For the second season in a row, the Miami Marlins' fifth starting spot is up for grabs in Spring Training. Last season, it did not appear to be a competition, as top prospect Jacob Turner likely had the spot secured thanks to his late 2012 performance. One terrible Spring Training later and veteran non-roster invitee Kevin Slowey had earned the role and Turner was being passed up for players like Alex Sanabia and Tom Koehler. Anything can happen when the players involved lack a track record of success.
This year, the situation is hardly different. Tom Koehler holds the spot as the incumbent, having thrown over 140 innings last season primarily as a starter. But waiting in the wings are two other veteran minor leaguers who are trying to make a name for themselves along with one prospect who has earned the right to strut his stuff in the big leagues. And do not forget the possibility of the Marlins promoting the team's top prospect should he perform well, a la Jose Fernandez in 2013.
So who has the edge, and what are the expectations for these players? Here are five names of interest in the race for thef fifth spot on the Marlins' rotation.
1. Tom Koehler
As we mentioned yesterday in the position battle report, Koehler has gained the lead over the other competitors by virtue of not only superior Spring Training numbers but also the power of incumbency. His 143 innings in 2013 were not the least bit impressive, as his 4.43 ERA and 4.27 FIP were even deceptively "good." Of the 139 starting pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown in 2013, Koehler's strikeout rate was a paltry 121st at just under 15 percent. His walk rate was not highly impressive either, and his good luck on home runs seems unlikely to stick; according to metrics like xFIP or SIERA that estimate ERA from batted balls rather than from raw home runs, Koehler's ERA should have landed closer to 4.32 or 4.51.
The source of Koehler's problem can be narrowed down to his fastball. The three Marlins' starters all have something that makes their fastball a net positive pitch. For Jose Fernandez and Nathan Eovaldi, the pitch's velocity does wonders. For Henderson Alvarez, it is the sinker nature of the pitch that allows him to squeeze weaker contact and more outs out of it. Eovaldi's fastball was the 11th most valuable fastball in baseball last year on a per-100 pitches basis, while Fernandez's was 19th. Of the two-seamers classified by Pitch F/X, as per FanGraphs, Alvarez had the fourth most valuable two-seam fastball last season, behind only Cliff Lee, Patrick Corbin, and Jarrod Parker.
Koehler, on the other hand, noticeably had a terrible fastball despite decent secondary stuff. Both his slider and changeup were inducing whiffs on nearly 40 percent of their swings. His curveball was getting a 1.5 balls-to-called strike ratio, which is excellent for a non-fastball pitch. But his fastball was demolished in 2013, as it rated as one of the 15 worst fastballs in the game in performance last season. He placed his fastball at a 2-to-1 ratio of balls to called strikes while inducing no whiffs (10.7 percent rate) on the pitch, making it easily his least effective pitch. It happened to also be the pitch that burned him the most.
Koehler is no prospect heading into 2014, but he has an early head start simply because, despite the mediocre 143 innings, he still got through 143 innings of work. In other words, just showing that you're a Major Leaguer capable of a 4.50 ERA in 143 innings is worth something to the Marlins. Unfortunately, in a lost season, it really is not worth the opportunity cost of testing out a more promising player.
Odds to win fifth starter: 4-to-1
2. Brian Flynn
Flynn's early work in Spring Training leaves a little to be desired, but he remains the best candidate for the job according to potential and readiness for the majors. No one would argue that Flynn is the Fish's best pitching prospect, as that title easily goes to Andrew Heaney. It's likely Flynn lands at most third or fourth on that depth chart; John Sickels of Minor League Ball recently ranked him as high as third-best prospect in the system.
If he is not ranked highly, why should the Marlins want him to win the job? He still holds some promise as a player with a back-end rotation ceiling, but more importantly, he is the closest to reaching that potential. Flynn dominated the Pacific Coast League last season, posting a 2.80 ERA and 3.05 FIP in an extremely hitter-friendly environment and league. But he has a weak reputation from the minors outside of his ERA; his strikeout rate in a full season has never climbed above the 21.4 percent mark he put up last year in Triple-A, and he is not a polished control artist either. His lefty-ness does give him a small edge in the chances to win the starting spot, but his once-heralded mid-90's velocity was either found to be not true or has declined down to a high-80's / low-90's repertoire. At that velocity, he does not really differentiate himself from any other lefty starter.
Flynn should get a nice amount of time in the big leagues if he dominates Triple-A, but with both Koehler and Brad Hand playing so well, Miami is likely to turn to someone else at least to start the year.
Odds to win fifth starter: 10-to-1
3. Kevin Slowey
Slowey is not expected to win the job outright to start the year even though he has pitched fairly well. What may happen to him is that he takes on the long-relief role that the team needs filled and could end up making spot starts for the Marlins due to injury. Last season was a typical year for Slowey; after a hot start in terms of ERA, his numbers normalized around his FIP and he was a below-average but still effective starter. Given Miami's cavernous dimensions, there is a very good chance he can contribute in a limited role with the Fish, and the bullpen and spot starting would be perfect for him.
Odds to win fifth starter: 30-to-1
4. Brad Hand
Hand is in a similar spot as Slowey but with two added advantages: he is left-handed and out of options. The Marlins brought Hand up very early in his career, promoting him for half a season in 2011 before realizing he was very overmatched. Since then, his development has been scattershot. In his last two seasons, his performance in Triple-A has been exactly as expected: riddled with walks but with interesting strikeout potential. The ERAs in the Pacific Coast League are decent but unimpressive (3.42 ERA and 4.06 FIP in 2013), and those would likely lead to poor results in the majors.
But because Hand is a lefty, he has a nice role that he can fill out of the bullpen. Miami can slot him in as the second lefty in the pen behind Mike Dunn and use him situationally as they did with Dan Jennings last season. That treatment lets Hand be limited to lefties, whom he handles better (22.1 percent strikeout rate and 6.8 percent walk rate last season) while keeping him on the roster and avoiding giving him away for free. This fills a need and keeps another potential asset on the team. While his odds of making the starting job are bleak, his chances of being on the roster on Opening Day appear quite strong.
Odds of winning fifth starter: 40-to-1
5. Andrew Heaney
Heaney is clearly the dark horse candidate to win but also the major underdog. Much like Jose Fernandez last season, Heaney is the Marlins' top pitching prospect, a consensus top-50 prospect, and a player who could see midseason play this year. But as of right now, it seems unlikely that he will get the opportunity to leapfrog players like Fernandez did last year unless another spell of injuries occurs late in the year. Unlike Fernandez, Heaney has a decently successful stint in Double-A under his belt from last year, but the Fish would like to see some Double- and Triple-A time before committing him to the majors given their options at the position.
Odds of winning fifth starter: 60-to-1