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.
It’s that wonderful time of year again where the weather is getting warmer and spring training baseball is inching closer to returning to Roger Dean Stadium. With it this year, the return of players to the field and fans to the bleachers will also bring an auspicious group of talented young men vying to either either make it back to the majors or to make their first MLB squad in 2017. Here is a look at some of the Marlins’ talent hoping to impress this spring training.
1 – Drew Steckenrider, RHP
Steckenrider owns a feel good story, one of determination and perserverence that makes him an extremely easy guy to root for. After a mediocre start to his career in which he threw primarily as a starter to the tune of a 4.01 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP between short season and low A, the Marlins’ eighth round pick in the 2012 Draft went down with an injury to his throwing elbow and missed the bulk of the 2013 season and all of the 2014 season. After Tommy John surgery and 18 months on the shelf, Steckenrider returned in 2015. That year, between Greensboro and Jupiter, he traded off throwing both in starts and in relief. In 58.1 IP as a starter, he had a 3.56 ERA by way of a 1.48 WHIP. Looks good on the forefront but most of that success came with the Grasshoppers and competition much younger than the then 24-year-old. As a member of the Hammerheads, even though he was throwing in one of the biggest pitchers’ parks in the minors, Steckenrider got touched up for a 4.41 ERA by way of a nasty 1.71 WHIP and .284 BAA. As a Hammerheads’ reliever throwing in nearly the same amount of innings that he threw as a starter (24 in relief vs 32.2 in the rotation), Steckenrider stifled the most mature competition he’s ever faced, holding down a 1.50 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a .239 BAA while striking out 14 and walking seven.
Based off those numbers and the fact that he was just a season removed from a potentially career ending injury, the Marlins provided Steckenrider with some stability, putting him the in the much less physically strenuous bullpen full-time in order to safeguard and prolong the life of his potentially very live arm. With his mind at ease regarding just what exactly his role on the team was, Steckenrider shined in throwing exclusively out of the pen in 2016. Following a near perfect ten inning start in Jupiter in which he didn’t allow a run and posted a 17/2 K/BB while allowing just two hits, Steckenrider was called up to AA. He spent most of the season there, tossing 30.1 innings and holding hitters to a .120 BA, a mark which led the Southern League (among pitchers with at least 30 IP) and a 0.73 WHIP which was second in the Southern League. He also successfully converted all six of his save opportunities.
After facing the prospect of figuring out life after baseball two seasons previous, Steckenrider ended 2016 pitching at the highest level of Minor League Baseball. For the AAA Zephyrs, he converted seven more saves in seven chances, running his season total to 14 in 15 chances.
Following the season in which he was named an organizational All-Star, Steckenrider took his talents to the Arizona Fall League where he continued to impress. In 10 games and 13 IP, Steckenrider posted a 15/4 K/BB and a 1.23 WHIP and collected three more saves while pitching against some of baseball’s top prospects. He was also one of three pitchers to contribute to the Mesa Solar Sox’s combined no hitter on November 1, just the third no-no in the 25-year history of the AFL.
As Steckenrider confided to Today’s Knuckleball, the sense of stability the Marlins gave him in 2015 when they moved him from the dreaded swing man role to a full-time relief role has made all the difference.
“I would start, and then I’d do my arm care stuff, but then I’d be out in the bullpen a few days later, which, I would never get the recovery, and I never got the rhythm and the bounce-back time,” Steckenrider admitted about his difficult role in 2015. “It was really hard to have success. But this year, I finally got into that consistent role in the back end of the bullpen, and I earned my spot back there early. It was nice because I stayed there all year, but I also got into a good routine with the trainers and strength coaches, and that kept me healthy and on the field.”
The lanky 6’5″, 215 Steckenrider shortens his distance to the plate with an overwhelming smooth delivery especially for a guy with limbs as long as his and heat as fiery. He maintains his looseness well through his quick stretch delivery right up until the point where his arm starts going forward from his full arm circle windup. All the way through his delivery, he remains straight up and down and manages not to fall off to either side of the plate. In short, although simple, it is a mechanically fantastic delivery for a guy his build. Steckenrider’s go-to pitch is a fastball that usually ranges from 95-98 but can touch triple digits and has great late run to the corners. Since becoming a full-time late inning reliever, he has simplified his approach and doesn’t feature his breaking stuff a lot in favor of attacking with the heat but he will attempt to get guys to chase and offset the fastball in equal or positive counts with an 82-83 MPH 10-6 slider. With good feel for the pitch, the late breaker is is a great compliment to his heat and generates an equal rate of swings and misses. Steckenrider can also throw a 83-86 MPH changeup but with little fade and an inconsistent arm slot release, it’s the least developed of his pitches.
