The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a collegiate baseball powerhouse. The program has a 14-year streak of refining its players into MLB amateur draft picks, including Marlins right-hander Zac Gallen (third round, 2016).
Recent Carolina alumni who went on to earn All-Star selections include Andrew Miller, Kyle Seager and Matt Harvey. Tar Heels rosters featuring them from the mid-to-late 2000s were stacked with major league talent and made annual trips to the College World Series.
Gallen “grew up watching them go to Omaha on a constant basis,” which factored into his decision to attend. Another big influence? Basketball great Michael Jordan. “I wanted to go where he went,” the starting pitching prospect told Fish Stripes in a recent interview.
We spoke to Gallen barely a week after the Marlins officially acquired him—along with Sandy Alcantara, Magneuris Sierra and Daniel Castano—from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Marcell Ozuna trade:
“I found out as I landed in the Charlotte airport. I was actually coming back from the Cardinals’ spring training complex [after] working out for a few days and I was flying home that Wednesday. We landed and I saw that I had a missed call from my agent. I had a feeling it could only be about one thing. So I checked Twitter and saw some tweets and then gave my agent a call back. He let me know what was going on.”
Alcantara and Sierra are the headliners, but it’s not as if they picked Gallen’s name out of a hat. His skill set meshes perfectly with the current needs of the organization.
In 2017, Miami’s starters posted the worst walk rate in the National League (9.8 percent) and worked the second-fewest total innings (830.2 IP). After skyrocketing through the minor league ranks with a combination of excellent command and pitch efficiency, the 22-year-old should help them improve in at least those two areas. You can understand why he’s so excited for spring training.
Just wanted to take time to thank the @Cardinals and their fans for the past 18 months. Playing for such a well-recognized organization was nothing short of a dream come true, but I’m looking forward to this new opportunity with the @Marlins and everything that comes with it.— Zac Gallen (@zacgallen23) December 19, 2017
Coming to the Marlins is actually something of a reunion. They have drafted four Tar Heels players since 2015, more than any other MLB team (h/t Baseball-Reference). Two of them—Brian Miller and Reilly Hovis—just had strong seasons on the farm. “Both are ultra competitive, very talented and really good guys to be around,” Gallen says.
He just needs to be careful not to get too excited.
Zach Rice, a left-hander now in the Atlanta Braves organization, remembers when his former teammate experienced the intense Carolina-Duke rivalry for the first time. As a freshman on Mar. 30, 2014, Gallen took the mound following consecutive Tar Heels losses, just trying to salvage a game in the series. Uncharacteristically, he couldn’t “internalize” his emotions that afternoon. He was pulled during a messy first inning, which included forcing in a run with the bases loaded by hitting an opposing batter.
The next year, Gallen got his sweet revenge. He arrived at Chapel Hill’s Boshamer Stadium with a “readiness to kick ass,” Rice says. This time, his competitiveness translated to the game: 7.0 IP, 1 R (0 ER), 4 H, 12 K on 117 pitches. To put that in perspective, no Marlins pitcher threw more than 113 pitches in any game last season.
Gallen has consistently shown the ability to locate his fastball (velocity now sits in the low 90s) with a promising changeup. But between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, he spent the summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League and made a critical adjustment—ditching his slider in favor of a cutter, as Rice recalls. Several years later, MLB Pipeline considers it arguably his most effective weapon.
This scouting report should sound very familiar to Marlins fans. Gallen heads into 2018 with the same physical frame, repeatable delivery and four-pitch mix that Justin Nicolino showed prior to his MLB debut. Even their minor league production is freakishly alike (Nicolino pitched many more innings because he signed out of high school):
Justin Nicolino 2.0? Career Minor League Stats Comparison
Put the ball in his left hand, remove the fashionable eyewear and it would be tough to tell them apart!
Nicolino received his initial call-up in June 2015 for a non-contending club. He stuck in the rotation for much of August and September, putting up respectable numbers (4.01 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 74.0 IP in 12 starts). But the following two seasons, on Marlins teams with heightened expectations, the organization couldn’t afford to be patient during his rough patches, and he has since regressed.
Gallen seems to have much better timing. At the beginning of what figures to be a lengthy rebuild, he’ll receive more freedom to fine-tune his game at the highest level.
“I’m really grateful the Marlins are giving me this opportunity to potentially live out my dreams of playing in the major leagues,” Gallen says.
That’s almost a forgone conclusion. Rotation roadblocks from 2017 like Edinson Volquez (Tommy John surgery, then released) and Tom Koehler (traded, then signed with Dodgers) have gone elsewhere. Holdovers including Dan Straily and Wei-Yin Chen are also candidates to be dealt in the coming months. The team projects to have plenty of innings to distribute among its young arms.
Using inexperienced players in key roles could put the Marlins at a short-term disadvantage, but the Gibbsboro, New Jersey native has endured this before...as a fan. Gallen’s hometown Philadelphia 76ers are only now beginning to see the light at the end of their infamous “Process” after four previous seasons of irrelevance. The Sixers bottomed out to accumulate the best developing talent, eventually hitting the jackpot with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
By trading away Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton and the rest of their accomplished core for prospects, the Marlins are testing that strategy. They’ll keep compiling controllable difference-makers until enough of them exceed expectations.
Even though Gallen might not see himself as the equivalent of those rising basketball stars, we can see a tiny bit of the G.O.A.T. in him. He began wearing Michael Jordan’s uniform No. 23 for Carolina during his sophomore year.
“Minor league baseball has taught me not to be attached to a number with all the moving around,” Gallen says.
But once again, his timing couldn’t be better. The Marlins most recently assigned No. 23 to Jarred Cosart in 2015. It should be available when Gallen makes his final move to the major league clubhouse at some point during the 2018 season.
Follow Zac on Twitter and Instagram (@zacgallen23)