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.