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.
There’s bad, then there’s Junichi Tazawa in 2017 bad. One of the best relievers in the league in 2015 has become anything but this season, leading him to be placed on the “disabled” list just a month and a half into the year. However, it appears as though his “injury” may just be a bad excuse for what has turned out to be a signing just as heinous as Tazawa’s exports in a Miami uniform.
Through 15 games, Tazawa owns a 6.60 ERA bt way of a 6.84 FIP and a 4.8% walk rate. His 26.7% ground ball rate is the eleventh lowest in baseball. If those figures aren’t alarming enough, he also owns a lowly .195 BABIP meaning he has been very fortunate not to give up even more damage. In 2015, Tazawa held down 4.14 ERA via a 3.05 FIP and an extremely low 1.99 BB% all while having pretty bad luck on balls in play (.349 BABIP) at hitters’ haven Fenway Park. Last year, he had a much more Fenway-like 15.8 HR/FB ratio of 15.8 and a more neutral BABIP of .292. However, he regulated himself by striking out nearly 10 hitters per 9 innings (9.79) and inducing ground balls at a 40% rate and stranding 79% of his runners. This season though, in the much more pitcher friendly Marlins Park, the wheels have completely fallen off. The question is why?
The Marlins are using the excuse that Tazawa is injured, saying that he has rib cartilage inflammation. While there may be some truth to the fact that Tazawa recently tore something in his rib cage, it’s hard to believe they would ever let him take the mound if he was suffering from the main symptom of costochondritis which is chest pain. Accordingly, there must be another explanation for the way Tazawa has struggled for the entire season. Pitching coach Juan Nieves spoke more closely to that reason when he said Tazawa needs time off not for his chest, but for his head.
“He needs time off to make a mental adjustment,” Nieves said.
That would definitely be a great place for Tazawa to start. From there, he can work on fixing his mechanics. In order to compare an effective Tazawa to whatever this is he has become, here is a stop motion image of his fastball circa 2014 and one of his fastball this year. Out of respect for any sort of injury Tazawa might have suffered recently, the second image is of a fastball he threw to a virtually powerless Yuli Guriel that got taken for a grand slam during his first outing of the season when he was pretty much undoubtedly 100% healthy, right out of camp.
In both images, the same pitch is being called for and thrown: fastball in. Tazawa has maintained similar velocity from then until now but the command is night and day. The reason for this appears to be that, probably not purposefully, Tazawa is throwing from a higher plane and arm slot which he cannot control. At the apex of his leg kick which has gone from high to even higher, it is easy to notice that Tazawa’s glove is also much higher in the air his arm is at a much more horizontal angle and a lot closer to his body.
This is where Tazawa’s problems begin and stem from. From there, they get even worse. Where he used to swing his arm nearly straight horizontally behind his back while keeping the top of his hand facing the hitter, hiding his grip on the ball advantageously and leading to a fluid turnover of his palm, this new windup leads to Tazawa having to drop his arm straight down vertically, giving hitters a clear view of the baseball and his fingers followed by him barely getting his arm fully extended backward and a rotation of his wrist that looks forced. Where Tazawa used to almost literally sit back on his pitches, leaning all the way back on his back leg to the point that he almost falls over before powering through his delivery, he is now almost completely relying on his arm, barely transferring any weight whatsoever. This leads to him flying open to the third base side before overthrowing his pitches and throwing off his release points. The end result of all of those factors are pitches that miss his targets and wind up way out over the plate.
Opposing hitters are taking full advantage of this version of Tazawa, being patient early in counts, allowing Tazawa to get behind in the count early (he has a first pitch strike percentage of just 60%) and staying patient allowing them to work themselves into a favorable hitter’s count (he gets into just as many 3-0 counts (6.2%) as he does 0-2 counts), virtually disabling Tazawa’s once-filthy offspeed secondaries and making him rely on the fastball/forkball changeup combo which accounts for 79% of his pitches thrown. Between them sitting on his stuff and Tazawa misplacing it, guys are making contact at an 80.5% rate, including a 90% rate on pitches inside the zone, both career highs for Tazawa and recording swinging strikes 8.3% of the time, a career low. Deception and the ability to get in guy’s heads are completely gone from Tazawa’s game as he is only generating chase swings outside the zone at a 28.2% rate, another career worst.
