Earlier today, we discussed how the Miami Marlins have found themselves three similar potential zone-pounding pitchers whom, if things go right, could hit their ceiling and be very productive for the Fish. But the Marlins are blessed with decent depth in starting pitching in the minors, and a number of those pitchers may fit the same mold Miami likes in their big-league starters. Who among the team's top pitching prospects best fits the mold of a ground ball pitcher with zone-pounding tendencies?
1. Jose Urena
Urena's numbers in Double-A have been consistent with his performance in each of the last two seasons in the minors. Despite a fastball that can sit mid-90's, his strikeout rate still cannot climb above 19 percent. But that number is at an ideal rate for the ceiling of the team's strike-pounding starters. And Urena already has an example of a pitcher who plays a similar game in the majors, as Nathan Eovaldi has had similar high-velocity, low-strikeout issues throughout his career. Eovaldi's solution to the problem has been to attack the zone and limit walks while trying to get a lot of foul balls, and Urena appears to be years ahead on that plan.
Urena's excellent Double-A season through 162 innings leaves him an excellent candidate for the fifth starting spot next season while Jose Fernandez recovers from Tommy John surgery. His performance has not improved over three years, but doing the same thing at each level while being two years younger than the average player makes this acceptable.
2. Justin Nicolino
Nicolino was probably the team's second-best prospect behind Andrew Heaney, but a questionable season in Double-A has left some doubt about how his game will translate in the majors. Since being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays, Nicolino's strikeout numbers have declined as he has advanced up the levels, and this season they are down to precariously low levels. At 11.3 percent in Double-A, it is hard to project him as having the stuff necessary to get Major League hitters out at an adequate level.
The good news is that everything else is in hand. He consistently sits in the strike zone and is known for impeccable command of his arsenal, and his history suggests that he can get ground balls, though not at an extreme rate. If he pushes himself to a 50 percent ground ball rate, Miami might see him as worth starting in the middle or back of the rotation and molding him into a lighter Henderson Alvarez. But not being able to miss bats might leave him like the 2011 version of Alvarez who was miserable for 180 innings.
3. Andrew Heaney
When Heaney was initially drafted, the description of his repertoire sounded like the perfect candidate for this type of pitcher. He was billed as a safe college choice who could hit the strike zone and would fit in the back of the rotation. After two-plus seasons in the minors, he has shown that he has more than enough strikeout stuff, but also that he is missing a bit of the command that was expected of a pitcher of his polish. His walk rates have never been high, but they are not on the level of the type of starter Miami is trying to groom. This is especially true since the Fish have gotten a taste of his game in the majors and saw an odd lack of command.
Heaney may not be a strike zone-pounding machine like Urena and Nicolino, but he makes up for it elsewhere. His strikeout rates are fantastic and he has the ability to get ground balls. The early home run problems in the majors should subside, and Heaney should have a chance at a big league job next season.
4. Trevor Williams
Williams has a clear and evident edge over the rest of the Marlins' pitching prospects in being a true zone-pounding ground baller because that is exactly how he was portrayed coming out of Arizona State. He was another polished high-round starter, having been drafted in 2013 in the second round despite seemingly middling stuff. He did own a low-to-mid-90's sinker and a full helping of secondary pitches ranging from a slider, a curve, and a changeup. However, none of those pitches generated swings and misses regularly.
Cut to 2014, and while the rest of Williams's scouting report remains true, the strikeouts are at least up. His ground ball rate is near 50 percent this year and it was above that mark last year. It has been at 65 percent in two starts in Double-A Jacksonville as well. The strikeouts, in the meantime, have been better thane expected. Williams is older than the average true prospect at his level, but the fact that he is whiffing more professional hitters than college players back in his Arizona State days is impressive. He looks like the prototype for this Marlins model of pitcher and could see a big-league opportunity next year if injuries pile up.
None of the rest of the Marlins' pitching prospects match up with the team's philosophy. Adam Conley works to miss bats, though his ground ball rates have varied in the past. Brian Flynn is not exactly a control artist at this stage. The same can be said of Anthony DeSclafani, who once boasted low walk rates but has slowly had difficulty adjusting to work at higher minor league levels.
This does not mean those players will not receive opportunities to pitch. But Miami's best chance of developing a four-win groundball starter is to find someone who fits the profile as best they can, so they are not starting from scratch. The four pitchers listed first fit various descriptions of what Miami is trying to do, and they may have the best shots at developing the way the Fish like their mid-rotation starters.