins as the franchise’s second best for-average hitter (.309), its fifth best triples hitter (23), its fourth best stolen base man (148) and eighth best defensive WAR player (2.7). He was also center stage for one of the Marlins’ most magical, storybook moments. On September 26, 2016, the game after Jose Fernandez‘s untimely passing, the left-handed hitting Gordon, wearing Jose’s helmet, stepped into the box right-handed and took the first pitch of the game as tribute to his friend. On the next pitch, this happened.
It is a moment that will live on forever, not only in Marlins lore but in the spirit of baseball, teammateship and the bonds of botherhood it brings forever. For that memory and the many others he brought the Fish, Dee Gordon will forever be enshrined in the minds of Marlins fans everywhere. And we are all grateful to him for that.
Now on to the return, three young men who hope to one day make their own legacy in a Marlins’ uniform.
RHP Nick Neidert
2017 (A+-AA) – 127.2 IP, 3.45 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 122/22 K/BB
The centerpiece of the return, the Mariners’ 2015 second rounder spent most of 2017 in A+ where he racked up 10 wins via a 2.76 ERA and 22.1 K/BB%, all tops in the California League amongst pitchers who tossed at least 100 innings. At the end of the year, he got his feet wet in AA which is where he should begin his Marlins career. Despite limited 6’1″, 200 size, Neidert creates advantageous deception by hiding the ball behind his plant leg and following through to the plate lightning quick. The delivery is extremely fluid, smooth and repeatable which should allow Neidert to continue to work deep into starts.
The 21-year-old has four usable pitches, all of which are either already Major League quality or show similar potential. His heat sits around 90-93 but he can ramp it up to 95 at will. Formerly a straight and narrow offering, Neidert is beginning to plane the pitch, giving it better movement and creating a fifth pitch sink piece, a great commodity for the 3/4 release point control artist he looks to be blossoming into. This past season, improved arm speed allowed Neidert’s 84-87 MPH changeup to move past his 72-76 mph curve as his best offspeed pitch but both offerings have plus-plus potential and give him a nice 20+ mph velo mix. While the 9.4 K/9% Neidert posted in A+ last year should temper a bit when he gets to the upper minors and beyond, his deep arsenal, high arm slot, and pinpoint control give him a great chance to develop into a ceiling 2-3 rotational starter by as early as 2019. Neidert should easily be ranked among the Marlins’ top 10 prospects this coming season.
RHP Robert Dugger
2017 (A-A+) – 117.2 IP, 2.75 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 116/32 K/BB
Dugger is a 22-year-old righty who began his pro career at Cisco Junior College where he was teammates for the first time with Marlins’ draftee James Nelson. He spent two years at Cisco, throwing 133.1 IP and producing a 4.86 ERA. While those numbers don’t fly off the page, he did hold down good control numbers, posting an overall 2.32 K/BB, including a 3.06 marker in his sophomore season. Those figures punched Dugger’s ticket to Texas Tech for 2016. There, against much stronger Big 12 competition, Dugger pitched in relief but also pitched much truer to his potential, holding down a 2.67 ERA over 60.2 innings. The good control persisted as he posted a 54/23 K/BB.
Upon being drafted by the Mariners in the 18th round, Dugger bounced around from rookie ball to A ball to AAA to end his year but most of his time was spent with the Everett AquaSox. There, he made six starts and threw 26.1 IP to the tune of a 5.47 ERA as he clearly went through a stark adjustment process, going from throwing 70 JuCo innings a year previous to throwing the last 38 out of a total of 99 innings against professional hitters who were on average nearly two years his elder. This past season, the Mariners returned Dugger to single A and transitioned him to the bullpen in order to reduce strain on his arm and allow him to work on pitching around the plate rather than living over it. His arsenal features a low-90’s fastball, a high-80’s changeup and a mid-70’s curve. He has a good feel for all three pitches and controls them well, though the release point on the curve is a bit inconsistent at the moment but again, he needs to develop better command if he is to make it as a starter. His biggest hinderance lies in his tendency to fall off to his glove side on the follow-through of his windup delivery. Dugger is much more effective out of the stretch where after a high leg kick, he is extremely quick to the plate. While there is still time for the bespectacled 22-year-old to work on becoming a corner painting Rembrant-style to-contact back end starter, the more likely scenario is that he is converted to a full-time reliever.
