The Miami Marlins have a clear issue in 2013 in that their roster is loaded with young talent with little or no chance of competing as a group this season. But for the Fish, the 2013 year is obviously one of rebuilding and identifying long-term talent that can provide for them in seasons to come. Which players of the 2013 Marlins will still be a part of a hopefully competitive 2015 or 2016 Marlins team? There are five players, acquired in recent trades to bolster an otherwise barren farm system at the top, who may become long-term regulars with the Marlins and support a strong core led by prospects Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich.
Among those five players is the next guy we here at Fish Stripes will discuss, catcher Rob Brantly. Brantly ranked eighth among the Marlins' top prospects in the Fish Stripes top 20 prospects list, but he is one of two players, along with Adeiny Hechavarria, who will not only begin Opening Day on the roster but also as starters for the team. Brantly made his debut last year and did so in grand style, hitting an impressive .290/372/.490 (.358 wOBA) that vastly exceeded expectations. Of course, this line was especially impressive given the fact that it came from a catcher, and this goes double for a Marlins team that has lacked talent at the catcher position for a long time.
Why is Brantly a Key To Success?
Brantly is one of the team's keys to success this season because of his bat and position. The Marlins have come off a string of catchers who have left the team with little production offensively. The last time the club had a catcher bat close to the league average was in 2009, when the tandem of John Baker and Ronny Paulino put up a surprisingly good season. Before that, you have to drop all the way back to the Ivan Rodriguez days. Needless to say, the Marlins have lacked offensive talent at the catcher position for some time.
The latest Marlins setback at the position may have been the most severe, as the Fish invested $12 million over the last two seasons to receive a .218/.308/.358 (.298 wOBA). The Fish have to regret the three-year, $18 million contract they handed Buck, as he promptly returned to Earth then collapsed entirely in 2012. Buck's season was bad enough that, by the end of the year, he was demoted to backup in favor of Brantly.
All of these failures at the position of catcher make Brantly's debut and minor league numbers all that more intriguing. In 2012, he hit a combined .298/.340/.412 between Double- and Triple-A in the Detroit Tigers and Marlins organizations. Obviously, he continued that success at the major league level, surprising most evaluators by flashing some power (.170 ISO and three home runs in 113 plate appearances) and maintaining a high batting average at the same time. This sort of production looked very similar to that of Baker's in late 2008 (.299/.392/.447, .366 wOBA), except that Brantly was just 22 years old in 2012 and could have some development left in him.
The obstacles in the way of Brantly involve his mediocre prospect pedigree. Prior to last season, Brantly would not have been mentioned among the top Tigers prospects in baseball, and the Tigers had a below-average system last year. Prior to 2012, Brantly hit a respectable .274/.324/.400 (.330 wOBA) in Low- and High-A, including a nice .303/.366/.440 line in Low-A West Michigan. But his performance in Low-A was in a repeat season, as he hit just .255/.352/.335 (.329 wOBA) the first time around in 2010. His 2011 performance in High-A left much to be desired, but the Tigers still skipped him right into Double-A in 2012, hoping he would figure things out on the fly. Thankfully for both the Tigers and the Fish, he did figure things out, but his overall lack of pedigree is a hindrance.
The reason why Brantly lacked pedigree is because his upside is not very high for a good-hitting catcher, Prior to his Marlins debut, here is what Fish Stripes prospect maven Sam Evans had to say about his skill level.
Hit Tool: As a left-handed hitter, Brantly has shown the ability to spray line drives all over the outfield. I could see Brantly hitting anywhere from .220 to .290 in these last few months. Hopefully, he can recognize offspeed pitches out of the pitcher's hand, and take advantage of the open room in the Marlins Park outfield.
Power: When I saw Brantly a few weeks ago, I didn't come away thinking that he has the power that some claim he does. Given a full season, Brantly could potentially hit 7-9 homers. However, in the small time left before the end of this year's regular season, Brantly won't hit more than three homers.
Walks/Strikeouts: Brantly doesn't strike out much, but he also doesn't draw as much walks as most would like. In fifty-four plate appearances for Triple-A New Orleans, Brantly only drew one walk.
These are not ringing endorsements, and we should not take the pre-2012 evaluations so lightly just because of an excellent 113 plate appearance sample. Brantly lacks power and needs contact to succeed at the plate. While he has decent tools, his projection is nothing like his Marlins debut, so fans expecting more of the same may be in for disappointment.
The only other problem with Brantly's game may be his defense. He struggled last year to catch pop flies in foul territory consistently, and he allowed an unusually high number of wild pitches and passed balls to Marlins pitchers. Some of that may be his unfamiliarity with the staff, but some of it also could be his natural difficulties at the position. This is especially concerning for him because his primary future competition, catching prospect J.T. Realmuto, is regarded as an excellent defensive prospect.
Brantly will receive every opportunity to become a main contributor to the Marlins in the years to come. The question is whether he has the tools to do so beyond his hit tool. If he can avoid strikeouts like he did last season and up his contact rate, the team will not be able to ignore his solid offensive contributions. But if his defense continues to falter and his bat regresses badly, the Marlins have a willing replacement coming in a few years' time.
Because Brantly has direct competition in the future years we are discussing, I believe he may have a lower chance of becoming a future regular contributor for the Marlins than his trade partner Jacob Turner. Of the five players involved in this analysis, I think Brantly's chances are third on the list. if only because he has competition and question marks. But the strong 2012 is an excellent start, and the Marlins are hoping for more improvement than regression this year.