The Miami Marlins have been searching for an opportunity to help improve their starting rotation in 2016. The presumptive rotation heading into next year is led by ace Jose Fernandez, but beyond him there are many question marks. Jarred Cosart, Tom Koehler, and David Phelps represent relatively mediocre options who are probably all back-rotation starters at best. Of the team's prospects, only Adam Conley showed any promise last year, and he figures to be the first of the group to earn a permanent rotation spot. The others, including Justin Nicolino and Jose Urena, will be competing for spots with Conley and the recovering Phelps at the tail end of the rotation.
Joe Frisrao of MLB.com recently posted a piece discussing the Marlins' rotation depth, offering up Urena and others as potential back-rotation options. These would be acceptable alternatives if the Marlins were strictly on a rebuilding mission in 2016, but the Fish have discussed a desire to try and compete this season and have been rumored to be involved with pitching names all offseason. If they do not improve on their rotation, it is likely that these "backup" options will not be sufficient to boost the Marlins anywhere near contention. Each of these prospects are lower-tier and would be hard-pressed to develop into regular contributors in 2016.
"Urena came up and he had mixed results as a starter," [Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill] said. "He pitched very well out of the 'pen. He's another one who will compete for a rotation spot. If he doesn't make that, he could easily transition to the 'pen. But if we want to keep him stretch out as a starting option for us, then he goes to Triple-A."
To say Urena had "mixed results" as a starter is a drastic understatement. He came off of his worst year in the minors in Triple-A, pairing a superficially impressive 2.66 ERA with a 4.13 FIP and the lowest strikeout and highest walk rates of his career. Then he arrived in Miami and spent 46 1/3 innings getting demolished. Urena put up a 4.86 ERA with a 4.43 FIP and even worse numbers when you correct for abnormally low home run rates. He displayed none of the control that he showed in Double-A, walking nine percent of batters faced, but also none of the modest strikeout rates he put up all of his career. He struck out just 10.5 percent of batters last season and barely beat out Justin Nicolino in the battle of low-strikeout control hurlers.
Urena still throws low-to-mid 90s, and his stuff would probably play better in the bullpen. But Miami is right to keep him in Triple-A if the team does not need him immediately in the bigs to bolster the pen. However, last year was such a damaging set of innings that it is possible Urena just will not develop as a starter.
Flores at least played up to expectations, having put up similar strikeout and walk numbers throughout his various minor league stints and short big league stay last season. The problem is that he is a soft-tossing right hander who needs deception to get by, and while he uses a curve and cutter to get by along with a changeup, it is possible he simply does not have adequate stuff for the big league level. He was hit hard by batters, as he allowed a 35 percent ground ball rate and a hard-hit rate of 28 percent, so even though he did not allow a home run last year, hitters were on top of his stuff.
Flores should get an opportunity to start in Triple-A as well, but he should be second or third in line for a call-up unless there are serious deficiencies in either Urena's or Nicolino's game.
"Good curveball. Power fastball," Hill said. "Another young option that people don't know about, but he's on the [40-man] roster now. He is an option for us moving forward."
Garcia is the only legitimate pitching prospect left near the high minors, but he is set to repeat Double-A after a short stint in 2015. He has tools as a lefty, with a low-90's fastball and a solid but unspectacular secondary changeup along with a slurvy offering. The fastball is the most intriguing thing, but his set is far from perfect, and he is less developed than one would expect for a soon-to-be 23-year-old prospect. In comparison, Urena was 22 years old when he dominated Double-A in 2014, and Garcia will be a year older and repeating the level. Furthermore, aside from a strong 15-start stint in High-A Jupiter (a known pitcher's park in a known pitcher's league), Garcia's ERAs and peripherals have never impressed.
He has a chance if he hones in and rocks Double-A, but he is more raw than Urena and Nicolino were and similarly has a low ceiling of mid-rotation starter at best.
Esch is a former 2011 11th-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech who is a 6'4" righty who has slowly made his way up the minors. His numbers have slowly improved over time, but his best campaign was still a repeat season in High-A Jupiter (trend?) in 2014, when he posted a 4.05 ERA and 3.38 FIP with a modest 18.1 percent strikeout rate and 5.9 percent walk rate. Esch did well as a 25-year-old working against mostly 24-year-olds in Double-A Jacksonville last season, but struggled badly in a six-start run in Triple-A New Orleans.
Hill reports on Esch's good work in the fall, during which he has a 20.5 percent strikeout rate and 5.7 percent walk rate thus far, but again, he is facing young competition (average batter age 22 years), though these players are self-selected as better than the average 22-year-old. He has only been working against younger competition, limiting his likely projection against big leaguers.
Other 40-man Roster Starters
Tim Berry: The Marlins acquired Berry from waivers way from the Baltimore Orioles after a bad repeat season in Double-A. He has a decent low-90's fastball for a lefty, but his other pitchers are mediocre at best. There is a concern that he may play well in the pen as a LOOGY and that his secondary offerings may stretched as a starter. The Marlins will have some options potentially in Double- or Triple-A with Berry.
Austin Brice: Brice hit Double-A for the first time last season and really regressed, having regressed in terms of control after a promising 2014. He still throws a mid-90s fastball and a strong curveball in terms of stuff, but he seems to lack all control of his pitches. He too may be moved to a relief role in the high minors.
Andre Rienzo: Rienzo was acquired last offseason when the Fish traded reliever Dan Jennings to the White Sox. Since then, he has done nothing of note, having made 14 starts in Triple-A while displaying poor peripherals and a reasonable 3.01 ERA. He struggled in 19 2/3 innings out of the pen for the Marlins last season, and he is probably considered a pen option at this point.
Justin Nicolino: Nicolino will get every opportunity to redeem himself, but his debut in the majors was a huge disappointment and the team has to be concerned about his chances of making it long-term. His strikeout rate was embarrassingly low; only 11 player-seasons since 1993 with at least 70 innings pitched featured a lower strikeout rate than Nicolino's 7.6 percent mark, and six of those seasons were thrown by two different pitchers (Aaron Cook and Kirk Rueter). Only one of those seasons featured an ERA or FIP better than league average.