The Miami Marlins traded two of their pitching prospect before the 2015 season in order to purchase talent that would get them better performances in the upcoming campaign. That left them more fringy prospects who were then tasked to develop and perform well enough to eventually step into roles in the 2016 season. Unfortunately, the Marlins' litany of pitching injuries has forced the team to audition those starters earlier than perhaps expected. Jose Fernandez, Henderson Alvarez, Jarred Cosart, and Mat Latos all had stints on the disabled list, and now with the trades of Latos and Dan Haren, the Fish have been left with limited options.
Stepping in to fill those shoes are the remaining Marlins pitching prospects, and each of them have shown their warts to begin their Major League careers.
Nicolino was the highest-ranking pitching prospect left in the organization among the ones that were closer to big-league ready. He was a fringe top-100 player after a successful 2014 season in Double-A that earned him minor league pitcher of the year honors for the organization, but the concern for the 23-year-old was always about strikeouts. He had lost a significant amount of whiffs going from his early minors years in Toronto and his stints in Miami, and this problem was very evident even as he pitched well enough to earn honors last year.
Those problems persisted as he climbed levels this year. Despite the peripherally strong 3.52 ERA, Nicolino's numbers in Triple-A this year have been problematic. He has struck out just 12.9 percent of batters faced while walking six percent of them, about double the amount of free passes he allowed last year. His ERA is hiding a pretty ugly 4.60 FIP, indicating that his defense-independent numbers are very concerning.
That lack of strikeouts has translated into his first four starts. Nicolino has thrown 23 1/3 innings and whiffed just seven batters, a rate of 7.3 percent. He has walked six batters and hit another guy, meaning he has allowed as many free passes as he has whiffed batters. Thus far, the ERA (4.20) and FIP (3.96) look respectable, but the numbers look worse if you expect Nicolino to give up more than one homer every 23 innings. SIERA, an ERA predictor based on batted ball data and strikeout and walk rates, estimates a deserved ERA of 5.20 based on his performance thus far.
Nicolino has always depended on control because his stuff is too middling to get strikeouts. With a lack of whiffs (he has induced swinging strikes in just 4.4 percent of all pitches thrown), he has to drastically drop his walk rate and hope people keep watching his pitches pass by in order to get results.
If Nicolino was the best "ready" pitching prospect, Urena was right behind him. It could be argued that the soon-to-be 24-year-old posted better numbers at every level than Nicolino and has better stuff, if not more limited material. Urena's book was that he had a strong fastball, a working secondary offering, and nothing else to add, leaving him vulnerable for possible bullpen work.
He too started the Triple-A season with dropping strikeout rates and a pretty ERA (2.66) that belied an uglier defense-independent number (4.12 FIP), but his numbers did look a little better overall than Nicolino's. Unfortunately, he failed the Marlins' more extensive look in the big leagues as well. In 49 1/3 innings, Urena also found himself struggling to strike hitters out, only recording 21 punchouts versus 18 walks. Like Nicolino, he depends on pounding the strike zone with his stuff and avoiding walks, and he failed to do those things while he has been here. As a result, the ERA predictors see his numbers as just as bad as Nicolino's, with a 5.24 SIERA backing his 5.11 ERA and 4.58 FIP.
Urena is slated to get a few more strikeouts, as he has found whiffs on 7.4 percent of his pitches. Still, he is going to need a better combinations of swings and misses, especially in the strike zone, in order to be an effective pitcher. He is getting hosed by lefties as well, which is unsurprising given his repertoire. He has actually walked more left-handed hitters (11) than he has struck out (eight), and three out of the four homers he has allowed were to left-handers. These may be limitations that are difficult to overcome for a guy with less polished tertiary stuff, but the Marlins have worked with pitchers with similar predicaments (see Nathan Eovaldi).
Conley's stock has fallen far from a few years ago, when he was also a fringe top-100 prospect with intriguing lefty stuff. Last year's elbow injury sapped into his velocity and has made a lesser pitcher. His numbers in Triple-A, however, have at least been better than Urena and Nicolino's, though it came with lower strikeout numbers than the good values he was hitting two years ago in Double-A. Conley's book has always been that he was possibly stretched as a starter after working most of college as a reliever, but the Fish rightfully kept going at it while he still displayed fringy tertiary offerings.
Conley has thrown 21 2/3 innings in the majors this year and finally had a reasonable outing to his name. He only lasted 3 2/3 innings last night, having given up four runs on nine hits, but he also struck out seven batters in the outing. That brought his overall line to more respectable levels, even if it bumped his ERA up to 5.80.
Conley is a left-handed pitcher, which may actually give him an edge heading into next year's starter competition presuming Miami does not acquire a bevy of pitching talent in the offseason. However, his style of missing more bats and walking more players makes him more like Tom Koehler than Nicolino, and the fact that he does not work towards ground ball contact may sour on the Fish.
Flores has impressed by working well in the minors this year with solid showings in Double- and Triple-A, and he matches the Marlins' style of preferred pitcher as a guy who hits the strike zone and tries to avoid walks. That is exactly what he did in 2013 and a slightly worse but still reasonable 2014 season in the low minors. His strikeout rate dipped dramatically heading into Double-A this year, but he remained effective with a 2.06 ERA and 3.42 FIP at that level. He posted similar numbers upon promotion to Triple-A as well.
The book on Flores is that he works low velocity as a righty and has fringy options beyond the fastball. However, in his limited big league time, he has at least gotten swings and misses off of his pitches, having posted a 13.4 percent rate of swinging strikes out of total pitches. Guys are not making contact on him, and he has enticed a 43 percent rate of swings on pitches out of the strike zone. Now, all of this has come as a reliever, so Miami has yet to see him start a game in the bigs. The transition will be important if he is to be a contributor for next season.
Few pitchers is perfect in their first outing in the majors, but all of these guys have their work cut out. Miami has to hope one can turn into a rotation cog at some point, or else they will regret sending off two more experienced prospects for short-term gains that the team eventually never received.