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2021 Marlins Season Preview: Zach Pop

How much of Pop’s incredible minor league production will translate to The Show?

RHP Zach Pop

Opening Day age: 24 | Bats: right | Throws: right | Listed at 6-4, 220 lbs.

Acquired by Marlins from Diamondbacks in a trade (December 12, 2020)


For much of the offseason, Zach Pop had the distinction of being the most mysterious man on the Marlins 40-man roster.

Pop underwent Tommy John surgery on May 14, 2019. Ordinarily, a reliever in that situation would—assuming no severe setbacks during rehab—be able to salvage something from the following season. Unfortunately, there was no Minor League Baseball in 2020 due to COVID-19. So when the Marlins made their move for him last December (essentially “trading up” in the Rule 5 draft), they had only a vague idea of what the quality of his stuff would be moving forward and how opposing batters would fare against it.

Why take the risk? Because Pop’s performance since turning pro has been phenomenal. In parts of three seasons with Dodgers and Orioles MiLB affiliates, he checked every box in terms of actions that a pitcher can take to sustainably prevent runs from scoring.

Baseball America’s scouting report of Pop at the time of his Rule 5 selection:

Prior to surgery, Pop overwhelmed hitters with a heavy, heavy 92-96 mph sinker that broke bats and forced batters to hit the ball straight into the ground. His mid-80s slider was developing, but he was often able to dominate solely with his sinker and often did. He reached Double-A prior to surgery and should be ready to contribute to a big league bullpen immediately, provided he stays healthy and his stuff, movement and average control come all the way back.

On the negative side, Pop also missed time during his final collegiate season with an arm injury so perhaps the UCL tear that led to his Tommy John was not an anomaly. Although he had an occasional changeup in his arsenal coming out of the University of Kentucky, there isn’t much evidence that he has continued to develop it.


What’s next?

2021 ZiPS projection: 4.89 ERA, 5.10 FIP, 1.44 WHIP, -0.2 fWAR

2021 PECOTA projection (50th percentile): 4.28 ERA, 4.74 FIP, 1.40 WHIP, -0.1 WARP

Initially, Pop seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of several recent Marlins Rule 5 draftees: begin the regular season on the injured list and tune up for the majors with a lengthy rehab assignment. The 2019 surgery gives the Fish a perfectly valid “excuse” for placing him on the IL. That path would allow Pop to get his first-ever taste of Triple-A, not only valuable reps for the 24-year-old but similarly for the team in its process of determining whether he truly merits a spot on the MLB active roster.

The Diamondbacks selected Pop in the Rule 5, not the Marlins, but the usual player restrictions still apply. He cannot be optioned to the minor leagues during the 2021 season unless his original team (the Orioles) declines to take him back.

While it’s still possible that the Marlins will elect to bring Pop along slowly, his Grapefruit League debut on Wednesday was encouraging. The velocity on his sinker peaked at 96.7 miles per hour and averaged 95.2. He struck out Robel García—who has major league experience—and the two balls put into play against him were both hit softly. No changeups thrown among his 21 pitches.

Due to a pair of conveniently placed off days in early April, Don Mattingly acknowledges that the Marlins have the option of navigating the first half of their April schedule using only four conventional starting pitchers. That roster construction would potentially create space for an extra reliever like Pop.

If Pop eventually appears in a regular season game, he’ll become the first Canadian-born player to do so for the Marlins since Chris Leroux (2010).

Poll

Will Zach Pop remain with the Marlins for the full 2021 season?

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