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.
Up until this point, previews for teams have been my projections. With lineups released and the season a month old, this preview will be based upon factual evidence. Players I have already covered in previous previews who happened to make it to a higher level will be marked with a * and my writing on them may be a bit brief. For more info on those players, visit my previous team previews.
2015 Team Stats
71 HR/304 XBH
1204.2 IP, 4.07 ERA, 1.362 WHIP
CF Yefri Perez*
RF Jeremias Pineda
LF Austin Dean
1B Brady Shoemaker*
DH Moises Sierra
SS J.T. Riddle
3B Matt Juengel
C Francisco Arcia
2B Avery Romero*
Making it rain baseballs. Something that is frowned upon and disallowed at every bar and club in North America. That is until this year. Because that is exactly how the Jacksonville Suns will be hoping Austin Dean, Brady Shoemaker, Avery Romero and the rest of their 2016 squad will christen their brand new left field gazebo bar and will make into a tradition all season long.
No matter if you have the ridiculous raw speed needed to label you the fastest man the organization has ever seen and to steal an absurd 71 bases, most in your A+ league in over five years, if you only are able to muster a sub-300 OBP, you likely aren’t ready to crack the upper levels of the minors. Accordingly, I predicted to be the case for Yefri Perez after he slashed just .240/.286/.269 and struck out 95 times for the Hammerheads last season. Long story short on Yefri (pun intended), is that his swing was entirely too aggressive and long in 2015 and he used it far too often. With over half of his success reaching base coming off of bunts and slow-rolling grounders, Perez was far too aggressive early in the count and remained so when down two strikes, chasing pitches off the outer half and pulling the trigger on anything close. Still, stealing upwards of 70 bags and setting a franchise record despite only being on base 20% of the time in garnered Perez some worthy recognition as he was selected as an FSL All-Star and at seasons end, invited to attend Marlins’ spring training. It was evidently at the latter of those in which Perez proved he made the necessary adjustments needed to move to AA Jacksonville. Perez stuck around the big league team for nearly all of spring, reaping the benefits of his fellow players and coaches. Early on in the Suns’ season, it appears as though that experience is paying dividends for Yefri. Appearing to have put on a little bit of weight, Perez is using it to his advantage by executing a much better timed swing but not before he maintains the looseness in his hands much longer, taking away his previous tendency to commit early and get out in front. Because of this, would-be swings and misses, something Perez did far too frequently last year, are turning into at the very least foul balls, prolonging his ABs. Furthermore, he is also waiting longer to commit to bunts which is giving him an extra step towards first base upon a later infield reaction (not that he needs it) and what should equate to a higher success rate as it will allow him to square up the break of pitches more advantageously. While the sample size is indeed tiny and while Perez’s 2015 got off to a very similar start through his first week of play before he began showing his true colors, this new, improved, stronger, more patient, and more technically sound version of the 25-year-old has allowed him to show initial success at a higher level of competition that I did not think he was even remotely ready for. While it remains to be seen if Perez can keep this up over the course of a full year or even longer than a seven day span, the early product of Perez’s game with the Suns is indeed encouraging and it has all come while he has maintained his blazing speed as he as already stolen 5 bases in 5 attempts. Perez’s speed also serves him well in the field, giving him the ability to play virtually anywhere. His ability to cover all the ground needed for any position makes him playable at all three outfield spots and both middle infield spots. He makes good reads off the bat and runs good routes to the ball. On the infield, he exhibits good footwork, quick soft hands and great gap coverage. Because his outfield throwing arm is average at best (just 28 outfield assists in nearly 3,000 innings), he lines up more advantageously as a second baseman but, either way, he isn’t a hard guy to get in to games. Although he is 25 and first getting a taste of AA, if his early season plate presence and improved swing continue to show themselves, Yefri will become a fantastic spark plug bat off the bench and late inning defensive replacement. He has the makeup to be the type of utility player every team seeks.
