The year is 2017. Jeff Locke gets the ball to make his seventh start for the Miami Marlins against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Marlins were able to touch up Adam Wainwright for six runs, but he'd still pick up the win after the Cardinals put up an 11-spot on Locke in just 2 2⁄3 innings. That July 3 evening was the last time Jeff Locke would ever take the mound for an MLB team.
The reality is the 2017 Marlins were so desperate for pitching, their starting rotation leaned heavily on guys who had no business handling those roles in the big leagues.
Locke would give way to Chris O’Grady, a former 10th-round draft pick. He mostly worked in relief in his six minor league seasons. O’Grady surprised, putting together a few quality starts before getting knocked around and ultimately going down with an injury.
Vance Worley was next in line for an opportunity. He would make 12 starts for the Marlins, going 2-6 with a 6.91 ERA. Worley was able to hang on for dear life until the end of the 2017 season before—as you’re probably guessing—never making another MLB appearance.
The Marlins “ace” that season was José Ureña, with Dan Straily not too far behind. After that was Edinson Vólquez, who injured his knee and blew out his elbow after 17 starts, Adam Conley (6.71 ERA) and Tom Koehler (7.92 ERA). They would give former top prospect Justin Nicolino one more shot—he didn’t pan out. Fifth-ranked prospect Dillon Peters may have been the most exciting promotion for the Marlins all season, which speaks volumes. And of course, you can’t forget Odrisamer Despaigne, who made some spot starts for the Fish.
Odrisamer Despaigne is the first pitcher in Marlins history to start a game on 0 days' rest.— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) March 31, 2018
Super-human conditioning pic.twitter.com/kAsN03PRCp
Fast-forward to the current season, the Marlins reached the All-Star break with MLB’s seventh-best ERA for starting pitchers, their highest ranking in that category since 2005.
After years of toiling towards the bottom of the league in starting pitching, struggling to identify quality arms and failing to develop them in the first place, this is a critical development.
The Marlins have deployed eight different starting pitchers already this season, all of whom have had success to at least a certain degree. Caleb Smith led the way for the Marlins initially, pitching like a top-end arm with a 31.1 K% and 1.02 WHIP. Sandy Alcantara just pitched a scoreless inning representing the Marlins in the All Star Game.
Trevor Richards has been solid. Zac Gallen, Jordan Yamamoto, and Elieser Hernandez each dominated the minor leagues, and all three have kept the momentum going into the bigs. They are pitching to a combined 3.21 ERA across 13 starts this season filling in for the injured José Ureña and Pablo López.
Yamamoto, who came over to Miami in the Christian Yelich trade, is leading the way for the trio, boasting a 3-0 record with a 1.24 ERA across his first four MLB starts. Gallen has run into a bit of bad luck across his three outings, as his 2.87 FIP and .355 BABIP would indicate, but his peripherals are encouraging. Though a small sample size, the right-hander owns a 20.80 K-BB% and 6.7% HR/FB, which in layman’s terms means he is striking out a lot more batters than he is walking and is not giving up many home runs. Both those tendencies have carried over from his Triple-A stint and would be among the top in the league if Gallen qualified.
The Marlins have talented arms at virtually all levels, including three of the top performing striating pitchers in the Florida State League. Former first-round selections Braxton Garrett and Trevor Rogers are enjoying their first full season back from from Tommy John surgery by carving up minor league hitters.
The southpaw duo ranks fifth and sixth respectively in the Florida State League among qualified arms in FIP and place in the top 10 in xFIP, ERA, opponent batting average, K/9, and several other categories despite being younger than the majority of their competition. Garrett’s K% (31%) and xFIP (2.33) are both No. 1 in the FSL.
Edward Cabrera, who was recently called up to Double-A Jacksonville, just misses the cut-off (minimum 0.8 IP/team game), but if you scale back the qualifications to minimum 50 IP, he jumps to the top of virtually every pitching category. At the age of 21, Cabrera was one of the most dominant arms in a pitching-rich league. The righty finished his tenure in Jupiter with a 2.02 ERA, 2.60 FIP, 32.3 K% and .181 BAA.
MLB Futures Game selection Sixto Sánchez is the most highly touted prospect of them all. FanGraphs’ No. 17 prospect, he landed in Miami as the centerpiece of the J.T. Realmuto trade with the Phillies. Sixto has not quite dominated to the same degree as his peers, but could have the highest ceiling. Since moving up to Double-A, the Dominican right-hander owns a 3.88 ERA, 3.12 FIP and 24.7 K%.
At Triple-A New Orleans, the Marlins had high hopes for Nick Neidert breaking through to the major leagues. He came over in the Dee Gordon trade and immediately earned Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors for the Marlins in 2018, going 12-7, with a 3.24 ERA, 3.38 FIP, and 25.2 K% in Jacksonville. Unfortunately, he’s been sidelined for months due to a meniscus injury. That shouldn’t prevent him from reestablishing himself as a bonafide starting pitcher prospect in the near future.
The offensive talent is not quite there in the big leagues yet for a Marlins team that will likely post one of the league’s worst records for the second consecutive season. That’s understandable once you realize how weak the foundation of the ball club used to be starting at the low levels of the minor leagues.
In 2017, which was the “we think we can contend with Jeff Locke, Chris O’Grady, Vance Worley and Dillon Peters as back-end rotation options” year, the Marlins had one of, if not the worst farm system in the league.
Put their current collection of arms in that situation and they would be making things interesting in the competitive NL East. It took a thorough rebuild to get in this position, but properly managing these assets moving forward should lead them back to relevance sooner than many may expect.
As the minor league crop continues to mature and inch toward MLB readiness, the Marlins will have tough decisions to make. Caleb Smith is back from injury and is a mainstay at the top of the Marlins rotation. Sandy Alcantara represented the Fish in Cleveland for the All-Star Game and has devastating pure stuff that gives him room to grow. Pablo López has been solid when healthy, Trevor Richards continues to prove himself as a viable option in the back end of the rotation, and when José Ureña (herniated disk) comes off the shelf, what to do with Jordan Yamamoto and Zac Gallen, who have now proved they belong in the bigs? When Nick Neidert and Sixto Sánchez finalize their development, there definitely won’t be enough rotation slots to accommodate them all.
The next wave featuring Braxton Garrett, Trevor Rogers and Edward Cabrera will continue to climb up the ranks. Odds says that at least one has a good shot at realizing his potential. Jordan Holloway could be another lottery ticket that turns into an explosive arm, and there's even Jorge Guzman, who shouldn’t be discounted from an eventual major league role.
For the first time in a really long time, the Marlins could have an excess of starting pitching.
So what's next? Probably not much at this July 31 trade deadline. Contending teams have reportedly sent scouts to check out Richards in recent starts. As much as he has become a fan favorite, his ceiling is not quite as high as the other arms in the rotation and those coming up behind him, making him expendable. Ureña is still without a timetable to return, otherwise he’d be in the same boat.
Though the Marlins have developed terrific pitching depth, top-end quality is a key ingredient, too. Smith has shown flashes of that when healthy. Guys like Cabrera, Sánchez, Garrett and Rogers offer sky-high ceilings, albeit a much lower floor as well.
Internally, the front office needs to establish a starting pitching pecking order, then turn the attention to the offensive side of things and fill out the long-term core with potential impact bats like top draft pick JJ Bleday (who has finally agreed to sign).
With any successful rebuild, a little bit of luck is needed. In the Marlins’ case, they need these young arms to continue advancing and maturing into a homegrown pitching staff. That way, they’ll have the surplus of talent to swap for hitters and the financial flexibility to be a free agent destination.