The Miami Marlins had to turn to a lot of youth in 2015, as the team was forced to go to their meager minor league talent earlier than expected. The team's veteran acquisitions, aimed towards competing for a playoff spot, did not work out, and the FIsh ended up bailing on that plan halfway through the season. As a result, the Marlins replaced a few of those players with young talent, throwing them into the fire whether they were ready or not.
The results were mixed.
The injuries to the rotation forced the Marlins to turn to the few pitching prospects they had left. Justin Nicolino, Jose Urena, and Adam Conley got the longest looks as starter replacements this season, but only one of those names excelled in that role. Conley has been a relative revelation after a lost 2014 season left him further down on the prospect lists. His combination of fastball/changeup has been effective against right-handed hitters, and his strikeout rates have actually been acceptable at the big league level. He ended the season with 11 starts and 15 appearances in total and put up a 3.76 ERA and 3.81 FIP, which was good for one win according to FanGraphs. His 21 percent strikeout rate was the best among Marlins starters this season not named Jose Fernandez. He also displayed reasonable control, particularly with his changeup. If these tools continue to develop, the Marlins may finally have a left-handed starter with a decent back-of-the-rotation chance.
That lefty was probably supposed to be Nicolino, but he and Jose Urena both struggled in the big leagues. While Conley's Triple-A performance in 2015 at least foretold some probability of success, both Urena and Nicolino regressed at the highest minor league level. Nicolino threw 115 innings in Triple-A New Orleans this year, but while he owned a 3.52 ERA, that hid an ugly 4.61 FIP that was driven by a spike in walks. Last year, Nicolino whiffed just 11.8 percent of batters faced, but he only walked 2.9 percent of them. This year, the strikeouts bounced back up to 12.9 percent, but he also ended up walking six percent of batters faced. Nicolino walked nine more batters in Triple-A this year than he did in 170 innings in 2014. Urena had a similar spike in walks along with a decrease in strikeouts in Triple-A, and thus he too bore an impressive ERA (2.66) that hid a less impressive FIP (4.13).
The results once both men reached the majors was telling. Nicolino could not strike anyone out; in 74 innings, he posted just 23 strikeouts and just a 5.1 percent swinging strike rate. Batters made contact on nearly 90 percent of swings. That is about the same amount of contact as guys like Jose Altuve and Martin Prado were making on pitches all season long. Worse yet, Nicolino could not avoid walks like he did in the minors, as he allowed a free pass on 6.6 percent of his chances; he walked just three batters fewer than he struck out. Urena had similar issues that appeared much worse given his terrible ERA. He logged strikeouts in 10.9 percent of chances, but walked 9.1 percent of batters faced as well. His situation was worse, as he worked only nine starts and played the remainder of the time out of the bullpen. Neither guy played well enough this year to merit serious consideration for a rotation spot in 2016.
The player who ended up catching the majority of these pitchers' innings was also a newbie to the majors. In a rookie class studded with stars like Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and others, it is easy to see how J.T. Realmuto could get lost in the shuffle. However, the Marlins rookie catcher had a solid campaign upon which he can build. There was not much to be excited about in terms of Realmuto's 2015 batting line, as he posted just a .259/.290/.406 line (.298 wOBA) with 10 homers to his name. It is worth noting that this was actually a worse line than the one Jarrod Saltalamacchia posted last season for the Fish. But Realmuto helped do some of the little things offensively as well. He was a positive contributor on the basepaths, which is an oddity for a catcher. He is athletic enough that you could see him develop some added pop in future years.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is that Realmuto is a solid catcher defensively. He was perfectly league average in that department this season, having caught just about the league average number of would-be basestealers and blocked about the expected number of passed balls and wild pitches this season. This is a distinctly better performance than Saltalamacchia, who needed more from his offense to make up for his noodle arm. However, not all defensively was well, as Realmuto was rated one of the worst pitch-framers in baseball this year.
The youth Miami turned to in 2015 was a mixed bag. On the one hand, Conley and Realmuto put up reasonable rookie campaigns that could be a basis for future success. On the other hand, Nicolino and Urena severely disappointed and may need rehabilitation in the minors. The team's poor minor league depth can be the exact cause for the problems they faced in promoting talent, and it is something the club should try to address before 2016.