Sticking to his bread and butter, the heater and slide piece combo, Steckenrider has revitalized a career that once was on life support. He heads into spring training this year with a shot at making the Marlins’ bullpen. While he will have to do battle with the likes of more proven talent such as Brian Ellington, Hunter Cervenka and Jake Esch, don’t count Steckenrider out for a spot on the Opening Day roster this season.
Anderson, a Marlins’ 2014 fourth round draft pick, heads into 2017 as Miami’s top positional prospect. He earns that title after a .265/.348/.389 2016 campaign. After getting off to a .302/.377/.440 start with the Hammerheads, Anderson made the difficult jump to AA. In 86 games, he slammed eight homers, bettered only by two other Jacksonville Suns. He also appeared, as evidenced by collective 1.67 K/BB (including a 59/36 K/BB with the Suns) to temper the strikeout woes that hampered him in 2015 when he K’d 109 times to just 40 walks (2.275 K/BB). Improved plate vision and patience allowed the power hitter to get under and square up the ball much more often as shown by a 0.76 GB/FB rate as opposed to the 1.03 mark he posted in ’15 and the fact that he collected 128 hits, most in the organization. At the end of the year, he was named the Marlins’ Minor League Player of the Year. Despite all of these positives and accolades all of which he showed while making the hardest jump there is to make in the minors, Anderson was critical of his .243/.330/.359 tenure with the Suns, equating it to nerves and the stress he put on himself to succeed right away and with that initial high-tension situation out of the way, promised bigger things in 2017.
“Any time you jump a level you want to instantly have an impact,” said Anderson. “That’s kind of what happened with me. I went up there and put a lot of pressure on myself to perform really well. You just have to take a step back and realize that it’s baseball, it’s a game, you’ve been playing it your whole life.”
Anderson gave a sneak-peak and what those bigger things will be in the Arizona Fall League. In 22 games and 77 ABs, Anderson lit the AFL ablaze by hitting a league-most five homers with a .273/.360/506 slash line numbers which ranked right up on the offensive leader boards with some of baseball’s top prospects such as the Indians’ Bradley Zimmer, BaseballAmerica’s #31, the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres, #41, the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, #54. His .866 OPS was fifth in the AFL and his .234 ISO ranked third. Anderson ended his 2016 tenure with the Solar Sox by going 2-4 and smacking his sixth homer of the campaign to help Mesa to the league championship crown.
Anderson is a third baseman by trade and is extremely athletic making him good for the occasional spectacular play. However, his 6’3″, 185 pound frame along with his inaccurate throwing arm that was the primary culprit in him racking up 27 total errors last year and 18 in 2015 make him a much better fit at the other corner.
While Anderson will need to continue his positive development in the upper minors to start 2017, his successful 2016 campaign along with his showing in the AFL definitely has him in very good standing with the organization. With a good showing in spring training and continued success with the Shrimp, Anderson could put himself in the running for an MLB debut this year, especially if the Marlins follow through with not signing a lefty hitting platoon partner for Justin Bour in favor of carrying an extra reliever. Last year, Anderson hit lefties at a .303/.370/.500 clip.
Riddle, the Marlins’ 13th rounder from 2013 comes into 2017 as the club’s ninth best prospect. He earns that title after a .276/.326/.366 campaign in 389 ABs with the Suns followed by a .268/.281/.357 15 game tenure in AAA to end the year. The 25-year-old has had success in every level he has played at. His .274/.318/.369 career bat has helped negate the fact that he entered the majors as a 22-year-old following a three-year college career at the University of Kentucky in which he slashed .283/.358/.384. He has extremely quick bat speed within his snappy line drive approach, which allows him to limit Ks as he fights off tough pitches (he boasts a an above average 14% K rate for his career) but he does need to improve his patience and career walk rate of just 6% in order to become every day starting material.
