The Marlins have a storied tradition of contending for the National League Rookie of the Year award. You remember the names: Dontrelle Willis, Hanley Ramírez, Chris Coghlan, José Fernández, plus many others who received votes for their strong first seasons in the majors.
Entering April 16, the Marlins hold arguably the best odds of any team to win the 2018 NL ROY, thanks to their sheer volume of candidates. Ten rookie-eligible players have already received playing time with the major league club: Brian Anderson, Lewis Brinson, Garrett Cooper, Tayron Guerrero, Braxton Lee, Chris O’Grady, Dillon Peters, Trevor Richards, Caleb Smith and Chad Wallach. Three prospects who began the season at Triple-A New Orleans—Sandy Alcántara, Zac Gallen and Magneuris Sierra—also earned mentions below.
Notable competition from other teams includes Phillies infielder Scott Kingery, Pirates third baseman Colin Moran (a former Marlins first-round draft pick, by the way), Padres starting pitcher Joey Lucchesi and Cardinals flame-throwing reliever Jordan Hicks.
Without yet playing a game at the highest level, outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. is a household name. Widely regarded as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, Acuña has been withheld from the majors this long because the Braves are so convinced that he’ll dominate from the get-go. Unable to admit it publicly, they are manipulating the 20-year-old’s service time just long enough to secure an extra season of control in 2024.
But a funny thing happened while down on the farm—Acuña is really struggling. Consequently, his assumed mid-April debut has been pushed back. That leaves the 2018 NL ROY race without an obvious frontrunner.
Welcome to a new monthly series on Fish Stripes, where we’ll be approximating the odds that every Marlins rookie has of earning the award this season.
OF Garrett Cooper, C Chad Wallach: 0 percent
Tough break for Cooper. He would’ve had an opportunity to stick on the Marlins active roster long term, but was hit by a pitch on his right wrist during the second game of the season against the Cubs. Originally diagnosed as a bruise, the 27-year-old may have aggravated it by continuing to play later in the series.
After further evaluation, Cooper suffered a partial tear of the tendon sheath. The club placed him on the 60-day disabled list, so we won’t see him again until mid-June (at the earliest).
Wallach was the surprise choice to receive the lion’s share of playing time at catcher in J.T. Realmuto’s absence. Miami pitchers even had a brilliant streak of success when paired with him.
However, his plate appearances just weren’t competitive enough. Wallach has posted the highest strikeout rate in the National League, minimum 30 plate appearances (50.0 K%). He is expected to be optioned to the minors shortly.
RHP Zac Gallen, RHP Tayron Guerrero, LHP Chris O’Grady, OF Magneuris Sierra: <1 percent each
Gallen’s first impression with the Marlins organization was ugly—a 37.38 earned run average across three Grapefruit League appearances.
Fortunately, that hasn’t carried over into the regular season. His first two appearances with the New Orleans Baby Cakes were both quality starts. Dating back to last season, Gallen owns a 2.76 ERA and 4.43 K/BB at the Triple-A level. He may be first in line—even ahead of No. 1 pitching prospect Sandy Alcántara—should there be a future opening in the Marlins rotation.
The huge disparity between Guerrero’s 7.27 ERA and 2.71 FIP suggests he’s in store for some improved luck as the season progresses. His roster spot doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy at this point, and the tall right-hander possesses a nasty fastball-slider combination comparable to other dominant relievers.
Any slim shot that O’Grady has at award contention hinges on him receiving starting assignments later in the summer. For the time being, he’s stuck in the bullpen as the token lefty.
Sierra dealt with a hamstring injury for much of March. He’s been a regular atop the New Orleans batting order, but the speedster will not be in consideration for a promotion until the results improve (.103/.146/.103, 2 SB in 9 G).
OF Braxton Lee, LHP Dillon Peters: 1 percent each
A former 12th-round draft pick, Lee beat the odds just by reaching the majors. But his speed is an elite tool at any level, from what we’ve seen in a small sample. He could have serious career longevity.