SS Christopher Torres
2017 (ROK-A) – .238/.329/.446, 69/28 K/BB, 22 XBH, 14 SB
Torres is a 19-year-old infielder out of the Dominican that had quite the interesting start to his professional career stateside. Then 16, Torres came to America with a deal in place from the New York Yankees for seven figures. However, due to severe weight gain, New York apparently backed out of the deal. The Yankees deny they ever had a deal in place with Torres. Whatever the case, Torres eventually agreed to a deal with the Mariners worth much less, $375K. Since then, Torres spent two seasons in rookie ball posting a .253/.374/.358 (with most of his success coming in the Dominican Summer League back home) before playing in short season A last year where he slashed .238/.326/.435 and placed second in the Northwest League in triples (6) and seventh in runs (44). He was also 13/16 in stolen base attempts. Clearly, Torres’ most advanced skill is his raw speed and good instincts on the bases but he will need to work at making better decisions with the bat (64/25 K/BB last year) if he is to make it as the tablesetter he projects to be. Despite weighing in at just 5’11”, 170, the switch-hitting Torres will show surprising pop when he does barrell up.
Torres earned high praise for his defensive abilities headed into the international draft. He did suffer an arm injury in his rookie season in the DSL, a contributing factor to his 34 errors in his last 88 games. Still, there is believed to be plenty of room for growth.
Combine Torres’ quick feet with a good first step towards the ball off the bat in the field, his line drive contact capabilities and the ability to turn anything that drops into extra bases, and — though it will take some time — there is five-tool potential here. Torres should slot in somewhere in the Marlins’ top 15 prospects this season.
From the outset, it looks like just another salary dump for the Marlins who rid themselves of 2015’s NL batting title winner, a perennial 50+ stolen base guy and a lockdown fielder up the middle. And while that clearly was Jeter’s goal, Miami did get back three quality pieces, one of which is a 3-5 slot starter that is but a year — if that — away from his MLB debut and one of which could develop into a cornerstone shortstop. Throw in Dugger who’s future is unknown at this point but will, barring injury, undoubtedly include MLB service time and this is an equitable return.
Mark Prior, Jason Marquis, Jayson Nix, Brian Jordan. These names make up an esteemed class of MLB draftees who have made a profound impact on the game after they were selected with the last pick of the first round of their respective drafts. After being drafted in that same slot last season, outfielder Brian Miller took a huge leap towards joining that group.
Reading up on Brian Miller’s background you might learn that after going undrafted he made the North Carolina Tarheels as a true walk on. However, as Miller tells us, it wasn’t exactly like that.
“It was actually a little different than a typical walk on situation. I ended up doing a workout for one of the assistant coaches at Carolina in the early summer, then they offered me,” Miller explained. “They added me to their class as a late addition because they were going to lose a lot of high school commits to the MLB draft. So I was technically a preferred walk on. I didn’t have to do a tryout during the year or any of that stuff to “make” the team.”
Despite not having to go through a formal try out though, Miller still had to prove himself worthy of cracking one of the nation’s best baseball programs. That would happen a little later that summer when he was amongst nearly 50 players trying to crack a 25-man roster.
“We had like 44 guys on the team in the fall, and had to cut it down to 35 by the end of the fall,” Miller said. “The whole fall felt like my actual tryout.”
Miller made the team as the Tarheels’ starting center fielder and proceeded to hit .288/.375/.326 as a freshman. He stole 10 bags in 12 attempts and was second on the team in K/BB% with a lowly 0.84 marker (16/19). A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, Miller often spent time on the other side of the fence at Boshamer Stadium, dreaming of pulling on the Carolina blue and white. Now, that dream was a pleasant reality, even if not in the way Miller envisioned it.
“North Carolina was everything I could’ve asked for as a baseball program and school as a whole,” Miller said. “I’ve been a huge UNC fan since I was very little so it was definitely a dream come true being able to go there. Growing up going to games and being around campus a lot I sort of formed my own image about what it would be like to go there, but then when I actually fulfilled that dream I realized the experience was a lot different than I had expected… in a good way!”