What puts Riddle in the conversation to be an every day contributor to an MLB lineup someday soon despite owning a slightly above average career MiLB .274 BA and .687 OPS at age 25 is the fact that he is a wizard defensively. In regards to middle infield prospects, Riddle is perhaps one of the best in baseball. In 2020.1 MiLB innings at shortstop, Riddle has made just 34 errors and posted a 4.17 career range factor. He is equally as good at second base, the position he played most in college and in which he has been at fault for just one single error in 262.2 career minor league innings. Riddle boasts equally as impressive range at second via a 4.13 range factor. His arm which has been clocked as high as 93 MPH as well as his ability to make fantastic reads off the bat also give him eligibility at third base and all three outfield positions. Should Riddle improve his plate vision and learn to work counts a bit better, he lines up as an elite defender with average offensive skills and speed, exemplary of a bottom of the order catalyst advantageous to turning the lineup back over. At the very least, his glove already makes him a more than solid defensive replacement. Thanks to his flexibility and prowess at a range of defensive positions, with a good showing this spring and continued improvement in New Orleans, Riddle could make his major league debut later this year.
4 – Tayron Guerrero, RHP
Guerrero, the organization’s 26th best prospect, came to the Marlins as a secondary piece in the Andrew Cashner trade but may prove to be the only valuable piece the Marlins get out of it. That is if Guerrero can iron out one big issue: body control. Once a tall lanky arms and legs guy, Guerrero bulked up, going from 170 pounds to 210 pounds in a single offseason. While the extra poundage and muscle turned his once mediocre 86 MPH fastball ranking 45-50 on the 30-80 scale into a sizzling 95 MPH offering with the ability to reach triple digits, giving it a 65-70 rating, the same problems he’s had since the beginning of his career in keeping his long extremities under his control have persisted. This stems from a herky-jerky delivery that holds little to no fluidity and fluctuating unstable release points. Guerrero has showed flashes of a successful late inning reliever at times offsetting his straight and narrow fastball with a good late sweeping out pitch slider but his inability to stay consistent is what has kept him out of MLB bullpens and instead mired in the minors.
Albeit in a tiny sample of 14 IP, Guerrero has had a good start to his Marlins’ organizational career, tossing to the tune of a 1.93 ERA by way of a 1.00 WHIP and .212 BAA but aside from the fact that it was at the AA level, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Guerrero’s career has been a roller coaster that has seen him go from showing the make up of a good closer only to regress back to him barely being worthy of a spot in AAA. That trend reared its ugly head again this past year. After the aforementioned solid start with the Suns, he went to the Dominican Winter League and allowed eight runs in 3.2 IP.
The reason why Guerrero makes this list despite his struggles is that when he has been on, he has resembled Carter Capps, whom, along with slugger Josh Naylor, the Marlins gave up in the trade that brought Guerrero and Cashner to Miami. With a short distance to go to the plate, a downhill delivery, some of the hottest heat in the league and a great slider that he tilts and commands well to the corners when he’s going good, if Guerrero finds his consistency, he could become a mainstay at the back of the bullpen and could at least partially Band-Aid another woeful Marlins trade that saw one of their bullpen anchors as well as a budding young power hitter go away in favor of 11 rental starts worth of a 5.98 ERA, provided by Cashner before he himself left town for Texas this offseason.
Even if Guerrero has a lights out spring, he likely won’t make the club out of camp, but by making a positive impact and getting off to a steady start in AAA, Guerrero could be a candidate to join what is shaping up to be an eight man Marlins bullpen later this year. At 25, it is pretty much make it or break it time for Guerrero. Despite not being able to find his groove on the mound on a regular basis, Guerrero has always been a fierce competitor. So, struggles aside, I wouldn’t count him out to finally put it all together and break through this season.
