The Miami Marlins are threatening to demote starting pitcher Jacob Turner thanks to his spring training struggles, but one closed door leads to new opportunities for two other members of the spring training staff. While it was fairly assured that the Fish would start one of either Wade LeBlanc or Kevin Slowey in the rotation, it seems as though both may actually make the starting staff in 2013. But how good are these two pitchers, and can they make enough of an impact to help the team on the field or perhaps in a trade this season?
Last season, LeBlanc surprised a lot of Marlins fans and brass by putting up a decent performance for the Fish out of the pen and in the starting rotation. In nine starts, he put up a passable 4.18 ERA and 3.88 FIP. He also allowed a allowed a not-ideal .286/.338/.402 (.323 wOBA) line as a starter, so not all of his performance was positive, but the fact that he held his own was a good thing for the Fish.
But that was 2012, and this is 2013. The good news for the Marlins is that Wade LeBlanc, for the most part, is expected to remain the same, as his skill set is well-established. The lefty starter is your typical soft-tossing lefty, with a mid-80's fastball that hung around 87 mph last year and some secondary fastball offerings like a cutter and two-seamer along with a changeup. He also flashes the occasional curveball as well. This set of pitches has led to more or less the same results every year, as LeBlanc continues to show no change in his strikeout rates (career 16.0 percent, 15.1 percent in 2012) and batted ball profile (34.7 percent ground ball rate career, 34.4 percent in 2012). He has improved on his walk rate, cutting it down below seven percent last season for the first time in his career, but to maintain success, he will have to continue that.
This is especially true if, as expected, LeBlanc sees some regression in the home run department. Because his fly ball tendencies are astoundingly consistent, LeBlanc is expected to give up a lot of flies into the outfield of Marlins Park. The stadium generally suits such a player well with its large dimensions, but it is easy to forget that before he arrived in Miami, he had a home run reputation in San Diego and in Petco Park. If LeBlanc is capable of allowing 1.5 home runs per nine innings playing half of his games in Petco Park as he did in 2010, then the likelihood of him retaining the rate he had last season (0.9 homers per nine innings) seems low.
The systems seem much more forgiving in terms of LeBlanc's regression, as they see a similar performance to the one he put up in 2012. The average expectation was that he would allow about 18 homers in 150-plus innings, with Steamer guessing on the high end. The averaged projected ERA here was at 4.18.
Projection: 160 IP, 1.7 WAR
Slowey spent last season looking lost in Triple-A, which is part of the reason why his possible big-league promotion looks very strange. Last year, he posted a 5.29 ERA and 4.53 FIP with the Cleveland Indians' Triple-A organization, and he did so with the same problem he has had all throughout his major league career: he allowed too many home runs. For his career, Slowey has allowed an astonishing 1.4 home runs per nine innings and is the proud owner of a ground ball rate of 31.6 percent. That rate is even lower than LeBlanc's, and LeBlanc has shown some ability to prevent long balls.
So why is Slowey still fighting for a job in the majors. and why were the Twins often considered silly for tugging him around in the first place? Well, he owns a career 4.24 FIP and 4.19 xFIP, indicating that he has at least passable peripherals. Indeed, he also owns a career 17.5 percent strikeout rate and a 3.7 percent walk rate, meaning that he pitches like a true control artist. As a slow-tossing righty, however, he is often overlooked, but his skill set is real and he has only one hurdle to overcome, albeit one that has plagued him consistently throughout his career.
The projection from PECOTA is highly favorable, but the other two systems see a pitcher who struggled in Triple-A last year and failed to make the majors. The Oliver projection system, however, sees a similar potential for decent play from Slowey, yielding a decent overall projection of a 4.31 ERA for the former Minnesota Twins cast-off.
Projection: 100 IP, 0.9 WAR
This leaves the Marlins about 20 more innings to fill from its starters between injuries and late-season promotion. For ease, we will assume the Marlins will put up replacement-level performances for the remaining 20 innings. That leaves the total contribution by the rotation to be worth 8.5 Wins Above Replacement. The rotation's 8.5 wins would have ranked 24th last season behind the Los Angeles Angels' rotation and ahead of the Kansas City Royals'. That placement is not flattering to the Fish and certainly is not helping the club's abysmal positional players' mark.