After his solid rookie campaign, Miller took his talents to the Coastal Plain League where he placed second in BA (.389) and led the league in OBP (.476) via its most hits (77) and also racked up a league-most 38 steals. He parlayed that to his sophomore year at UNC, where he absolutely exploded, hitting .345/.440/.469. His batting average ranked amongst the top 15 in the ACC, his 21 steals (in 26 chances) ranked fourth in the conference and his 56 runs scored ranked 10th. The 19-year-old continued to exhibit excellent plate vision, posting a 0.85 K/BB, a nearly identical mark to that of his rookie year and in almost 100 more ABs. During that breakout year, Miller started to become acclimated with the close-knit fabric that binds that UNC Baseball program together. According to Miller, it was a major catalyst in his success.
“There’s a huge feeling of comfort at UNC knowing that you’re a part of such a tradition of winning and excellence on and off the court/field. I think all of my teammates and peers would agree with that feeling. I can say very confidently that if I hadn’t played ball at UNC I would be no where near the player I am today,” Miller said. “The knowledge, resources, and facilities that we have access to helped me grow tremendously as a player in all areas of my game.”
After a .327/.369/.387 showcase in the 2016 Cape Cod League, Miller’s comfortability and compatibility with the UNC program continued to show true in his junior season last year when he hit .343/.422/.502. The biggest addition to his game here was a surplus of power as he slammed seven homers after managing just two in his first two seasons at the collegiate level. Once again, the emphatically patient Miller walked more than he struck out (38/35 BB/K), and he continued to be a menace on the basepaths where he added another 24 steals in 30 chances. He appeared on multiple ACC leaderboards including BA (11th), total bases (136, 9th), steals (2nd), hits (93, 2nd) and runs (61, 5th). All of it came in 271 ABs, most in the league. Miller was a key contributor to the Tarheels’ 23-7 record, their division title and their #11 ranking in the nation. Indeed, Miller and the rest of his UNC teammates did big things that year, but if you ask any of them, including Brian, they will tell you they weren’t the least bit surprised in themselves. According to Miller, the team is accustomed to success and counts on it day in and day out. According to Miller, this attitude had a profound impact on his career.
“The ideology surrounding the program is just to win and compete,” Miller said. “We expect to win and once I was surrounded by other players and coaches that embodied that mindset it really helped me improve as a baseball player.”
Enter Draft day 2017. Miller, by way of his five-tool type junior year, entered projected to go off the board in the second round only to hear the Marlins, with their competitive balance pick, call his name in the first round, 36th overall. Yes, the same Brian Miller that went unrecruited out of high school had become a first round draft pick. However, while he admits it was exciting hearing his name get called so early in the draft, Miller says his draft stock wasn’t really a concern while he was playing for UNC. Instead, Miller had his sights set on making his friends and family proud.
“Getting picked in the first round was pretty cool, but it’s not really a goal I had all along because I just wanted to play for a team that valued me and gave me a chance to succeed,” Miller said. “There are a lot of very very good baseball players that didn’t get picked that high and will have great careers. Your junior year there’s so much noise out there about you as a player or where you might get picked. I was very blessed to have great friends and family around me that helped me tune all of that out and just play as hard as I could for my school.”
Upon being selected, the Marlins forwent sending Miller to short season Batavia and instead sent him to full season A in Greensboro. This was music to Miller’s ears as it was a short 80 mile trek from his home in Greensboro and an even shorter 50 mile hike from Chapel Hill, meaning he would continue to be surrounded by his friends and family and could keep reaping the benefits of his college coaches’ expertise.
“Being close to home was such a blessing,” Miller said. “Having my parents and other family/friends at a lot of games was a really cool environment to start my career in.”
