The last two series for the Miami Marlins indicated clearly that the team's future at the starting rotation spot appears all but secure. The franchise went through great means to acquire pitching depth to the organization, and it chose not to trade from that depth in order to see what they had available to them. But before April even ended, it looks clear that the Major League roster already contains a couple of obvious pieces for the future. The Marlins' rotation should be set for the next few years, with four members being obvious choices going forward.
What else is there to say about Jose Fernandez? After his truly dominant Tuesday start, during which he struck out 14 Atlanta Braves batters and won a 1-0 duel against Alex Wood, Fernandez now owns 47 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings. He has whiffed 37.9 percent of batters faced while only walking six in his first five starts. Last year, his numbers were absurd, yet somehow during the early part of this season, he has continued his torrid second half pace from last year. Last season, he posted a 1.32 ERA and 1.99 FIP in 68 second-half innings, and we thought it could not get any better. This year, he somehow upped his strikeout rate from 32.7 percent to 37.9 and put up 1.99 ERA and 1.47 FIP. It's like we never left August and September of 2013!
Fernandez finished third in the Cy Young voting last season for the National League, and early on he looks like a prime contender for the big prize this season. It seems almost uncanny that a pitcher can be this talented while still being 21 years old for another three months. His first year and changed have fully established him as one of the league's true ace pitchers.
Fernandez was eventually expected to have a right-hand man in the rotation in the future in top prospect Andrew Heaney, but he might be moved to Fernandez's left hand to accommodate Eovaldi on the right. After a promising sophomore season in which he posted improved strikeout and walk rates and a greatly increased fastball velocity, it was going to be interesting to see how Eovaldi followed up on his performance. Would he show improvement on the offspeed pitches he needs to succesd?
No, not yet, but it seems Eovaldi has found his style. In a move I discussed a few weeks back and one that Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs expounded upon, it turns out Eovaldi's new gameplan is to live in the strike zone and generate foul balls until hitters strike out from exhaustion. He has limited his walks in a major way, having walked just four batters (one intentional) in 31 1/3 innings thus far. Meanwhile the new approach is working in the strikeout department as well; despite a mediocre 81 percent contact rate (league average 78.9 percent), he has an impressive 23.4 percent strikeout rate. Tack on an increase in ground balls and you have the makings of a strong control pitcher, which is a surprise given how Eovaldi started off his career.
Heaney is not in the majors just yet, but it won't be long until he is if he continues his performance in Double-A. After his stint late last year ended in decreased strikeout rates and an acceptable 2.94 ERA and 3.12 FIP, Heaney was asked to repeat the level, and he did not disappoint. So far the lefty has struck out 26.6 percent of batters faced while walking only three batters in 24 1/3 innings of work. He is mowing down competition to the tune of a 1.48 ERA and 1.94 FIP.
Given Heaney's success thus far, you have to figure Miami will fast-track him past Triple-A and directly to the majors, especially if someone else on the main roster is struggling. Tom Koehler and the returning Jacob Turner hold the two other rotation spots, and if either falters, Miami could look to replace them with a more long-term solution. Heaney figures to supplant one of those two pitchers and remain a permanent staple in the rotation for years to come.
It is easy to forget Henderson Alvarez because he does not have the sexiest of repertoires on this roster, but he does have an advantage the other starters on the team have yet to show. Alvarez's contact-based style lends itself to an economy of pitches that allows him to rack up innings. Fernandez and Eovaldi need strikeouts for success, but Alvarez cannot and does not generate them. Instead, he depends on ground balls and the whims of his defense, and when that goes well, you see things like his two-hit complete game shutout of the Seattle Mariners over the weekend and his no-hitter from last year. In both instances, he completed the game in around 90 pitches.
Alvarez still has a ceiling that does not allow Miami to project much for him in the future. He is like Ricky Nolasco in the sense that he holds a lot of value while he remains under team control, but he would not be a candidate for an extension beyond that time period and would look worse under a long-term, fair-value contract. But while he is still under three more team-control years, he remains a part of the future.
The only question for Miami now is to find its fifth and final member among a slew of prospects and current players. Turner and Koehler will be joined in the competition by Justin Nicolino, Brian Flynn, Anthony DeSclafani, Adam Conley, and potentially more down the pipeline. If more than one of those players succeed, Miami could use someone like Alvarez as trade bait as well. Either way, the future looks bright for the Marlins' starting rotation.