“He will likely be a frequent flier on the shuttle between Miami and Triple-A New Orleans this season,” according to Craig Davis of the Sun Sentinel. It’s difficult to envision a scenario where Lee keeps pace with NL rookies in more stable situations.
The 25-year-old Peters has a nightmare outing sandwiched between two solid ones in 2018. With the exception of his Marlins debut in September (7.0 IP, 0 R, 8 K), it’s been a struggle for him to put away major leaguers via strikeout. So the lefty doesn’t have a particularly high “ceiling” until that changes.
Also, Peters is believed to be on an innings limit after missing most of last season due to injury.
RHP Sandy Alcántara, LHP Caleb Smith: 3 percent each
Historically, beginning a season in the minor leagues has little effect on the NL ROY race. Of the past 15 award winners, 10 of them overcame an Opening Day roster snub to finish first in the balloting.
The concern for Alcántara is his tendency to allow heavy traffic on the bases. Even when successfully stranding runners, he won’t be able to work deep enough into his MLB starts to make up for lost time. Miami’s big offseason acquisition has been mediocre at Triple-A in the early going (4.82 ERA, 9.1 IP, 8 BB, 12 K, 1.71 WHIP).
Another newcomer to the organization, Smith has a less extraordinary skill set, but the small benefit of a head start. The 26-year-old is striking out 31.1 percent of opposing batters. That would’ve ranked third among qualified NL pitchers last season (behind only Max Scherzer and Robbie Ray).
RHP Trevor Richards: 4 percent
Richards edges out the others as the Marlins’ most likely pitcher candidate. His performance against the Pirates on Saturday showed what’s possible with pinpoint command and smart pitch sequences.
San Diego’s Lucchesi (21.2 IP) and Tyler Mahle of the Reds (16.0 IP) are the only NL rookies with higher innings totals. Another significant advantage—Richards will have the freedom to maintain that pace after stretching himself out to 146 innings in 2017.
That being said, his odds remain relatively low because position players typically receive more support than starting pitchers in award voting.
OF Lewis Brinson: 8 percent
It’s hard to blame Brinson for feeling discouraged. He has made some solid contact, but not nearly enough of it, and often at too low of a launch angle. Ground balls turn into outs in the big leagues; Miami’s top overall prospect has the third-highest ground ball rate among 190 MLB qualifiers. His .316 OPS is almost precisely what pitchers produced at the plate last season.
But it is still so, so early. Every young batter will experiences slumps at the plate. In the meantime, Brinson has immediately demonstrated excellent defensive ability, ranking first among rookies in Defensive Runs Saved (4 DRS) and Out of zone plays made (11 OOZ).
Even if we temper expectations from where they stood entering spring training, giving up on his candidacy would be an overreaction.
3B Brian Anderson: 10 percent
Brian Anderson might be the best healthy player on the Marlins, regardless of experience level. He’s batting .268/.388/.393 (126 wRC+) while playing every inning of every game.
There’s been a big improvement in plate discipline since his September 2017 cup of coffee. Anderson has chased fewer pitches outside the strike zone—down from 30.9 percent to 23.5 percent—and made frequent contact when he does swing in those situations (68.8 O-Contact%). This is a reason for optimism that his results are sustainable.
DID YOU KNOW: Brian Anderson has more walks than strikeouts in 2018. José Reyes (63 BB/56 K in 2012) was the last Marlins player to do that in a qualified season.— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) April 10, 2018
That’s our very random stat of the day. pic.twitter.com/YTcGVOBCZq
If Acuña is considered the main obstacle in his path, veteran teammate Martín Prado is a close second. Anderson might be displaced to the corner outfield spots when Prado returns from the disabled list, where he has zero professional experience. This would allow the 34-year-old to audition for teams interested in adding talent at the trade deadline. The Marlins are eager to shed Prado’s contract (or at least a significant chunk of it).
With only one home run through 15 games, Anderson will need to do more in the power department to continue forcing his way into the lineup and establish himself as one of the NL Rookie of the Year favorites.