Feeding off the in-person support of his family and friends, Miller, despite being over a year younger than the average South Atlantic League player, started his big league career by slashing .322/.385/.416. He tore up the basepaths, stealing 21 bags in 27 attempts and scored 42 runs, quickly solidifying himself as the Grasshoppers’ leadoff hitter. Though he admits there was a noticeable leap in the opposition’s skill level that he had to adjust accordingly, Miller credits the successful start to his big league career to the time he spent facing some of baseball’s top rising stars in the ACC such as fellow 2017 first rounder Brendan McKay (Tampa Bay) and 2016 second rounder Connor Jones (St Louis) and picking the brains of his star rotational teammates, Astros’ 2017 first rounder Jacob Bukauskas who owned a 3.06 K/BB at UNC and Cardinals’ 2016 third rounder Zac Gallen who posted a 3.67 K/BB in Tarheel blue.
“The competition level was definitely a step up from college ball but I think the ACC helped prepare me for mostly everything I faced this past season in Greensboro,” Miller said. “I wasn’t really familiar with many pitchers or players in the SAL, so it took a little bit of time to adjust to how different teams and pitchers like to throw. There are some really good players in the SAL and it was fun being able to compete against them all for a few months.”
A contact-or-bust singles swinger, Miller uses his plus-plus jets to collect extra bases. He exhibits fantastic plate vision and patience via a knowledge of the strike zone well beyond his years, allowing him to work at least deep and usually favorable counts. Miller’s swing is one of the quickest in Miami’s system. Using his excellent vision, he is able to wait out the break of a pitch and follow it all the way to the back of the glove. When he engages, Miller’s swing flashes through the zone straight and narrow. His split stance allows him to step both in and out to his contact point and allows him to barrel up virtually any pitch on either side of the zone. All of that sounds and is great. But if you ask Miller himself, his mechanics are so soundly second-nature that he isn’t concerned with them. Instead, he approaches his at-bats with a very simple, refined attitude.
“My approach is pretty simple in the box. I just try to be on time and hit a ball hard up the middle of the field. I think always staying to the middle of the field puts me in a good position to succeed because it helps me hit any pitch at any location in the strike zone,” Miller said. “Also, when I mishit a ball I have a good chance of beating it out with my speed because the middle guys have to move the most and sometimes make far throws on the run.”
Where Miller wants to do the most of his offensive damage and where he believes he can disrupt the game most advantageously is on the bathpaths.
“When I’m on the bases I’m always trying to steal,” Miller said. “I always want the defense to be on their toes and feel pressured, which can also help my teammate in the box get a better pitch to hit if the pitcher and catcher is concerned with throwing me out.”
Miller uses that same speed to cover ridiculous ground in the outfield, making him one of the best range defenders in the system, rivaling the likes of teammate Aaron Knapp and former/future teammate Corey Bird. If the Marlins’ current system is rich with one thing it’s speedy, top of the order outfielders. However, due to left-handedness, his pre-pro pedigree and his untenable patience and the fantastic beginning to his career, Miller may have the highest leg up on all of them. While the recently turned 22-year-old only competed in 57 games worth of affiliated action last year and while he will have to prove that he can endure a full season’s worth of games, due to his coming virtually out of nowhere, turning into a first round draft pick, skipping short season ball and becoming one of the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ most valuable players, Brian Miller earns our Minor League Player of the Year Award. We expect this will be the first of many times you hear his name this coming year. He should start the season in Greensboro (after a possible spring training invite) but with continued success, could move up to A+ Jupiter by the midseason mark.
There’s an old saying that goes, “When it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.” No one disproves that statement better than Jose Fernandez, a young man so full of life it seems a sin and 365 days later, still seems impossible that it was taken from him and that this seemingly innocent, playfully childish and infinitely joyful soul is no longer turning everything he touched from a baseball to other’s lives to pure gold.
