Assuming the Marlins don’t shop the recently committed Dan Haren before the season starts, the battle for the 5th spot in the Miami Marlins rotation just got exciting in the form of unpredictable.
After showing up at camp on Friday in Jupiter, FL to report for the Marlins pitchers and catchers workout, Dan Haren has made it clear he is here to stay, only fueling the fire with regards to the internal battle to find a 5th starter for the 2015 Marlins opening day rotation. Now that he has voiced his commitment to the team, Dan Haren may not be the one who’s caught up battling for the last spot in the rotation. Rather the battle for the last spot now could come down to watching the kind of numbers Brad Hand, Tom Koehler and David Phelps can put up, in hopes of solidifying the last spot in the rotation. We can assume that Dan Haren will now slide into the 4th spot in the rotation, barring any kind of injury, the Marlins are unlikely to send a much needed savvy veteran down to Triple-A or take his “Man-Card” from him by making him a long reliever, instead of the consistent work horse he has always been. Significance being, that there will be a new internal battle for the 5th spotin the rotation that will take place between Tom Koehler, David Phelps and the only lefty in the bunch Brad Hand.
Tom Koehler: (Leading Right-Handed Candidate)
Koehler is the lead horse in the race for the 5th spot going into the spring. Based on his stat line from last year where he registered a win-loss record of 10-10, while recording a career high in IP (191.1), ERA (3.81) and K/9 (7.20) striking out 153 total batters. All the while, walking just 3.35 batters per nine innings pitched. Although he tends to wear down in the late innings proven last year by Koehler going 7 strong innings just 9 times over 32 games started. However, he did end the season with 17 quality starts out of those 32 games, where he went six or seven innings for the Marlins and gave up just 3 runs or less on those occasions. Meaning, if he can come into the spring with an improved fatigue rate and a better feel for his arsenal of pitches than there will be no questions asked about who will land the 5th spot in the rotation.
Brad Hand: (Lefty Favorite)
Even though Hand doesn’t have the strongest starting resume when compared to the likes of Tom Koehler and David Phelps, he made a case to be looked at this spring by the Marlins organization based on the numbers he was able to put up after returning to an injury riddled Marlins rotation in July of last season. Making just 14 starts done the stretch, 8 of which were quality starts and compiling a 3.80 ERA, while striking out a total of 43 batters in just 83 innings pitched after being recalled from Triple-A New Orleans. Giving him a 4.66 K/9 ratio, but its his .323 BABIP over those 83 innings that is cause for concern going into spring training, proving that he still hasn’t developed a consistent put away pitch at the major league level. Thus, instead of heading into the spring with a solidified spot in the Marlins rotation, Hand will have to prove he has developed an advanced feel for his off-speed offerings to keep hitters at the major league level at bay, if he wants to land that back-end 5th spot in the Marlins Big league rotation.
David Phelps: (The Underdog Righty)
I think by all accounts it’s safe to assume that Phelps will either start the season at Triple-A New Orleans as a starting pitcher or will end up falling into the same profession as he did with the Yankees. Meaning, if he makes the major league roster out of spring, it will likely be as a long reliever with the chance of receiving spot starts here and there as needed. He will, like the others get a chance though at the starting spot based on what he was able to accomplish in his 17 starts last season for the New York Yankees. Only winning 5 decisions of those 17 starts, but posted a 4.28 ERA with a 6.80 K/9 ratio in his 96.2 innings pitched when he toed the rubber as a starter for the Yankees. For Phelps to come out of spring training as the 5th starter in the marlins he will need to show complete control in his repertoire of pitches and come out with an improved mound presence translating to dominance on the mound that will hopefully cast shadows upon Brad Hand and Tom Koehler, allowing Phelps a true chance to complete for the last spot in the rotation.
With everyone final factored into the equation, and assuming the rotation is already preset with Mat Latos, Henderson Alvarez , Jarrod Cosart, and possibly Dan Haren (in no particular order) these final three pitchers listed above will have their work cut out for them when spring training games beginning next month. So make sure to pay extra attention to the screen when these pitchers take the mound for the Marlins, as they will be bringing their best stuff in hopes of earning that final spot in the rotation.
If everything evolves as predicted, the future for Justin Nicolino, one of the most decorated Minor League pitchers, looks bright. However, where does he fit in a talented Miami Marlins rotation that will feature a dominant Top 3 with the return of Jose Fernandez mid-season from Tommy John surgery to join Mat Latos and Henderson Alvarez?
Rated as the Miami Marlins organization’s #2 prospect by Baseballamerica.com, there’s hope within the front office that we will see the Marlins most coveted left-handed pitching prospect wearing the vibrant big league uniforms in 2015. Having recently traded Andrew Heaney to the Angels and the 2012 Mega Deal’s Anthony DeSclafani to the Reds for Mat Latos, the organization has slotted Nicolino as “The Next Man Up” if in need of mid-season help. The likelihood that he breaks camp in the Marlins big league rotation is slim, even though the need for a left-handed starter in the rotation is strong. The Marlins are hoping Brad Hand can land that job coming out of spring training, even though the organization believes Nicolino is the better option. This suggests that he is more likely to debut after the Super 2 Deadline in July. Alternatively, the Marlins may wait to bring him up late in the season, hoping he will make a 2003 Dontrelle Willis like impact, after some further fine tuning at either Double-A Jacksonville or Triple-A New Orleans.
Labeled by scouts as a Command & Control style pitcher, he registered an impressive BB/9 rate of 1.06 in 2014. This is attributed to his tall frame, high baseball IQ and a deceptive overhand throwing motion that creates a downward plane on his pitches, allowing him to keep his strikes low in the zone, and generating weak contact. His .03% HR/FB ratio in 2014 is evidence of this. This type of pitchability allows his arsenal of pitches to play up at the next level. However, he carries a mediocre Fastball that clocks in around 89-92 MPHs and a below-average Curveball that has been labeled more of a Slurve at 77-80 MPHs. The one pitch in his arsenal that is already tailor-made for the big leagues is his change-up. It generates excellent late fade, and paired with his deceptive arm speed, it has become his go to swing and miss option when ahead in the count on hitters.
Despite being equipped with all these tools, there are concerns he may not reach his maximum potential. Seen by his dramatic regression in his K/BB rate from 24% in Single-A, to 11.8% after being promoted to Double-A Jacksonville in 2013. This appears to reflect his inability at this point to develop tighter spin on his Curveball. This is needed to improve its consistency and late break, adding that “whiff” factor needed for him to be successful not only at the next level, but at the Major League level. In addition, scouts are worried how his arm will hold up as he takes on more innings. The aggressive manner he throws across his body leads to a lot of arm side run and deception on his Fastball, but scouts are worried he could develop serious shoulder issues.
With growth and development we all hope he can astound at the Major League level like he has at the Minor League level. It will be difficult to surpass his current awards of being the 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year and finishing 2014 Ranked #1 as the Top-Control Starter in the Minor Leagues. There is little reason to think he couldn’t become a future Ace, or even a strong #2 in the rotation behind Jose Fernandez. For now though, don’t expect to see him on the opening day roster unless the Marlins suffer injuries during spring training, and without a consistent “whiff” factor present in his Curveball he projects to me, at best a #4 in the Marlins Rotation.