Even on the occasion that pitchers manage to get around Perez this year, there will be little time to breathe in the way of harnessing speed as they will be forced to stare down Jeremias Pineda. Signed near the very end of the offseason, Pineda is a 25-year-old formerly of the Twins organization who spent last season playing in the Mexican leagues. Despite baseball south of the border being known as being very hitter friendly, Pineda still posted an impressive catalyst type slash line in 2015, going .285/.362/.339. It is the hope that Pineda’s success in Mexico translates back to the majors and his Marlins’ career. For that to happen, Pineda will need to improve upon a raw offensive approach, something he hasn’t been able to do in five years, which already ended his American majors career once, and despite the good numbers on the surface of his Mexican league season last year, still caused him to strike out a ridiculous 168 times to 71 walks in a league not known at all for pitching prowess. So much about Pineda reminds me of Yefri. He’s 25, he’s a switch hitter, he’s extremely fast (though not quite as fast as Perez), most of his offensive success comes from beating out infield hits and he is entirely too aggressive at the plate, especially when behind in the count. Hope is that these players, who will be hitting behind one another, can feed off each other and help each other succeed and turn them in to the extremely valuable utility players they have the capability of being. Pineda may be a step slower that Perez speed-wise but his outfield throwing arm is that step then a few more ahead of Yefri’s. For that reason, many of his starts should come in the outfield this season though, again like Perez, his versatility will allow the Suns get him into the lineup in many if not all games.
As he proved in the Arizona Fall League after a very good year considering it was in the pitcher’s haven of Jupiter last full season, the Marlins may really have something in Austin Dean. Following a .268/.318/.366 year with the Hammerheads which led his team and placed 18th in the Florida State League and earned him a FSL All Star Game invite as well as an invite to the Arizona Fall League where he hit .323/.364/.452 and made his second All-Star game of the year, Dean comes to the Suns riding high. What he has to thank for his success is a balanced approach, including the ability to wait pitches out until they are finished breaking and a short quick line drive stroke, backed by a solid lower half. His solid and still improving plate vision makes him a pesky out to get. He gets in the mind of pitchers, frustrating them by trying not to do too much with pitches out of his reach but rather just foul them off, forcing pitchers to make mistakes. Dean’s swing isn’t one that’s going to warrant him a ton of long balls but rather a prototypical short line drive stroke (as proven by a career 18.66 LD% coming into this year) that has the ability to reach all fields. As proven by a 77/148 BB/K over the course of his first two full seasons in the minors, Dean also isn’t afraid to take a walk if he doesn’t get what he likes. His patience, swing and plus speed which includes a good first step out of the box and warranted him 18 steals last year make him a fantastic future leadoff or two slot candidate. Dean will be and, by way of a .306/.416/.472 through his first 20 games in AA which includes an OBP that is currently fifth in the Southern League and a SLG and BA which rank 15th making him one of if not the best all-around bat thus far, already has been a fun project to watch fill out.