On the afternoon of September 22, 2016, my girlfriend surprised me with an early birthday present: tickets in Diamond Club at Marlins Park. For those unfamiliar with the stadium, these are the all-inclusive seats directly behind home plate that can and usually do cost upwards of $200 a game. From the seats, you can easily peer down into the Marlins’ third base dugout. As players started filing from the clubhouse, a young group of autograph seekers sitting just above the canopy called to each of their heroes. While some stopped to sign a few and exchange a quick pleasantry, Jose Fernandez went above and beyond expectations. Not only did Fernandez ink every peice of memoribilia presented to him from one side of the dugout to the other, he invited fans who asked for a photo with him to traverse a small set of steps to the right of the dugout and just to the left of the backstop screen. This wasn’t just a case of catching Jose on a good day; this was who Jose was: a man who wanted to share the happiness and joy life in America and in baseball had given him with as many people as possible. There is little doubt that seeing that joy in others, making their day, creating smiles and hearing laughter was more paramount to Jose Fernandez than his own well-being. Watching Jose on the mound and in the media, you became a fan. After one two minute interaction with him, you felt like family. The effect he had on others was just as incomparable as his stuff on the mound.
After the National Anthem was sung and he returned to the dugout, Jose took up his normal alter on the right side of the bench in his high chair against the railing. This two minute span between the anthem and first pitch was the most use that chair would get. You see, even though he only physically took the field once every five nights, his teammates took him to the field with them every single night. The first to get to his feet when the ball was hit deep, the first to raise his arms when a big out was about to be recorded and the first in line to greet a teammate with a congratulatory celebration on their triumphant return to the bench, Jose was invested in every game just as much as he was invested in his own starts. There were no days off. This is who Jose was: a man who cared about the success of others as equally if not more than he was concerned with his own virtue. The Marlins took Jose with them to the mound those nights, they have done so every day since last year’s tragedy and they will do so forever. That’s the legacy he would have wanted and the legacy he has successfully created. Even in the afterlife, Jose Fernandez has remained successful. After all, I don’t even think Jesus Christ himself could touch that slide piece.
However, as selfless as this man — the same one who, as a teenager, jumped into the middle of the ocean to save his mother from drowning — was, he was still a human being. And human beings make mistakes. When I heard the news of Jose’s choices that night after his start was pushed back and after he had a disagreement with his girlfriend, I was admittedly awash with emotions, confusion and anger included. Those same emotions overcame me months later when the toxicology reports were released. However, on both occasions, I refused to let one night of bad decision making trump a lifetime of altruistic nobility. Retire the number, build the statue, name the street, make a spot for him in the Hall Of Fame. He’s more than earned it. He more than deserves it.
One year and I can rewind the events of that day and week in my head with perfect accuracy. How I refused to believe the news when it was first reported, how it was confirmed to me by a former member of the board of directors who frequented my place of employment, the usual party-like atmosphere of the ballpark being replaced by that of a funeral on September 26, every tear I shed into the concrete underneath my seat in right field at the sight of every player donning ’16’, at the sight of Dee Gordon barely being able to round the bases following his lead off homer and at the visual of 30+ Marlins hats left on the field by Jose’s brothers on the spot where he was king, I can tell you about it all. What I can’t tell you is when this wound will heal or if it ever will. As fresh as it still is, it cuts even deeper when I think of the pain in the hearts of Jose’s family including his beloved Abuela and his mother. It seers when I see the face of Penelope Fernandez, a child who will grow up never knowing her father and how miraculous he truly was to know. The search for solace is never an easy quest but one place where young Penny and the rest of the Fernandez family can go is to the memories of Jose being the best at everything he set out to do from dominating his craft on the mound to being a good teammate to being a good friend to being a good son and grandson. And there is no doubt he would have succeeded just the same as in fatherhood. As fans, Jose’s extended baseball family and the innumerable masses whose lives Jose touched, we can find peace in knowing that by never taking one hour of any day for granted and by filling each one with as much joy and happiness then projecting that unto others, he lived well beyond his years and his spirit will live on in each of us that came to know just how incredible he was forever.
To the greatest baseball player I’ve ever had the distinct privilege of getting to know, of getting to watch grow, of getting to watch dominate the game both on the field and off, continue to rest well. You were good, kid. You were good.
This past month, the Marlins gave troubled starter Tom Koehler (1-5, 55.2 IP, 7.92 ERA, 1.72 WHIP) a change of scenery by trading him north of the border to the Blue Jays for a virtual unknown, Osman Gutierrez. I teamed up with Matt Weber and Tom Dakers of Bluebird Banter to scout and place a potential value on this 22-year-old righty.
