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How Have the Miami Marlins Handled Pitching Prospects Like Jose Fernandez?

What can we learn from the way the Miami Marlins promoted Josh Johnson and other top pitching prospects to help us determine how they will handle Jose Fernandez? (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
What can we learn from the way the Miami Marlins promoted Josh Johnson and other top pitching prospects to help us determine how they will handle Jose Fernandez? (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
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Earlier today, we talked about how the Miami Marlins were considering promoting Jose Fernandez in 2013 if he had a dominant campaign in Double-A next season. This mirrored the sort of promotion schedule that elite Marlins prospects like Josh Beckett and Giancarlo Stanton also received when they tore through the Double-A level.

But it also got me thinking about just how the Marlins have treated other pitching prospects in the past. The Fish have had only a few household, in-house draftees on the pitching side make it to the major leagues and stick for an extended period of time this decade. How have those players been treated, and how are they different from Fernandez in their performance?

To discuss this, let's look back at three prominent pitching prospects who were originally drafted by the Marlins and made their debuts with the organization.

Josh Johnson

Johnson is perhaps the most successful Marlins pitching prospect in team history, having gone on to pitch the third most number of innings among pitchers in Marlins history and having accrued the most Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in method of measure among pitchers in team history. Yet ironically, Johnson was the weakest of these three pitching prospects who will be mentioned, as he was only ranked once in Baseball America's Top 100 prospects and only once mentioned among the team's top ten prospects. Despite all of his major league success, Johnson was ranked as the 80th best prospect in baseball heading into 2006.

The reason for Johnson's lack of name recognition as a prospect was that he simply was never that good in the minors.

Year Level K% lgK% BB% lgBB% ERA lgERA
2003 South Atlantic League (Low-A) 16.9 19.3 8.3 9.1 3.61 3.65
2004 Florida State League (High-A) 20.6 18.5 9.6 8.8 3.46 3.83
2005 Southern League (Doube-A) 18.9 18.9 8.4 9.0 3.87 4.04

As you can see from those numbers, Johnson never impressed statistically enough to justify a high ranking in terms of prospect lists. Unlike Fernandez, who romped through Low- and High-A with impressive, otherworldly figures, Johnson merely got by as around a league average pitcher at each level. Now granted, being league average when you are two years younger on average than the league is pretty good. However, combine that with his scouting report of mediocre stuff and you can see why there was never a whole lot of buzz behind the fourth-round draft pick of the 2002 draft.

Johnson's stock did go up following his Double-A season, and that is logical because his velocity had apparently increased and his slightly above-average performance in Double-A led to better reviews. Still, the Marlins watched Johnson finish out the season in Double-A rather than aggressively bring him up, instead only handing a cup of coffee in September after A.J. Burnett was kicked off the team. Johnson's stock rose, but it never went up high enough like Fernandez's has that it would warrant a midseson call-up.

Scott Olsen

Of the pitchers drafted highly in the 2002 draft, Olsen was always considered the better prospect. He was drafted in the second round and immediately got on the top 100 prospect lists with impressive numbers coming from a lefty starter.

Year Level K% lgK% BB% lgBB% ERA lgERA
2002 Gulf Coast League (Rookie) 23.2 18.2 7.9 9.5 2.96 3.52
2003 South Atlantic League (Low-A) 24.2 19.3 11.0 9.1 2.81 3.65
2004 Florida State League (High-A) 27.7 18.5 9.3 8.8 2.97 3.83
2005 Southern League (Doube-A) 27.9 18.9 8.0 9.0 3.92 4.04

One look at Olsen's numbers versus Johnson's and you can see why he was so highly touted. Those kind of strikeout rates from a left-handed starter are almost unheard of, and he kept it up consistently and indeed improved upon his strikeout marks as he climbed in levels. Aside from his stint in Greensboro in 2003, he never displayed major control concerns in terms of walk rate either.

