The Marlins are looking at three names in particular who should be the primary competitors for the fifth starter spot for the 2016 season. The likely winner has not yet been determined, and Miami will probably take the race down to the line to find out who will come out victorious and make that start every fifth day. Among those three players, one of them is a young talent and former top prospect who looked to regain some of his touted talent from years ago. Another is an incumbent representative from 2015 recovering from injury. Finally, the third candidate is a cheap free agent veteran addition added to provide competition for the roster.
Starting Rotation Depth Chart
Source: Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
Conley should be the favorite for winning this competition. The Fish should be looking to find any young pitching talent that it can develop for future seasons given the club's dearth of elite talent in the minors. Conley has the best shot at being a decent contributor in 2016. Of the Marlins' prospects from before 2015, he was the only one who showed a decent strikeout rate in the minors and continued that trend in the big leagues. Thanks to a scorching run in September of last year, Conley wrapped up the year with a 21 percent strikeout rate and decent walk numbers; putting up by far the best performance of any other prospect called up. He is also a left-hander, giving Miami rotation balance from either side as a second lefty behind Wei-Yin Chen.
Conley does not come without questions. He has just 61 good innings under his belt as of right now, and injury may still be a future issue. Conley suffered some problems with his elbow in 2014 that ended up slowing his development, and it seems he only just recovered from those problems. A repeat elbow or forearm issue would be a detriment to a guy who already throws a low-90's lefty fastball.
The good news is that Conley has the right tools to succeed in the bigs if he continues most of the trends from last season. His changeup is a plus pitch, his fastball works as of right now, and he does own a slider for same-handed hitters. He should be starter at the start of the season, but do not be surprised if he has to re-earn his spot after a small stint in Triple-A.
Projection: 100 IP, 4.08 ERA, 1.0 WAR
Source: Jason Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports
I believe David Phelps will probably default as the first option for Miami in 2016. He was the fifth starter essentially for most of last season until he himself suffered a forearm stress fracture that finished his season. Until his final month, he pitched passably, being close to the Marlins' best non-Jose Fernandez starter for the season. Phelps is a classic control pitcher who can pound the strike zone, even if it comes at the expense of swings and misses. His 16 percent strikeout rate was unimpressive, but his 6.9 percent walk rate at least kept things in check. Unlike his time in New York, Phelps hit the strike zone at a near 56 percent clip last season, explaining all of his performance except for the distinct lack of home runs. When the home runs did flow for the guy with a career 42 percent ground ball rate, things became ugly quickly.
I would not suspect Phelps to hold the starting job for the entire season, but Miami will need the depth he provides so that they can rest starters like Fernandez for his innings limit and account for injury concerns. When Phelps is not a starter, expect him to work the seventh inning or occasionally a long relief role, bringing his innings counts up.
Projection: 100 IP, 4.07 ERA, 0.8 WAR
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Jackson was signed with the intent to provide competition for the Marlins' starters, but he has his eyes set on that fifth rotation spot after a disappointing last few seasons with the Chicago Cubs. Miami is paying Jackson only the veteran minimum, as he is still earning the remaining one year of his contract with the Cubs, so this is all added gravy for Jackson. He wants to re-earn an opportunity at a big-league gig, but this might be his final shot at being a starter or even Major League pitcher.
To his credit, he posted a passable 3.07 ERA as a reliever in 47 appearances (55 2/3 innings pitched) for the Cubs last season. However, he did so with no added benefit from his game, as his strikeout and walk numbers were as bad as ever despite the move to the pen. He even threw softer than he did in years past, averaging just 93 mph according to Pitch F/X on his fastball. This all points to a pitcher without much left in the tank.
The likelihood is that Jackson will earn a few starts for a team with minimal depth in the rotation, but he probably will get more time working out of the bullpen. If he makes more than three starts in Miami, I would be surprised.
Projection: 35 IP, 4.12 ERA, 0.1 WAR
Hand is the forgotten final potential starter among guys who have little to no shot of sticking in Triple-A for long. Hand has low odds of this because he is out of options, and Miami would likely rather hold onto him than toss him out on waivers to get him into the minors. Tossing him out, however, probably would not be an awful option, as Hand has done nothing throughout his career. The extreme ground ball rate from the second half of 2015 dissipated, and he reverted to being a guy with mediocre control and inefficient stuff to earn strikeouts. His ground ball approach is a better play for the long haul, but he still belongs in the back reaches of a bullpen at this stage. Surprisingly, Hand is only two months older than Conley.
Projection: 40 IP, 4.00 ERA, 0.1 WAR