Gutierrez, a native of the Dominican Republic, was part of the same international draft as part of the same international draft that brought the likes of Yu Darvish, Yoenis Cespedes, Rougned Odor and Roberto Osuna to Major League Baseball. He was signed by the Jays at a time where their GM Alex Anthoupolous had money burning a hole in his pocket.
“From when Anthopoulos was hired in late-2009 until the hard restrictions on amateur spending with the 2011 CBA came into force in 2012, the Blue Jays were really aggressive in the spending in the draft (heavily skewed to high school pitchers) and internationally.” Matt told me.
Matt’s claim is backed up by the fact that Toronto, in the international draft alone, spent upwards of $20,000,000 in that three year span. Gutierrez himself, a late round pick, cost Toronto upwards of $200,000. In the coming years, while his fellow international selection names like Osuna and Hechavarria and his minor league teammate stateside draft names such as Syndergaard, DeSclafani and Nicolino quickly established themselves as legitimate prospects and began a quick journey through the minors, Gutierrez, due to both his still teenage years and the pure rawness of his talent, remained in rookie ball in the Dominican for three years and rarely saw the mound in the first two. However, after holding down an impressive 1.91 ERA in 47 innings and 10 starts in 2014, he was able to make it to North American ball by his age 20 season, quite average for a player of his B type caliber and quite advantageous considering the amount of high priced talent the Jays were currently circulating. Clearly, the organization saw something in this kid.
Gutierrez came to the US in 2015. It was then during his tenure in the GCL that his reinvention began and coaches got to work on teaching him how to pitch strategically rather than allowing him to continue leaning on simply blowing his stuff past the opposition, a transformation many amateur picks undergo in order to make it as a professional. For the very immature Gutierrez, it is a process that has been lengthy and one that is still going on today. In 2015 and 2016, Gutierrez responded fairly well to his coaches and to the changes. Despite his ERA being victimized by a heightened .330 BABIP, he held holding down good combined control numbers including a 2.91 BB/9 and an 8.67 K/9 and a solid FIP that came in under the 3.70 mark as he began to establish a good breaking ball, piggybacking his fiery heat.
“In his July 23rd start, he touched 96 a couple times on the stadium gun, with a mid-80s breaking ball. So there’s some quality stuff to go along with the good stat line,” Matt wrote on Bluebird Banter back in 2016. “[He’s] done everything you want to see: missed bats and worked ahead of batters, and been able to finish them off while still being quite efficient.”
This season, the 22-year-old made the jump to full season ball. In his first 13 starts with the Lansing Lugnuts Gutierrez — there’s no getting around it — struggled mightily. On July 21, after a particularly dreadful 3 inning, 6 run, 4 walk, 2 K start, his ERA sat at a hideous 10.13 via an equally dreadful 2.08 WHIP and .295 BAA. Matt chalks the ugly start to his career in full season ball up to an inability to work ahead and a failure to place his pitches, issues that, if not for a serious lack of depth among the Lansing staff, would have landed him either in the pen or back in rookie ball.
“The struggles until recently were very simple: lack of control and command. He often struggled mightily to throw strikes, got himself behind in counts and into lots of jams, and then got hit hard when he came in the zone,” Matt said. “That he kept a spot in the rotation at all with mostly due to injuries to other players meaning Lansing had little other choice.”
All of that out of the way, there’s something to be said for how Gutierrez has performed recently. Since the aforementioned disaster outing on July 21, the Nicaragua native bounced back by allowing just 14 runs over his next 30 innings pitched (4.20 ERA) which spanned five starts, including a career outing on August 2 in which he went 7 innings, allowing just four hits, one walk and striking out 10 Bowling Green Hot Rods. In his second start with the Marlins’ organization, Gutierrez came within one K of matching that total. Both of his first two Muckdogs starts were of the quality variety, lasting six innings each and consisting of four hits and one earned run. Our colleague at Bluebird Banter says that Gutierrez’s recent success has been due to his slider taking another step forward and turning into a plus-plus offering and the fact that overall, he is throwing with a lot more confidence.