If there was one clear example of dominant performance in the minors akin to Fernandez among these three pitchers, it would have been Olsen's. Olsen also received a 2005 cup of coffee in September, but he only pitched 80 2/3 innings in Double-A before presumably getting hurt. Entering 2006, he was the 34th ranked prospect in baseball, so he was about as well-respected as Jacob Turner is now. So he was never quite at Fernandez's level of recognition, but had the Marlins needed a starting pitcher, I would not have been surprised to see Olsen make the midseason jump in 2005.

Chris Volstad

Volstad was the highest pick among these three pitchers, having been drafted in the first round in 2005. Like the other two, he was a prep pitcher who had to work his way up the minors, but unlike those two, he actually did receive a midseason promotion.

Year Level K% lgK% BB% lgBB% ERA lgERA
2005 Gulf Coast League (Rookie) 23.4 19.6 3.6 8.6 2.33 3.94
2005 New York-Penn League (Short Season-A) 17.1 20.0 6.5 9.0 2.13 3.94
2006 South Atlantic League (Low-A) 15.6 19.3 5.7 8.9 3.08 3.88
2007 Florida State League (High-A) 16.4 18.2 6.5 8.4 4.50 3.95
2007 Southern League (Doube-A) 14.1 19.5 5.7 9.1 3.16 4.07
2008 Southern League (Doube-A) 14.6 18.1 5.0 9.5 3.36 4.20

Like Olsen before him, Volstad spent time in the Gulf Coast League before he began his first full season of professional baseball in Greensboro in Low-A. Unlike Olsen, he got an early promotion to Double-A. Also unlike Olsen, he never dominated statistically at any level despite showing great ERA numbers. While Johnson toiled as something of a league average pitcher in all categories, Volstad disguised himself by preventing runs via being stingy on homers while at the same time refusing to walk or strike out a hitter.

In retrospect, the signs had to be on the wall for a guy like Volstad. Again, he was young for each level, but he was never able to beat hitters with his stuff at any level other than short-season ball. Sure, there are always pitchers in the majors who get away with good control and few strikeouts, but those guys are usually decent or only a little below the average in terms of strikeouts when they are in the minors. In his last two seasons in Double-A, Volstad was not whiffing hitters at even a 15 percent rate, which had to raise alarms even as his control looked solid.

Nevertheless, the Marlins were impressed enough to bring him up to the big leagues, and he had a successful first season since his midseason jump. Of course, from there you know the rest of his horrid career in Florida. But unlike the case of Fernandez, Volstad never dominated at any time and yet still received a midseason promotion.

Availability the Determining Factor

Ultimately, the Marlins followed more or less a typical promotion progression for a pitching prospect considered among the best in baseball. In each case, the Fish allowed the pitcher to work through Low and High-A and some time in Double-A. In each case, no pitcher earned a true abbreviated stint in Double-A; even Volstad's promotion in 2008 came following a repeat season at the level after he had been brought up to Carolina in the middle of 2007. Each pitcher received at least 80 innings of work at the level before getting a call up to the majors.

The difference between the situation for Johnson and Olsen, who appeared more ready for big league action than Volstad? During their Double-A season in 2005, the Marlins had all five rotation spots filled, as the club was making their Wild Card run with A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, Jason Vargas, and Brian Moehler. Sure, a case could have been made to replace the eminently replaceable Moehler, but Olsen would have been the preferred choice and he was hurt. In 2008, on the other hand, Volstad entered a rotation anchored previously by Ricky Nolasco, Olsen, and a cavalcade of journeymen biding time for the returns of Anibal Sanchez and Josh Johnson. There was a spot available for Volstad, who had already done his time.

What about in 2013? Well, neither Wade LeBlanc nor Nathan Eovaldi have really stood out as firm choices at the back end of the rotation, and if they continue to struggle next season and the Marlins do not opt for a free agent option, there is a chance Fernandez may just take the role. But keep in mind that the Marlins have never done this to any one pitcher, as even Volstad received a full slate of Double-A games split into two season. If Fernandez has a season closer to par for Double-A, do not expect him to show up in the majors until September, as the Marlins did with Johnson and Olsen. Only if Fernandez dominates will he get a chance at the big show by age 21.