5 – Jarlin Garcia, LHP
Garcia is a 24-year-old 6’3″, 215 pound lefty in his seventh year in the Marlins’ organization. He came to the Fish as an international signee out of the Dominican in 2011 and impressed early in his pro career, tossing 52.0 3.29 ERA innings in his native country then coming to the US and adjusting to stateside ball very quickly and easily, tossing a very similar 40.0 innings worth of 3.60 ERA ball. He continued to fly through the minors in 2013, posting a 3.10 ERA in 69.2 innings with Batavia, by way of a 1.09 WHIP. His 74 strikeouts that year were fifth most in the New York Penn League and his K/BB% of 19.7% was second best. Garcia took a step back in adjusting to full season ball but was still a fairly decent 4.38 ERA in by far the most extensive season of his baseball career and more than double the innings he pitched the year previous. However, by being the best control pitcher in the Sally proven by the fact that he struck out the league’s tenth most batters, 111, and walked its fewest hitters, 21 thereby posting its best overall K/BB of 5.29%, Garcia was able to erase a high .280 BAA by posting a 1.29 WHIP, 12th lowest in the Sally. Because of the amazing authority he had over his arsenal, Garcia’s heightened .332 BABIP and even more decent than his ERA, 3.77 FIP as well as being honored with a Futures’ Game selection that season tells us he once again pitching like a top prospect worthy of a call to the next level. Garcia got that call at the beginning of the year in 2015 and got off to a 3.06, 1.227 WHIP, 3.00 K/BB% start in 97 innings with the Hammerheads before receving yet another callup to AA. Making the tough jump and pitching against competition an average of three years older than him, Garcia struggled in seven Suns’ starts. However, stats aside, backed by the fact that the Marlins added him to the 40-man at the time of his Jacksonville call-up, Garcia had successfully put himself on the radar to make his MLB debut sometime in the very near future, perhaps as early as 2016.
However, that season, Garcia’s progression would take a very unfortunate step back. After getting a peak in spirng training and after 35.2 innings of 4.04 ERA ball with 25/9 K/BB, the Marlins called Garcia, a starter, up to the bigs in order for him to apparently help an injury-riddled bullpen only to leave him sitting on the bench for the next eight days. Upon his return to the minors, Garcia’s first start lasted two innings. The control-first pitcher only threw 29 of his 45 pitches for strikes. In his second start, he was removed in the third inning after allowing four runs. Five days later, it was revealed that Garcia had a triceps injury and he was placed on the DL retroactive to his first outing back with the Suns.
After missing nearly three full months, Garcia returned to the mound on a rehab stint in the Gulf Coast League preceding him ending his season with the Hammerheads. In those 10 innings against talent below his level, he allowed just one run and held down an 11/1 K/BB. Following the MiLB season’s end, Garcia continued his rehab first in the Arizona Fall League then in the Dominican League where he posted a combined 3.56 ERA in 20.2 IP with a 14/5 K/BB and a 1.18 WHIP. He enters spring training this season as a guy who is still on the Marlins’ radar by way of him being their number three prospect and one of the best control arms in the entire organization but at 24 on his way back from a serious arm injury, he may be destined for the bullpen which is a bit depressing considering Garcia’s ceiling when he came into the professional ranks.
Still, even if Garcia doesn’t start, he can provide great value to a bullpen by way of his four quality above-average pitches and the control he has over all of them. Throwing from a delivery incredibly smooth from a guy of his 6’3″, 215 pound build. Where he deceives hitters best is on his follow-through which he explodes into after the aforementioned slow methodical windup which itself comes after a slow methodical look-in to his catcher and pace of play as he owns the mound and gets inside the mind of his opposition. His snappy follow-through and size allow him to generate easy low-mid 90s velo which at times can go higher. Garcia’s best breaking pitch is his changeup which is shows a good velo drop off of at least 10 MPH from his heat. Usually sitting in the 80-82 MPH range and shows good fade and depth. Garcia’s third pitch curve is a more average pitch which he struggles with the release point of because of his aforementioned ramped up follow-through but which he has shown the ability to throw with good downward bite. The fourth pitch slider is Garcia’s least developed pitch. He doesn’t have a great feel for it but he does run it well away from hitters at times giving it good mix-in value.
While Garcia’s future as a rotation piece is in doubt due the fact that he needs to develop a lot more command in a short period of time, he is still a guy that, based on his control alone, could provide solid innings eating relief help out of the bullpen. It’s doubtful he makes the squad in any capacity out of camp, but he is a guy to watch this spring and in the minors thereafter as he tries to get back on track after being bitten by the injury bug last year. A fierce competitor as shown by the fact that he played as much as he could at two different levels basically all offseason long trying to put the missed time behind him, I wouldn’t put it past Garcia to return with a fire lit under him this year.