We learned officially that the Miami Marlins are extremely unlikely to have Dan Haren available to them in 2015, as Haren has told them he will not pitch in Miami this upcoming season. With Haren out of the way, Miami will step up its efforts to find a trade partner and send him to the west coast, where he would prefer to be. In the meantime, however, the Fish now have a question of who will pitch for them in the fifth starter spot until Jose Fernandez returns. Fernandez is expected to miss half of the 2015 season, and until that point, the team will have to man the rotation with a set of names who will compete for the job. Let's take a look at those names and their early chances.
Hand is the incumbent at the position, having spent 89 1/3 innings last year in the rotation. He posted fairly mediocre numbers, with a 4.33 ERA and 4.11 FIP as a starter, but folks are quick to point out that he posted an improved 3.89 ERA and 3.97 FIP in the second half of the year. Those numbers are closer to numbers posted by guys like Tom Koehler, but given the history of Hand's poor play in the minors and in the bigs in 2011, it is easy to imagine him not maintaining good numbers going forward. After all, even in the second half, his strikeout rates were subpar, though he did drop his walk rate along with it.
However, there is one Hand-related encouraging note that should be examined further. The second half did show a change in repertoire that wasn't immediately noticeable but produced significant results. In the second half, he threw a new type of pitch according to Brooks Baseball, a sinker that was drastically different than his previous fastballs that were recorded. That sinker was producing great ground ball numbers, getting worm-burners on 73 percent (!) of batted balls. He threw the pitch at a rate equal to his fastball, whereas prior to that he had never displayed the pitch. If there is any chance of Hand developing success (and it should be noted that his numbers weren't great even with the sinker), it will lie with this pitch.
Chances of being the fifth starter: 50 percent
Phelps was acquired in the Nathan Eovaldi - Martin Prado trade as a secondary piece, and his profile fits that of Koehler's. For his career as a starter, he has whiffed 19.1 percent of batters faced while walking 8.5 percent of them, which is slightly better than what Koehler has done for his career as a starter. Both guys tend to allow a fair number of fly balls with below-average grounder rates, but Koehler has had the benefit of working in Marlins Park for much of his career, while Yankee Stadium has not been kind to Phelps's home run rates.
History suggests that a pitcher like Phelps with his home run concerns should do better in Miami, but unlike Koehler, Phelps gets away with more deception as a righty. He throws a cutter that surprisingly does not generate grounders, and the rest of his stuff in terms of velocity and effectiveness is not all that impressive. He has the profile of someone who could benefit from the long-distance walls and provide reasonable strikeout rates, but he faces the incumbent and has worked out of the pen a reasonable amount. Miami might want him to return to that role, where he struck out more men and posted better numbers (unsurprisingly).
Chances of being the fifth starter: 35 percent
Crow is a former first-round draft pick for the Kansas City Royals who was originally a starter in college but was transitioned to the bullpen early in his Major League career. He posted one great relief year and has been sliding downward ever since, with decreasing strikeout rates that bottomed out this past season.
The Marlins oddly acquired Crow for Brian Flynn, which made no sense at the time. Then they mentioned that he may be a competitor for the fifth starting spot despite the fact that he has not started a single Major League game. Yes, he was a starter in college, but even in his minor league starter outings, he did not impress despite being seasoned from college and a year of independent ball. The likelihood that he wins the job is low, but with Miami pumping up his chances in the media, he has to be considered.
Chances of being the fifth starter: 7.5 percent
Nicolino is the Marlins' top pitching prospect, but we've already discussed his potential problems with strikeouts at length. He will get a chance to compete for the job in Spring Training, and if his numbers impress, it would not surprise anyone to see him get it, but he probably needs the seasoning in the minors.
Chances of being the fifth starter: 5 percent
The other percentage points go to lesser prospect names like Adam Conley and Jose Urena, who should also get the opportunity in Spring Training. Neither guy appears ready after injuries for the former and a strong Double-A season for the latter. Like with Nicolino, Miami should take some extra time with these guys.