Throughout the 2020-21 offseason, Fish Stripes is bringing you daily articles as part of the All-Time Marlins Countdown.
Kevin Kraczkowski and Nicole Cahill have been capably leading this extensive series the past three months, but today and every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I will be a “pinch-hitter” for them. Enjoy...
178. Nick Wittgren
A 2012 Marlins draft pick out of Purdue University, Wittgren experienced no adversity through his first two years as a professional. By the end of 2013 Minor League Baseball regular season, he had pitched with four affiliates—Jamestown, Greensboro, Jupiter and Jacksonville—for a total of 89 innings, allowed only nine earned runs during that span. His ERA (0.91) was even lower than his WHIP (0.92)!
Despite that, the right-handed reliever wasn’t held in especially high regard as a prospect. Wittgren’s fastball velocity would peak in the mid-90s, but he could not sit there consistently. The Marlins had their doubts about how he’d translate to the big leagues. Post-2013, he dominated the Arizona Fall League (0.66 ERA, 0.59 WHIP, 19 K in 13.2 IP), yet it took another two-and-a-half years to get called up.
Even then, Wittgren was kept on a short leash. The Marlins optioned him to the minors six separate times from 2016-2018.
In an era where reliever usage tendencies have been homogenized such that managers frequently stick with individuals for one inning at a time, Don Mattingly was more creative with Wittgren. Of Wittgren’s 118 appearances as a Marlin, only half (60) were one inning in length. In dozens of situations, he was pulled before that, and on the other end of the spectrum, he twice gave them three-inning stints to preserve other arms when games went into extras.
Wittgren finished 2018 on a relatively high note—he held opponents to a .438 OPS in September (11.1 IP). Soon after the season ended, the Marlins traded Kyle Barraclough, moving Wittgren up the bullpen hierarchy. He seemed poised to enter the following spring training with the inside track at a setup role, maybe even in the competition for save opportunities.
But mere weeks before camp began, the Marlins dealt Wittgren, too. It remains one of the most puzzling moves of the Derek Jeter era, a one-for-one swap with inconsistent Indians minor leaguer Jordan Milbrath who would inconspicuously spend all of 2019 in the farm system and leave the next offseason as a minor league free agent. Meanwhile, Wittgren has been more or less the same guy with Cleveland that he was with the Fish, and he got his first taste of postseason action during the 2020 AL Wild Card Series.
177. Wade LeBlanc
LeBlanc was Triple-A starting rotation depth during the first half of his first season in the Marlins organization (2012). They summoned him in early July to provide relief work and he got off on the right foot. In 11 games pitched that month (15.2 IP), he posted a 1.15 earned run average. So they re-stretched him out to be a starter in August, limiting the opposition to one run in each of his first three tries at it.
The rest of LeBlanc’s Fish tenure isn’t really worth a deep dive. He regressed, of course, due to a combination of not missing enough bats and allowing too many balls in the air when contact was made. He was designated for assignment in June 2013, when the Marlins were the worst team in the National League, and claimed by the Astros, the American League’s ultimate cellar dwellers.
Through seven years as a pro, the Louisiana-born lefty only knew two organizations: the Padres and Marlins. He’s been on quite a journey since then, going from the Astros to the Angels to the Yankees and back to the Angels, then the Blue Jays, Mariners, Pirates, Yankees (again), Mariners (again) and Orioles. LeBlanc is a 36-year-old free agent as of this writing.
176. Matt Lindstrom
Interesting leaderboard courtesy of Stathead: best strikeout-minus-walk rate (K-BB%) for first-year pitchers in Marlins history, minimum 50 innings pitched. This doesn’t include all rookies, just those in the very first taste of The Show who evidently performed well enough to stick on the active roster for a large chunk of the season.
Hey, there’s Wittgren again!
Lindstrom’s minor league story was far different. The Rexburg, Idaho native went on a two-year Mormon mission before entering pro baseball. The Mets then spent parts of four seasons (2002-2005) trying to develop him as a starter before relegating him to the bullpen. The new role added a few extra ticks to his fastball, which occasionally cracked triple digits. But Baseball America warned that “while his heater has impressive velocity, his strikeout numbers are just pedestrian because he lacks movement, command and deception.”
In November 2006, Lindstrom was involved in a four-player trade that brought him to South Florida and Jason Vargas to New York. His 2007 debut, as noted above, made him look like the jewel of the deal.
Over a larger sample, however, that BA scouting report rung true. Lindstrom racked up 62 strikeouts as a rookie but never more than 46 after that. His 8.23 earned run average at Land Shark Stadium in 2009 is the worst single-season home mark in Marlins history for any pitcher who spent the majority of that season on the active major league roster.
The Marlins traded Lindstrom to the Astros the next offseason. He would go on to have several more years with shiny ERAs, but rarely instilled enough confidence in his teams to serve as a closer.
175. John Baker
By pure coincidence, Baker winds up in the same Countdown chapter as LeBlanc. The two were traded for one another on November 22, 2011, which was among the first official transactions of the the Miami Marlins era.
Baker debuted for the Marlins in July 2008 and was stuck under the Mendoza Line for most of that month. But he kicked it into high gear down the stretch (.336/.426/.462 in 44 August/September games).
Unsurprisingly, Baker’s rookie year .367 batting average of balls in play would prove to be a fluke. When his BABIP regressed, so did his overall production at the plate as he dipped from a 120 wRC+ in ‘08 to a 99 wRC+ in ‘09 to a 60 wRC+ in ‘10 to a 24 wRC+ in ‘11.
Baker transitioned into coaching with the Cubs organization after wrapping up his playing career with them in 2014. He earned a World Series ring for his contributions to the 2016 team and currently serves as farm director for the Pirates.