Not only are hitters making contact often against Tazawa, they are making loud contact.
The average Tazawa pitch leaves a hitters’ bat at 89 MPH and goes 210 feet. The latter of those figures is the 21st-highest average distance in baseball, proving Tazawa has been lucky to not give up even more homers and thus an have an even higher HR/FB% which currently sits around 14%. Hitters are barreling up against Tazawa once in every five of their ABs. All of this proves that thanks to his .195 BABIP and the fact that he’s pitched in mostly pitcher friendly parks, Tazawa has been arguably the luckiest man in baseball not to have an even higher WHIP than his already mediocre 1.33 mark and his absolutely horrendous 6.60 ERA.
Even more fortunately for Tazawa and most unfortunately for the Marlins is that he has job security. Tazawa is under contract for the remainder of this season as well as next season. With it becoming more and more unlikely that he will opt out after this year due, the Marlins, who are paying him $6 million a season until 2019, need to hope Tazawa gets his stuff right ASAP. Upon his return from injury, Tazawa will almost certainly get a rehab assignment in the minors. What the Marlins do with Tazawa immediately after that will be a good barometer of where they are in the towel-throwing-in process for the year. If they are still playoff hopeful, Tazawa will work out his issues in the minors. If not, he will be allowed to do so with the Marlins, likely leading to more fans’ pain and suffering. Wherever he attempts to work out his woes, the Marlins better hope for the sake of not wasting $12 million that he is able to do so because right now, Tazawa isn’t worth 12 Yen (10 cents American).
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
Cuts: Yefri Perez, J.T. Riddle, Austin Nola
Cuts: Jarlin Garcia, Dillon Peters
We are eight games in to the 27 game spring training ledger and Opening Day roster battles are in full swing. Here is a look at who’s hot and who’s not in Marlins camp among those vying to have their name announced and line up along Marlins’ Park’s baselines on April 11.
Fourth Bench Spot
|Dan Straily||The return piece in the Marlins’ late offseason trade that was very fortunate to have the season he had last year in Cincinatti. His luck was first proven by his ability to somehow hold down a 2.90 ERA by way of a .197 BAA and a .212 BABIP at one of the most hitter friendly parks in the league (versus a much more Dan Straily like and much more realistic 4.70 ERA via a .242 BAA and .269 BABIP on the road). This spring, his luck last year is being proven by his early allowance of four runs off two homers in just 2.2 IP. Since he came at the expense of the Marlins’ second best pitching prospect Luis Castillo, he will probably be given a long leash and stick around until the very end of spring training, but with a straight fastball that barely touches 90 and breaking pitches which he can’t command low in the zone, Straily will either start the season in AAA or be sent there not long after the season starts, the product of another doozy by Michael Hill.
|Jarlin Garcia||The Marlins’ third best pitching prospect entering 2017, he missed time with an injury in 2016 when the Marlins called him up to the majors following a 4.04 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, .239 BAA start just to keep him on the bench for nine days. Upon his return to AA, the Suns tried to ease him back into action but his second time back out, he went down with an injury that would cost him two months. He spent the rest of the season in the GCL and in Jupiter getting back in to shape. He arrived at spring training this year back at 100% and has had a good start (albeit in very limited action), not allowing a run over his first three appearances, all which lasted a single inning. He’s fun to watch on the mound, winding up slowly before exploding through his delivery which generates mid-upper 90s heat. He shows a good velo range, dropping his piggybacking changeup and best breaking pitch down about 10 miles an hour and mixes in a power curve which he needs to develop a better feel for and throw it from more consistent release points. The Marlins are probably going to take it easy with Garcia who has thrown in just 16 games above A ball. However, while it is possible that Garcia’s long term future is in the bullpen, the Marlins, with very little MLB ready rotational depth to speak of, could give Garcia a shot at the back end if he gets back on track in the upper minors to start the year and as soon as the Dan Straily experiment fails.