“He’s been vastly improved the last last couple months, including a couple of really dominating outings. One of he keys has been that his slider’s been a lot better, giving him an out pitch. One of the Lansing broadcasters was talking recently about how the coaches wanted him trust his stuff more, not try to be so fine. And against low-A hitters, his stuff should be plenty.”
If given time to develop his changeup that is distinctly a mix in offering at the time being, Gutierrez, still 22, could make it as a starter. However, given the fact that the fastball/slider combo thrower dumbs down his velo to the low 90’s range in order to make it deeper in starts and the fact that he is a minor league free agent after next season, Matt and I both agree that he profiles best as a late inning reliever.
“There will be some impetus to move him along,” Matt said of Gutierrez’s situation. “He should start next year in high-A regardless but if moved to relief, he could get to AA.”
In a straight up trade for a troubled starter who barely touched B-type status as a prospect looking at finishing out his career as a swing man, the Marlins could have done a lot worse than a ceiling 4-5 starter, floor late relief/closing option. I give Michael Hill a passing grade on this trade, one of few he’s turned in in his tenure as President of Baseball Ops. Look for Gutierrez to participate in the offseason winter leagues overseas before starting 2018 in Jupiter.
Woah, it’s Nelly! Not only is it befittingly his Twitter handle, it’s the exact phrase the South Atlantic League, its scouts, the Marlins’ organization and anyone who follows it are exclaiming regarding James Nelson’s season to date. One look at the stats including his absolutely unprecedented month of May, it’s easy to see why.
Nelson was born on October 18, 1997 in Rex, GA and attended Redan High School in nearby Stone Mountain. Other than the budding Nelson, Redan is famous for producing MLB talents such as Wally Joyner and Brandon Phillips. As Nelson relates to, Redan is a place that is very proud of that past and their long-tenured heritage and Raiders players, including Nelson, coaches and parents quickly learn that. Rahter than just being part of for four years, they are part of a brotherhood forever.
“Baseball tradition at Redan is probably the best I’ve ever been a part of,” Nelson said. “It was all about winning and being a part of a family.”
After his graduation in 2015, Nelson was selected by the Red Sox in the 18th round of that year’s Draft. However, Nelson forwent signing with Boston to attend junior college in Cisco, Texas in an attempt to raise his draft stock.
“Going to Junior college was probably the biggest and best decision I could’ve made to be honest,” Nelson said. “I don’t think I got enough exposure in high school as far as seeing the pitchers I did.”
Despite his great high school tenure, Nelson only hit four total home runs in his junior and senior seasons. In his one year at Cisco, a bulked up Nelson hit 17. After going off the board 531st overall a year prior, some scouts had Nelson going off the board as early as round 12. The Marlins selected Nelson with the 443rd overall pick in round 15 thus making his decision to attend Cisco a success. This time, Nelson forwent the rest of his college career to sign a pro contract at the age of 19, another big choice and another one he and his family does not regret.
“Baseball is what I loved to do and I believed I was ready to take on the next level,” Nelson said. “My family was proud. Everyone thinks it was a great decision and I get all the support I need.”
Upon his arrival in the professional ranks last season, Nelson supported evidence that he was indeed ready to make the jump. In 43 games in the Gulf Coast League, he hit .284/.344/.364. His BA ranked 15th in the league and his OBP ranked 20th. Among his impressive countable stats were 24 RBI and a 7/3 SB/CS. Despite appearing at the plate just 162 times, the Marlins were impressed enough to promote Nelson to full season ball at the ripe age of 19, 2 1/2 years younger than the average Sally League player. After a bit of a feeling out process in his first eight games in April when he hit .207/.324/.345, Nelson absolutely exploded in May, responding and rewarding the Marlins’ vote of confidence by becoming one of the best hitters in the league and a sure-fire choice for the upcoming All-Star Game. His ridiculous month of May consisted of a .372/.425/.540 slash line along with 8 doubles, a triple, 3 homers, 17 RBI and a 5/1 SB/CS. Overall this season, Nelson’s .338 BA ranks third in the Sally, his .404 OBP ranks fourth and his .500 SLG ranks ninth. He ends the month of May riding a 17-game hitting streak.
