The Miami Marlins are halfway through Spring Training and there has been plenty of important developments in their two weeks of games so far. My favorite one is that apparently the Marlins were watching a ton of soccer during the winter, as they’ve played five draws so far. As we all know the outcome of these games don’t matter, but there is plenty to learn about the club regardless.
We’ve had time to evaluate some of the biggest roster competitions, and get a better idea of how the Opening Day roster will look. In my first roster prediction, I discussed three main roster situations: the 2nd base starting job between contenders Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Isan Díaz, what to do with Garrett Cooper, and the battle for the 5th rotation spot. We’ve seen plenty of both Jazz and Isan but the results haven’t been great, Cooper is doing everything possible to tell the Marlins he’s gonna need ABs, and a wrench got thrown into the rotation plans. There has also been guys on the fringes that have impressed and are making their cases for a roster spot.
I thought this would be the appropriate timing to take a step back and reassess. Let’s review what we’ve learned so far, and what we have left to monitor in the final two weeks of Spring Training.
Isan Has The Upper Hand
I personally believed from the beginning that Isan Díaz always had the inside track at winning the 2nd base job. Isan is in a “prove it” situation because of the way his career has gone so far, and the Marlins need to give him the chance to do so. I also believe that Jazz still requires some fine-tuning in AAA—there’s been evidence of that on display in the spring.
Both have impressed defensively, with each guy making their fair share of great plays in the field. The plate has been where the difference has been for these two guys. While the results haven’t been great for either—.125/.333/.313 in 10 G for Díaz, .200/.200/.350 in 10 G for Chisholm—the difference really comes in the approach and the quality of ABs they’ve put together. Jazz has two more hits, but Isan has four walks compared to none for Jazz. Jazz has also punched out two more times and is seeing a lot fewer pitches.
Manager Don Mattingly said he’s happy with how both guys have looked so far, but there’s been an important difference in his specific word choice. Mattingly has spoken highly of Isan’s ABs this spring, saying “Isan seems like he’s not trying to do too much.” He’s also said he likes the way he’s seeing the ball and that he’s seen good swings from Isan even if the results haven’t been there.
Here's Donny with a bit of an unintentional update on the race for 2B.— Ethan Budowsky (@ethanbudowsky) March 9, 2021
Isan certainly backed him up today as he went out and put together a couple good ABs today. May have made a bit of a statement in the race the past couple days. https://t.co/qKKoPBmcul pic.twitter.com/1GrHsKExi2
Mattingly hasn’t necessarily spoken negatively about Jazz. He has described him as “electric” a couple times, saying he always seems to make something happen. When talking about his ABs though, Mattingly has said the Marlins are looking for more consistency from him. After a two-hit game Monday, Mattingly said Jazz is seeing the ball well and his ABs haven’t been bad, but at times he’s “been a little all over the place” and he’s afraid he’s been pressing.
Long term, I think Jazz is going to be a star, and it’s clear the Marlins know what type of player they have on their hands. I also think they know the best decision for him right now is a stint in AAA and Mattingly’s comments about his spring suggest that. Isan started this spring with the upper hand—I haven’t seen anything that would change that yet.
Prediction: Isan is the Opening Day 2nd baseman, Jazz gets optioned to AAA Jacksonville
Garrett Cooper Needs ABs
Major League Baseball, as of this writing, has failed to institute the universal DH for the 2021 season. I asked Mattingly about the DH recently and he said it’s “disappointing” to not have it this year after observing how it improved the product on the field in 2020. He believes the DH will be universal next year when the new CBA is put in place, which makes this hold-up all the more perplexing.
The lack of a DH will definitely have an effect on the Marlins’ ability to put their best lineup out there every day, and the spring games have made that very clear. Cooper has been nothing short of great at the plate this spring, hitting .429 with a 1.095 OPS after a 1-for-2 outing on Monday. His approach looks good and he’s hitting the ball hard nearly every time he puts the bat on the ball, which is more important to me than the actual small sample size results.
Another extra base hit for Garrett Cooper. Double this time in the gap. pic.twitter.com/fTUuCpK1pz— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) March 10, 2021
The Marlins are going to have to be creative trying to find Cooper, Jesús Aguilar and Adam Duvall their share of at-bats. Aguilar is having a nice spring as well (.350 with a .985 OPS), but it’s been Cooper that has stolen the show. Duvall has underwhelmed, but I don’t think the Marlins are overly concerned with that. It would be a lot easier if they could just rotate those three between 1B/RF/DH.
