The Miami Marlins are coming off a 2018 season with possibly the worst bullpen in the major leagues. That’s a painful pill to swallow considering the investment they made in that department. Earlier this week, my colleagues Daniel Martinez and Red Garcia took us through all of the horrendous decisions made by previous ownership—the back end of the bullpen was frequently one of the weak links on an otherwise competitive roster.
Perhaps the most egregious move meant to address the major league ‘pen, the Marlins traded right-hander Chris Paddack (now one of baseball’s elite pitching prospects) for closer Fernando Rodney at the 2016 All-Star break, despite AJ Ramos posting the best stats of his career in the first half. As Paddack continues his dominant run through the Padres farm system, Rodney posted a 5.89 ERA and -0.9 WAR to sabotage a possible postseason berth. So much for the “Super Bullpen.” [sighs]
In 2017, the Marlins’ last ditch effort to give Miami a winning season behind its offensive core was a blunder. After missing out on signing Kenley Jansen to a massive deal, they pivoted to Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa to pair with David Phelps, Kyle Barraclough, and Ramos. All five of them are gone now, as the club couldn’t dig out of a slow start and proceeded with a thorough rebuild.
Their performance last summer was another letdown, even after adjusting for the lower expectations. The team’s 30 saves were the lowest total in the National League.
In record time, the Marlins have built and dismembered a strong group. There is a lot of uncertainty moving forward. That’s what I’m here to talk to you about today: who’s gonna be the Marlins closer in 2019?
After a year where the Marlins had growth in a lot of areas for Miami, 2019 is poised to be a very similar situation—the mission is to develop young players and maximize value on veterans. This general philosophy applies to the bullpen too, where they’ll want to test controllable pitchers in high-leverage situations and bring in free agents who can serve as safety nets.
Drew Steckenrider is coming off a 2018 season which had its ups and downs. There was a stretch of 3 1⁄3 innings in the middle of May where he allowed 11 earned runs and seven walks in four games that nuked his overall numbers. Otherwise, Steckenrider would have been in All-Star consideration. The second half gave him a chance to see some closing opportunities following the Ziegler trade and Barraclough regression. He split those save chances with five converted saves and five blown.
The potential was there. Steckenrider finished the season with a 10.3 K/9 and 3.62 FIP. Steamer on FanGraphs projects something similar for 2019, along with 25 saves.
My personal choice to win the job is Adam Conley.
The lean left-hander was confined to Triple-A for a significant chunk of 2017, but the move to the bullpen this past year may have changed the trajectory of his entire career. At times, ACON was lights out. His unorthodox delivery kept left-handed hitters off balance all season. The incredible fastball velocity increase—from 89.9 mph in 2017 to 95.7 mph in 2018—doesn’t hurt. That combination of those factors led to a swinging strike rate of 14.7, which was the highest of his career and top 20 among MLB relievers. Overall, opponents hit .202 against him while posting the best K/BB% ratio of his career, not to mention the best WHIP (1.09) and K/9 (8.88) as well. The second half of the year gave Conley the opportunity to get some save chances, resulting in the first three saves if his career.
Going into 2019, I think the Marlins and Conley have both positioned themselves nicely for the future. Turning 29 in May, his career year appears to be sustainable, turning him into a quality asset heading towards the trade deadline.
Finally, I’m going to give you a couple names I feel like the Marlins could bring in through free agency. At the very least, they would help add competition.
Jake Diekman is 31-year-old, 6-foot-4 lefty with a funky 95+ mph sinker. He had a quality first half for the Texas Rangers last year, hopping over to the Arizona Diamondbacks for their stretch run. Diekman’s experience in the desert was not a pretty one, posting a career-worst 7.53 ERA in 24 appearances.
Don’t be scared away by the small sample size struggles. With a lifetime 3.30 FIP and 11.05 K/9, Diekman is a cheap option for the Marlins—think $3-5 million guaranteed—to push the talents of Steckenrider and Conley.
Another name that’s been on my mind since the end of the season is Cody Allen. The former closer of the Indians is a free agent coming off the worst season of his career, a perfect buy-low option for a rebuilding ball club.
Prior to that, Allen was a steady closer in Cleveland with 25+ saves each of the last four years. His 2018 ERA of 4.70 was almost a full two runs higher than any point in his career. Aside from a slight velocity drop, there’s nothing up to this point to show that trend will continue. He still has stellar numbers overall (career 11.52 K/9 and 1.19 WHIP). A change in scenery might be exactly what Allen needs to get back to that level.
I believe Miami will make a signing to sure up the bullpen in some way, and surprise a lot of people with Steck and ACON thriving in important roles. The 2019 season provides an amazing opportunity to showcase a plethora of arms for the trade deadline or towards the future. It might not be a “Super Bullpen,” but I fully expect improvement from 2018.