In Brady Shoemaker, we have a guy who must have done something drastic to someone within the organization to warrant the treatment he has received in his Marlins career because as of late, the organization has done everything possible to hold him back. It all started innocently enough for Shoemaker with a bout of bad luck. After being claimed off waivers by the Marlins in 2013 after he spent that entire season out of baseball, Shoemaker returned to the minors with a vengeance in 2014, hitting .274/.374/.433 in AA Jacksonville. That year, he either led or was a close second in nearly every major offensive category amongst full time Suns including HR (12), OBP (.374), OPS (.808), walks (67), BB/K (.74) and RBI (71). Amongst qualifiers who appeared in at least 100 Southern League games, Shoemaker’s .374 OBP ranked 10th and his .808 OPS ranked 12th. His accomplishments warranted him a well-deserved call-up to AAA in 2015. At the highest level he’s ever played at, a 27-year-old Shoemaker quickly became one of the Zephyrs top players. Heading into a game on May 24th, Shoemaker was hitting a robust .310/.393/.509 and looked to be the next man in line for a call-up and probably would have been when Giancarlo Stanton hit the season ending DL with a hand injury on June 27th, leaving the Marlins scrambling for outfielders. Moreoever, Shoemaker, who also plays first, would have been the best choice considering first baseman Justin Bour’s struggles against lefties beginning to come to fruition and the fact that Shoemaker’s mashing versus them which amounted to the tune of a .302/.402/.573 that year was also beginning to rear it’s beautiful head. However, May 24th is when Shoemaker’s run of rough luck began. In the Zephyrs’ game that night against El Paso, Shoemaker broke a pinkie finger, putting him on the shelf for the rest of May, the entire month of June and the beginning of July, causing him to miss his window and an opportunity to make his major league debut. Being the consummate professional that he is and being no stranger to missing time only to come back even better, Shoemaker returned on July 7th and although his second half was, quite understandably after breaking a finger in his dominant hand, wasn’t as good as his first half as he struggled to find gaps as regularly as he did before the injury, Shoemaker remained one of the Zephyrs’ key contributors. By season’s end, he was arguably their full-season MVP, ending 2015 with a .284/.359/.417 line. His .776 OPS ranked third on the team as did his .417 SLG, once again not just making him a candidate but rather the prime candidate to become Justin Bour’s platoon partner at first base in 2016 after Bour ended the year with a .221/.293/.279 against southpaws. Even after the signing of career reclamation project Chris Johnson to a major league contract, Shoemaker at the very least still seemed lined up to make the roster as the fifth outfielder, especially after he began his spring by hitting (), one of the best bats in camp. However, that didn’t stop the Marlins from inexplicably making Shoemaker part of the first round of spring cuts. He watched as Cole Gillespie earned the nod as the fifth outfielder and planned to make the trip back to New Orleans. But the hits didn’t stop coming there. At the end of spring training, Shoemaker wasn’t assigned to New Orleans. He was, once again for reasons lost on everyone who has followed his career of late, assigned all the way down to AA Jacksonville. It would seem as though frustration has understandably so finally gotten the best of the now 28-year-old who could be playing in the majors and definitely should be playing above AA as his season with the Suns has gotten off to just a .212 start. While there is no doubt that the power hitting, balanced approach hitter that Shoemaker is and as his OBP (.356) and SLG (.353) are already proving, he will (continue to) improve upon that line as the season progresses but whether he makes the majors with the Marlins or not seems to be very much up in the air. Simply put, the guy can’t catch a break and the organization doesn’t seem to be willing to help him along.
In addition to a best-selling jersey waiting to happen, the Marlins have potential five-tool talent in J.T. Riddle, who will man the infield for the Suns this year. After hitting .286/.322/.405 and receiving All-Star honors in Jupiter last year, Riddle, a 13th round draft pick, comes to the Suns as a .274/.316/.373 lifetime MiLB hitter. Swinging with a light balanced load, the 6’1″ 180 pounder is a mostly singles bat but he packs a bit of hidden power and will surprise with his ability to hit gaps. Add to the fact that he still has time to add power by way of growing physically and it’s easy to see why Riddle was named the Marlins’ top hitting prospect in 2015 and remains a top 10 organizational prospect this year. Despite owning a short stroke, Riddle is a bit too aggressive at the plate, making him susceptible to the K and the reason why he hasn’t posted an OBP over the .325 mark at any level and something the Marlins would like to see temper as he makes his way through the upper minors. Riddle made quite the impression with the Suns in the second half of 2015 when he hit .289/.323/.422 for them and has continued to set fire to Southern League pitching on fire in his first 23 games in Jacksonville this year, hitting .279/.330/.395 with 7 XBH and 18 RBI. Though he is a natural second baseman, the Marlins have been giving Riddle playing time at other infield spots in hopes that he can become a quality utility player and lefty off the bench, ala Derek Dietrich and, although his speed is average, he has the arm strength and the quickness needed to cover all the ground and do so. However, if he continues to show improved pop as he grows into his body along with the raw talent that he owns behind his approach and maintains similar success against righties and lefties, Riddle has the opportunity to turn into an every day starter. He is a piece very much worth watching as he progresses this season.
