The Marlins’ post-sale tendencies on the amateur acquisition market are still taking shape, but the 2020 draft class may indicate that the club sees opportunity in a certain kind of arm. This past summer, the team used all six of its draft selections on pitchers, and while the first couple off the board, Max Meyer and Daxton Fulton, carry classic top of the draft profiles with across the board appeal, their middle round selections seemed to share a set of traits, potentially giving us a window into the Marlins’ internal strategy. Specifically, I am thinking of Competitive Balance Round B selection Kyle Nicolas and third rounder Zach McCambley, a pair of college righties.
While their paths through college diverged a bit, McCambley and Nicolas entered the draft with similar pros and cons. Nicolas struggled quite a bit with his control as an underclassman at Ball State, walking a total of 91 batters in 108 2⁄3 innings across his freshman and sophomore seasons, but his 133 strikeouts evidenced the quality of his stuff. Hoping to build on his stock and sharpen his skills, he participated in the Cape Cod League following the 2019 campaign, where many had a chance to see his stuff up close for the first time.
Among the attendees was Marlins director of amateur scouting DJ Svihlik, who told MiLB.com that Nicolas’ arm wowed him when he saw him pitch for Cotuit; his control still looked relievery in CCBL play, but his ability to pump consistent mid-90s heat backed up with a slider that was at times devastating was exciting scouts nonetheless. He entered the 2020 season as something of an enigma, with most evaluators seeing him as a future relief pitcher, but at the same time viewing him as a potential early selection with late-inning potential.
From there, things took a bit of a turn for the better, as Nicolas was able to apply some concepts from his offseason training during the 2020 season, and starred in four starts for the Cardinals before COVID ended the season, posting a much more balanced 37 K/7 BB mark in 23 frames, including a 17 K effort across 7 innings against Sacred Heart. Evaluators took note of some changes he made mechanically, notably a shorter stride, and those seemed to help him command his stuff better. The sample was small, but it nonetheless surely boosted clubs’ confidence in him and solidified the high draft slot he ended up achieving.
McCambley, on the other hand, was more stable over the course of his college career, at least in terms of location. He split time between bullpen and rotation as a freshman, posting a 3.14 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 48 2⁄3 innings. He wowed onlookers with his vicious curveball, and built a bit of hype entering 2019. Things were more uneven for McCambley as a sophomore as he struggled with hit and run avoidance to the tune of a 5.21 ERA, but his 76 K/27 BB ratio over 67 1⁄3 frames evidenced his significant potential.
Like Nicolas, McCambley really surged onto the radar during his Cape Cod League stint. Pitching alongside Nicolas for Cotuit, McCambley dominated as a starter, totaling five outings and a 24 K/7 BB ratio in 20 2⁄3 innings. Scouts in attendance loved his fastball/curveball combination, as well as his startery frame at 6’2” with a broad build. McCambley carried this momentum into 2020 and seized the Friday starter role for Coastal Carolina, and was in the midst of a breakout campaign when the season was shut down. In four starts this past year, he allowed just 5 earned runs to go with a 32 K/7 BB ratio in his 25 innings, ensuring a selection in the shortened draft.
By draft day, the book on the two righties was similar. Nicolas’ fastball is slightly firmer, but both are in above-average to plus territory, and while the two throw different breaking pitches, both offerings drew rave reviews from scouts. Additionally, both faced mechanical questions. Scouts liked the changes that Nicolas made between 2019 and 2020 to rein himself in, but his arm action remains relatively violent to this day, and most were still projecting him as a reliever despite his momentum.
Similarly, McCambley was viewed by many as a reliever due to the level of effort in his delivery. While his lower half is relatively quiet, his arm action is somewhat whippy and he employs quite a bit of scapular load. Despite the nitpicks, though, both pitchers were able to locate rather effectively in 2020, and that seemed to be of the greatest importance to Miami. This was confirmed in the aforementioned Svihlik interview, where he said that he doesn’t agree with the concept of “starter deliveries” vs. “reliever deliveries,” and that he values repeatability and feel over aesthetics.
Svihlik’s attitude is a modern one, and indicative of his confidence in the Marlins’ developmental infrastructure. Given that he came on board after the 2018 draft and the Marlins didn’t select their first pitcher until the fifth round in 2019, the 2020 draft class is our best data point when it comes to projecting what kinds of pitchers the club might chase in the amateur and minor league markets. The selections of McCambley and Nicolas indicate that their primary focus is on stuff- specifically a combination of velocity and plus breaking stuff- and that they feel their coaches are well equipped to help such arms polish the more teachable parts of their games: command and changeup development.
To this day, most see both Nicolas and McCambley as future late-inning relievers, and given their respective draft slots, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with that outcome. If the Marlins’ strategy pays off, however, both have the raw stuff to become mid-rotation starters and blow away the expected value of those slots. Since current ownership took over, we’ve seen the Marlins accumulate high-upside players of different kinds, and going forward, perhaps the college starter with a big breaking ball and mechanical/command question marks will be one of their preferred archetypes. In the meantime, Nicolas and McCambley should once again be teammates to open the 2021 season, and have the potential to make noise in the Low-A Jupiter rotation, where they figure to start their respective campaigns.