Considering that the Marlins starting rotation could only be considered anywhere close to finalized in the days before opening day, it should be no surprise that determining the Fish’s bullpen roster was a fuzzy endeavor. Mattingly tends to use a fairly conventional middle reliever/set up/closer bullpen construction, so roles tend to be reasonably well defined, but who is going to fill them?
What was evident early on was that veteran soft-tossing submariner Brad Zeigler would start the season as the club’s closer.
Late in 2017, Ziegler took over as the closer after A.J. Ramos was dealt to the Mets and recorded 10 saves. During the off-season roster turmoil, Ziegler was one of the few remaining Marlins who stated that he was content to stay right where he was. This was likely due to the Fish being one of the few teams that would consider using the 38-year old as a closer, plus perhaps a realization that another team would be unlikely to take on the $9M he is owed this season. This is particularly true given Ziegler’s BABIP of .342 and K/9 of 4.98.
Having Ziegler at the back of the pen effectively blocks younger candidates, such as 27-year old righties Drew Steckenrider and Kyle Barraclough, from taking over the closer role. These two pitchers look to be set-up men, given their ability to throw hard and strike out batters. Barraclough fanned 10.4 batters/9 IP last season, but could be maddeningly wild at times; while Steckenrider did quite well after being called up from New Orleans last season, fanning 54 batters in only 34.2 innings. It would not surprise anyone if one of these hurlers becomes the Marlins closer should Ziegler falter this year or leave when his contract is up at the end of the season.
In theory, highly-paid reliever Junichi Tazawa would be the ideal set-up man given his experience and his $7M salary for 2018. Anyone who actually watched Tazawa pitch to a 5.69 ERA last season would think otherwise. Like Ziegler, Tazawa is due to become a free agent after 2018, so he is certainly looking to bounce back so he can find a major league roster spot after this season.
The personnel manning the middle innings is likely to change as the season progresses. There are two prime starter candidates currently in the pen: the left-handed (and recently featured) Jarlin Garcia and the former first-round pick Jacob Turner.
After Dan Straily was injured, Garcia was penciled in as the Marlins fifth starter. Garcia is looking to rebound from an injury plagued second-half of 2017, and after tossing six innings of shutout, one-hit ball in relief against the Cubs Friday night, he is clearly on his way to joining the starting staff very soon.
The 6’8” right-hander Tayron Guerrero and the lefty George Mason product Chris O’Grady are likely to stay in the middle relief role this season, assuming they perform well.
On the flip side of the coin, if Sandy Alcantara gets promoted or when Wei-Yin Chen comes off the disabled list, a current starter such as Odrisamer Despaigne would be a clear candidate to move back into middle relief.
Likewise, if any member of the relief corp is doing particularly well, they are likely to be trade bait for a contending team near the trade deadline.
Given the fluidity of the Marlins pitching staff and the inevitability of injuries, it is likely that the bullpen we see this March will be different from that we see at the All-Star break, and certainly different from Opening Day, 2019.