The Miami Marlins are trying to answer nine important questions leading into the 2014 season. The questions vary in terms of how important they are, and this is one of the more assured questions heading into next year. Still, knowing the identity of the team's rotation is important, even if the answer is likely to be unsurprising.
The Marlins have the luxury of an impressive set of young pitchers ready for the majors. Jose Fernandez is fantastic, though fans have to be careful about the 2014 season. Behind him, Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez are looking to build off of relatively successful 2013 seasons as the second and third starters on the team. Jacob Turner worked a full season last year for the Fish and, while his status is still questionable for the future, he has Major League experience and a top prospect pedigree. Miami will continue to examine what they have in him.
The fifth starter remains the only truly open slot in the rotation, and the Marlins are not short on candidates. The franchise has a number of names who could fill the position. Here is what Joe Frisaro of MLB.com had to say about the topic.
8. How will the rotation shape up? Barring anything unforeseen, the top three starters are in place -- Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez. Aside from Fernandez being the ace, the other two could flip-flop. The fourth and fifth spots are up for grabs. Jacob Turner and Tom Koehler are the incumbents, but they will have to earn their places. There are several promising prospects who are close to being big league ready. Andrew Heaney is one of the more highly touted lefty prospects in the game. Chances are he won't be ready until around mid-season. Brad Hand and Brian Flynn are two other left-handed candidates in the mix for rotation spots.
The competition is truly for that last spot, so let's examine the names in what I believe will be the order of likelihood.
Flynn seems the most likely candidate to win the job heading into this season. The Marlins are bereft of left-handed pitchers in their rotation and Flynn's status as an actual prospect should propel him into the regular rotation. He is not necessarily the best pitching prospect in the Marlins' system, but his natural development has led to a likely promotion.
Despite his poor showing in the majors in September (8.50 ERA, 6.44 FIP in 18 innings), Flynn has done all he has to do in the minor leagues. Last year, before he was acquired by Miami in the Anibal Sanchez trade with the Detroit Tigers, he was having a strong year in High-A Lakeland (3.71 ERA, 3.22 FIP in 18 starts), but he spent only 10 starts in parts of two years in Double-A before moving into Triple-A in 2013. Thanks to that work in Double-A (3.44 ERA, 3.57 FIP in 2012 and 2013 combined), Flynn got a chance to own Triple-A and the Pacific Coast League. He led the league in ERA with a 2.80 mark and a 3.05 FIP in 138 innings. He posted an acceptable 21.4 percent strikeout rate and a 7.0 percent walk rate at the level, and that convinced Miami of his worthiness.
Flynn's work in Triple-A puts him ahead of the other legitimate prospects who have less experience, while his status as a prospect makes him a better pick than some of the incumbents and Quad-A pitching depth in the mix. He should open the season in the fifth spot.
Koehler is the incumbent holder of the position, as he took over for Kevin Slowey when the latter suffered a season-ending forearm injury. His presence in this competition is a formality, but it is real. The team did opt to see 143 innings of Koehler last season, and all told, he did not do terribly. Koehler's 4.41 ERA and 4.27 FIP both were not bad; those performances were similar to those of Matt Cain, CC Sabathia, and Wily Peralta last season.
The problem is that Koehler has zero upside. He does not strike out hitters at a significant rate, nor does he have great control or a ground ball tendency. He may be a perfectly plausible below-average pitcher, but if that is all he is going to be regardless of the time Miami invests in him, the Fish should look elsewhere for more value.
The same basically applies to Slowey. The control artist does excel in doing one thing, as he boasts a 3.8 percent career walk rate. The problem is that, even with his excellent strikeout and walk numbers, Slowey still gives up too many homers. Miami can help suppress some of that problem with Marlins Park, but Slowey has always had this issue throughout his career, and he is unlikely to learn how to pitch to ground ball contact in the near future.
Slowey and Koehler are not too different in terms of status. Koehler is probably worse, but he is younger and under longer team control. Slowey was signed to a minor league contract, but it is likely the team will use him as depth.
The Marlins promoted their top prospect in Jose Fernandez last season despite the fact that he had thrown no pitches above the High-A level. Now the club's top prospect is once again a pitcher, and this time that player has thrown Double-A innings already. Heaney, the team's 2012 first-round pick, is arguably the Marlins' best prospect and his experience in college at Oklahoma State University allowed him to work 33 2/3 innings in Double-A last season.
In those innings, Heaney impressed, putting up a 2.94 ERA and 3.42 FIP. However, those numbers were based on a minuscule home run rate, and his 16.7 percent strikeout rate at the level implied that he could use more seasoning there. This is not a situation like Fernandez, where he dominated Low- and High-A so thoroughly that you maybe could consider promoting him if you were desperate. Heaney is not as good and the Marlins are not nearly as desperate to do such a thing given their tremendous depth.
The Marlins are considering Brad Hand after he put up solid numbers last year in Triple-A. Hand put up a 3.42 ERA and 4.06 FIP last season in a full year in New Orleans, and while that is not particularly impressive, the Marlins do like the fact that Hand is left-handed. His numbers from last year reminded the Fish of his prospect days, when he would mix high strikeout rates (23.1 percent in 2013) with bad walk rates (12.8 percent in 2013). Back before the last two seasons, there was some hope that he would grow from that point, but at this rate, he is what he is. He is at a clear disadvantage versus the other incumbent veterans who actually played in the majors last year.
Conley is a dark-horse candidate for a promotion as well. He is slated to start in Triple-A because he just spent 138 2/3 innings dominating at the Double-A level. Conley put up a 3.25 ERA and 2.95 FIP thanks in large part to a 22.2 percent strikeout rate and the best walk rate he has ever posted. Conley's left-handedness may also help his case for a rotation spot in Miami.
Aside from Heaney and Justin Nicolino, Conley may be the next best pitching prospect on the team, so his pedigree would serve him better than Flynn. But Conley's disadvantage is that the Fish could easily justify starting him in Triple-A, whereas Flynn has nothing else to prove at that level. If Conley continues to pitch well, however, the team may have no choice but to see what they have in him as well, potentially out of the bullpen. Miami converted Conley from a college reliever to a starter with great success, but they could try him in the pen if Flynn is succeeding.