|Justin Nicolino||6’3″ 200 pound lefty who was once a promising prospect, appearing inside the Marlins’ top 10 prospects every year from 2013-2015. Made his MLB debut in the last of those seasons, tossing to the tune of a decent 4.01 ERA and 1.24 in 12 starts. Started 2016 in AAA where he was very good. Despite a somewhat embellished 4.13 ERA, he held down a 1.18 WHIP and a 49/13 K/BB, warranting another call to the majors. However, upon his second arrival in as many years in Miami, that’s when Nicolino took a turn for the worst. In 18 games (13 starts) and 79.1 IP with the Marlins, he was lit up to the tune of a 4.99 ERA by way of a .307 BAA and 1.46 WHIP. He walked 20 while striking out just 37. His woes have continued this early spring as he’s allowed six runs on nine hits in 4.1 innings. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why things have gone so far downhill for Nicolino. His reputation for having impeccable control has followed him to the majors where he limited walks to 2.4 per nine innings in 2015 and improved that metric slightly to 2.4 in 2016.
|Jeff Locke||Acquired in the offseason as a free agent from the Pirates. A 3.63 ERA, 1.271 WHIP, 3.22 career minor leaguer, had a solid first full season in the majors in 2013, posting a 10-7 record in 30 starts with a 3.52 ERA via a 4.03 FIP and making the All-Star Game. However, that’s also when his control problems began. Having never posted a walk rate above 3% in his career, that metric ballooned to nearly 5%. In 2014, Locke was in the strike zone much more often but judging by his walk rate shrinking down to 2.74% but judging by his allowance of more than a homer per nine innings and on 13% of his fly balls, he was getting way too much of the zone. You wouldn’t know it if you judged him by his 4.49 ERA but going on his peripherals, 2015 was Locke’s best season. That year, his walk rate normalized back to 3.21 but his K rate improved to 6.9%, a MLB career high, his HR/9 shrunk back down to 0.8. Despite a heightened .312 BABIP, he held down a 3.95 FIP and was a 1.6 WAR pitcher. Locke’s slow but steady improvement in getting his walks in check while also improving his command to become the guy he was two years ago can be attributed to then Pirates’ special assistant to the GM and renowned “pitcher whisperer”, Jim Benedict. It is that version of Locke the Marlins hope can be brought back by Benedict who was hired away from the Pirates by Miami last year. What the Marlins don’t to see is the Locke that struggled mightily without Benedict last season, the Locke that only struck out 5% of his hitters while walking 3.3% of them, allowed hard contact at a career high 30% rate while inducing weak contact outs at a career low 16% rate, and had a 5.44 ERA (seventh highest in baseball) by way of a 4.84 FIP and 1.53 WHIP (10th highest in MLB).
It was the Marlins’ hope when signing Locke that being reunited with Benedict would bring Locke circa 2015 back but this spring, it hasn’t happened. A lot of the reason for that is because Locke suffered a throwing shoulder injury early in spring training workouts that required an MRI and revealed tendinitis. However, since starting to throw again last week, Locke has apparently not shown much, causing Don Mattingly to label him as “a guy we just don’t think is ready“. Even though he just arrived in Miami and hasn’t thrown much since doing so, there’s still doubt surrounding the possibility of even Benedict fixing the 29-year-old for a second time, at least in getting him back into rotational capacity.
While he may never get back into a MLB rotation, Locke isn’t a complete lost cause. Despite his overall horrible 2016, he finished the year in the bullpen where he held down respectable numbers, including a 3.38 ERA and a 3.0 K/BB. Though he will probably start the year in New Orleans due to all of the missed time with injury this spring, he adds another lefty arm to the Marlins’ great relief depth. After getting back in shape in AAA and hopefully making a smooth transition to a full-time pen role, a process that will undoubtedly be aided by Benedict, Locke should make his Marlins’ debut out of the pen this season with the possiblity of seeing some spot starts. As for an Opening Day job though, he’s completely out of the running.