Avery Romero mans the other up-the-middle spot for the Suns this season despite an average at best year in Jupiter last year in which he hit just .259/.315/.314, all career lows for the 22-year-old. While some of that dumbing down of his slash line can be blamed on the pitcher’s paradise that is Roger Dean Stadium, especially considering he came in to 2015 having never failed to hit at least .276/.341/.391 over the course of a full season and was coming off of a .320/.367/.423 year in between Greensboro and his first 26 games as a Hammerhead, Romero did exhibit some worrisome setbacks last year, including a career worst 71/38 K/BB and a 1.29 GO/AO, his worst since his days in rookie ball. Despite exhibiting a good short line drive swing that generates a lot of contact and puts his 1/100 rating in that category at 81 and his career line drive percentage at 21%, Romero has always been more of a free swinger rather than a count worker and has been known to press when frustrated. The Marlins are hoping that immaturity is the reason for his struggles last yar and that with a change of scenery to the much more neutral Southern League as well as a year’s worth more of experience under his belt, those tensions will ease. Defensively, Romero made the switch from shortstop to second base after high school. Thanks to Romero’s athletic frame as well as his quick hands and swift footwork following him from the plate into the field, he has made the move rather well overall, attributing to a 4.49 career range factor at the number 4 position. Last year, he contributed to a career high 79 double plays. However, Romero also proved he still has some growing to do, arm accuracy and decision wise as he rushed a lot of erratic throws at 2B and also committed a career high 20 errors but that is a flaw that should work itself out with more innings and more age. Whether Romero makes his ETA next season or not will depend upon his ability to improve upon his plate presence and patience and this season is his make it or break it moment. So far in 2016, it hasn’t happened as Romero is hitting just .170/.286/.283 but there is still plenty of baseball left to play. We will be monitoring him closely throughout the course of the year.
1. Austin Brice
2. Jake Esch
3. Jarlin Garcia
4. Tim Berry
Austin Brice is a huge 6’4″ 240 pound 9th round draft pick from 2010 who is impressive at times and has made strides improving his arsenal in recent years but who just can’t seem to put it all together. The physical specimen is an intimidating force for opposing hitters to stare down on the mound and he ramps up the kind of velo to match, occasionally throwing his pitch-off primary fastball in the mid-90s but usually sitting in the 90-92 MPH range. His best secondary pitch is a slider which he just recently got a feel for in the last two seasons. Sitting in the 82-86 MPH range, Brice will throw the pitch in any count and has the ability to hit corners with it when it is on. His curve has similar velo and when he is throwing it well, has good 11-4 break with some late bite. Notice, however, that in describing all of those pitches, “when it is on” is mentioned. That is Brice’s biggest crux and the reason why he owns an unimpressive 4.26 ERA over 560 minor league innings. The trend with Brice’s game is that there is no trend at all. From start to start or even inning to inning, he can either be the hero on the goat. When he is off, like many pitchers of his size the problem lies in his ability to repeat his delivery and most importantly maintain his release point, suggesting he is likely destined for a mid-late relief role rather than a rotation job. With two plus pitches already and two more, the aforementioned curve and a mid-80s changeup and still improving, the fact that he is good at subduing power, and held righty hitters to a .171 BA last year, he could make quite the living in that role at the major league level. All of that said, Brice has begun 2016 as consistent as he ever has been, not allowing more than 3 runs in any of his first five starts with half of them being of the quality variety. He also owns a 23/6 K/BB and he is pounding the zone with 246 of his 367 pitches (72%) of his pitches going for strikes. While it may be a last gasp effort (pun intended) for the gargantuan but somewhat unathletic Brice to save his future as a rotation starter, his start is encouraging.