So how has this teenager with just a year’s worth of college experience and 43 games worth of pro experience under his belt, responded so well to playing against the best competition that he ever has gone up against while being under the pressure and microscope that goes along with being regarded as the club’s 10th best prospect and how will he keep it up over the course of a 140 game season, three times as many games as he’s ever played in in a single year? Simple: he won’t change a thing and most importantly, he will not get too far ahead of himself. Because after all, whatever level you’re at and wherever you are or aren’t ranked within the organization, the game remains the same.
“It’s baseball, man. I’m just taking it day by day, making sure I’m staying healthy and staying on top of my game,” Nelson said. “I just take it one at bat at a time. If I don’t get it done one at bat, just get it done the next, and also keeping my routine I’ve been doing is a major deal as well. It’s all about playing baseball, it’s the same game, just with better competition. The biggest thing is focus, if you don’t focus you won’t succeed how you want to.”
If there was a knock on Nelson’s offensive game from his days in the GCL it was his production against lefties which he hit at just a .231/.286/.269 clip. This season, again, against much more advanced competition, he has remedied that by hitting southpaws at a .388/.492/.694 pace. Once again, Nelson credits what he believes is the end-all, be all, vision. After that, it has been his ability to stay inside the ball a lot more consistently that has made the difference.
“All about the focus,” Nelson said “From last year to this year, I think my middle-oppo approach has gotten a lot better and I am actually driving the ball to right field and I think that was a big advantage against lefties, especially this season”
Nelson has accomplished all of these offensive accolades over the past two years while also learning how to play a new position, third base, where the Marlins believe his growing frame, plus power and strong arm will be better suited in the long run. While learning the hot corner has been and will continue to be a process for Nelson, he doesn’t mind; as long as he’s on the diamond.
“I took the news [of the switch] great. If they see me playing there in the future then I’d be happy to be there,” Nelson said. “Any way I could help the team. I love shortstop, but as long as I am on the field, I’d play catcher.”
Nelson’s at-bats are a sight to behold. After the 6’2″ specimen stares down his opposition from a straight vertical stance, he times his swing with a front leg trigger that is less reminiscent of a batter and more so of a pitcher. From there, there’s only one word to describe him: explosive. Stretching his arms all the way back for as much power as possible while somehow maintaining extremely good balance and very rarely, if ever, falling off to either side of the plate, Nelson’s bat is barely recognizable as it whips through the zone with uppercut action. After exhibiting some of the best bat speed within the organization, he stays through the ball with two hands on the bat and two eyes down all the way and looks the ball off the barrel, keeping him from pulling off. Mechanically, everything looks close to perfect for the still-maturing Nelson, making him a near lock to become a 20+ home run hitter. While on base which Nelson has been a ton this season, he has more than above average speed, especially for a guy his size. Add to that the ability make great reads and you have the acumen of a 20+ base stealer. As a GCLer in 2015, he stole seven bags and was caught three times. In less games this year, he has already swiped five while being caught just once.
If there has been one consistently below-average area of Nelson’s offensive game throughout his career it’s been his ability to walk, common for any power-first hitter but not an area which Nelson is willing to go to the wolves. He has proven that by walking more in less ABs this season compared to last season and which he hopes to improve even further by advancing and utilizing his plate vision, no matter the situation.
“The biggest thing is not wasting at bats, bearing down and getting the job done with runners on or not,” Nelson said. “If they are gonna give me a walk, I gotta take it and not press.”
Nelson will be the first one to admit he is far from a finished product and he has work to do. However, the 19-year-old who will not even turn 20 for another two months, defines the word ‘athlete’, has a baseball IQ well beyond his years, and is already on the verge of a call-up to A+. With 20/20 club type talent, the ability to hit for both average and power and great fielding instincts, footwork and hands, he is a 5-tool type talent that could arrive in the majors as early as 2019. But for now, the extremely modest and level-headed Nelson ins’t worried about that.
“Baseball is a crazy sport man,” Nelson said. “I’m just trying to trust the process, so I’m just doing me.”
Keep doing you, James. If baseball is crazy, you’ve found the remedy.