Cooper’s durability issues make it hard to just move on from Aguilar because there’s no guarantee Cooper can last a full season (he’s only played 155 games in his three years with Miami), so they’re going to have to work with both. If Cooper continues his hot spring and carries this form into the regular season, the entire complexion of the lineup could change. I wish I had any idea how the Marlins can balance all three guys. For now, the best guess is Cooper gets a couple 1B and RF starts each week while making the majority of his appearances as a pinch-hitter.
Prediction: Don Mattingly is very smart, he’ll find a way.
Marlins Throw a Veteran Wrench Into Starting Rotation Mix
I previously said it would’ve been a good move for the Marlins to sign a veteran starter to try and cement the rotation. Apparently the Marlins were listening because on March 3, they signed Miami native Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal. Gonzalez is very excited to come home, and it also makes the battle for the final rotation spot very interesting.
Gonzalez is still working his way up to speed so he has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game, but he did throw a sim game on Monday. It remains unclear when Gonzalez will pitch in a live game, but his timetable and ensuing performance will tell us a lot about his chances to make the Opening Day roster.
The three guys I mentioned in my initial prediction were Daniel Castano, Nick Neidert and Trevor Rogers. We’ve seen Neidert four times, Castano three times and Rogers twice so far with a mixed bag of results between the three of them.
Neidert has been the most impressive in my eyes, and is making a really good case to the Marlins that he should be the 5th guy. In 8 2⁄3 IP, Neidert has allowed just 3 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks, while striking out 10. Mattingly said the Marlins were impressed with Neidert last spring, and he was actually tracking towards the 5th spot before COVID shut down the season.
Castano has been showing us what we’d expect from him this spring. He lets up contact and doesn’t really strike anybody out, but he limits damage and keeps things clean. In 6 2⁄3 IP he’s allowed 6 hits and 3 runs, walking 2 and striking out 3. I personally think Castano can be valuable in a swing arm role, but I don’t see a ton of potential as a starter despite his 2020 contributions.
Rogers has had the most up-and-down spring so far but, as he showed in his time in the bigs last year, there’s excellent upside. In 4 1⁄3 IP, Rogers has allowed 5 hits, 3 runs, and 2 walks, but he’s also struck out 8 and his stuff has looked electric. That being said, he only has five appearances at AA and I think there’s some fine-tuning that needs to be done.
Another factor in this race is Sixto Sánchez’s setbacks. He made his first appearance of the spring on Monday, but the other projected rotation starters are two starts ahead of him. The Marlins will now put him on a regular starter’s build-up plan, but there remains a chance he’ll need the early portion of April at the alternate training site to fully stretch out his arm before being called up.
The Marlins will ultimately need all of these guys at various points in 2021, but to start the season I would personally opt for potential.
Prediction: Sixto is good to go, Neidert gets the 5th spot, Gonzalez and Rogers start in minors, Castano swing role.
Bender Mania? Snack, Crackle, Pop?
The Marlins bullpen is where it gets very interesting. There’s sort of this log jam in the ‘pen as the Marlins have a couple Rule 5 players. They have some under-the-radar arms who have really shown out in the spring and are making good cases for roster spots. Deciding which of them—and how many of them—make the cut affects the number of bats the Marlins will carry, too.
Zach Pop, acquired from the Diamondbacks in a trade on Rule 5 draft day, has to have a roster spot. He was not on my initial list because I thought he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he has appeared in spring a couple times and immediately impressed. In 2 innings thus far, but he’s got 3 Ks and hasn’t allowed a hit. The 24-year-old right-hander is sitting around 96 with the fastball and showing a really nice slider and a good changeup.
The movement on Zach Pop's fastball is insane. José Altuve agrees.— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) March 15, 2021
Full strikeout sequence pic.twitter.com/zoUtpLxxiW
Anthony Bender is another guy who has caught a lot of people by surprise. In 3 1⁄3 IP so far he hasn’t allowed a base runner and struck out 6 with wielding similarly nasty pure stuff to Pop. I’m not sure he’s found a path onto the 26-man yet, but he remains somebody to keep an eye on as Spring Training winds down.
Paul Campbell was Miami’s Rule 5 pick from the Rays, but he has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game. A starter by nature, he is only stretched out to go a single inning at the moment. He’ll have to work his way back and is way behind schedule, which may sideline him for Opening Day.
Here’s my full Opening Day projection as things stand:
Other Notables: Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison in AAA; Paul Campbell on injured list