Jake Esch is the Marlins’ current number nine prospect and an 11th round draft pick from 2011. He stands at an athletic 6’3″, 205 and owns a four pitch arsenal consisting of a 93-96 fastball which he can spot corner to corner. He can also pitch off of the other end of his velo range, a mid 80s slider that has 10-3 movement with late bite. His ability to lead hitters off with both ends of the spectrum allows him to keep hitters off balance despite what they may see from the on-deck circle. He mixes in a still improving mid-80s change which also flashes above average and which plays off his fastball well, especially against opposing righties which he last year with the Suns held to just a .200 BAA. The Esch curveball is the least progressed of his pitches but although the spin needs to be improved, it has good 11-5 shape and can make hitters look silly when he places it correctly. After getting off to a great start in AA last year in which he held down a 3.48 ERA through 85 innings with a 68/33 K/BB, Esch received the call to AAA. However, being just 400 innings into his career as a pitcher (he came up through high school and college primarily as an infielder which allows him to field his position extremely well), he understandably proved he needs more seasoning in AA. While he is a bit old to begin a repeat season at the sub-AAA level, Esch has made great strides in a short amount of time. Should he continue to build upon a second great start that he has gotten off to in Jacksonville this year (2.93 ERA, 21/8 K/BB, 1.05 WHIP through is first 27.2 IP), he should get a better timed call to AAA and, with similar success there, could make an impact with the Marlins as early as next season.
Jarlin Garcia is a bit of an oddity in the way that he owns a 6’3″ 220 pound power pitcher’s frame but will rarely reach the mid-90s. That said, by not overthrowing and relying more on good control over all four of his pitches, Garcia has become the Marlins’ third ranked prospect. His arsenal consists of a fastball that can touch 95 on the rare occasion that he ramps it up that high but usually lives in the 90-91 MPH range. Garcia has great feel for the pitch can paint corners with it, letting it run either in or out and consistently keeping it down in the zone making it a pitch he will throw in any count. He pitches off of the heat with a changeup that he developed better feel for last year and dips down to 82 MPH. Garcia’s bulldog approach gives him the fearlessness needed to come right after hitters with the pitch and, with good late fade, generates plenty of swings and misses. The Garcia slider is of the 78-81 MPH variety and, while it is the least developed of all of his pitches, it flashes plus when Garcia is on, showing 10-4 movement and the ability to saw hitters off by putting it in on their hands due to late sweep. While Garcia can look dominant when he is throwing well, he isn’t without fault. First, mechanics-wise he doesn’t engage his huge lower half, nearly enough but rather relies more on raw arm strength on his way to the plate. The windup starts out slow with Garcia dropping his arm all the way down behind his plant leg before he comes toward the plate with a long stride, his arm trailing behind him. Even though Garcia rarely throws the ball as hard as he can, the delivery is not repeatable whatsoever if he hopes to use it 100 times per game and stay healthy. Furthermore, by releasing the ball from the point he does, Garcia doesn’t advantageously shorten the distance to the plate for a guy his size. Long story short, Garcia not only just doesn’t do nearly enough with his god-given physical characteristics to be considered much more than a 4-5 starter, concerns about him remaining healthy in his current state may regulate him to a bullpen role. Psychologically, Garcia is also a bit green as nearly every big time scout has been critical of his command, citing the fact that he tends to overthrow in high leverage situations which translated to an awful start to his AA career last season. Going in Garcia’s favor here is the fact that he is still just 23 with room to grow and not become so easily rattled. Much more concerning are the aforementioned mechanical problems. If Garcia hopes to have a future as a starter, they need to beging being ironed out now but after doing something the same way for six years, bad habits can be hard to break. Hopefully his stone isn’t already cast. We will follow him carefully this year.
Projected Team Stats
77 HR/347 XBH
1201 IP, 4.02 ERA, 1.27 WHIP