The Miami Marlins posted a 6-4 record through their first 10 games of Grapefruit League play in 2022. The team’s focus on adding offense provided immediate dividends in Spring Training, evidenced by their plus-13 run differential. But as Opening Day approaches, questions linger regarding roster construction, specifically with the Marlins bullpen.
Miami’s Offseason Approach Focused on Lineup
Marlins majority owner Bruce Sherman announced prior to Spring Training: “We have money, and we will spend it.” That said, the Marlins still find themselves in the bottom-5 of the MLB in payroll for 2022.
But the fact is, Miami did spend this offseason. The current $67 million payroll is about $10 million more than 2021. The free-agent additions of Avisail Garcia and Jorge Soler cost $89 million. Extensions for Sandy Alcantara, Richard Bleier, and Miguel Rojas added another $72 million. Couple those moves with the $7.1 million assumed in the Jacob Stallings and Joey Wendle trades, and Miami’s on the hook for more than $168 million this offseason.
This much-improved lineup will no doubt help keep the Marlins competitive this season, but the lack of bullpen moves remains frustrating to fans.
Back in December, Marlins general manager Kim Ng admitted the bullpen was not the team’s primary focus and that the reliever market was typically slow to unfold.
But last Wednesday, Ng admitted “now we’re definitely focused on relievers” following the team’s signing of Soler. The remaining free-agent relievers, though, are underwhelming, and the team has yet to execute a trade to bolster the bullpen.
Last season, the Marlins bullpen sported a 3.81 ERA, seventh-lowest in MLB, and a 1.26 WHIP, eighth-lowest. And although Miami relief pitchers posted the sixth-fewest saves (33) in 2021, they registered the ninth-fewest blown saves (25). Many of those relievers have returned, but there’s not an established, high-leverage closer among them.
Miami is prepared to ride the early part of the season with what they have, opting for an offense-first approach (much like the Phillies).
Marlins Bullpen Remains in Question
Further complicating matters for the Fish, Dylan Floro, Miami’s closer last season, might not be ready for Opening Day after dealing with arm soreness.
One other nugget from #Marlins manager Don Mattingly this a.m.: Dylan Floro is "a little behind" with his throwing program while he deals with arm soreness.
"We'll have some questions with his ramp us. He's throwing. … but we're not quite sure when he's going to be ready."
— Jordan McPherson (@J_McPherson1126) March 26, 2022
An IL-stint to start the season may force the team’s hand in a trade, but it also likely signals Anthony Bender taking the closer role early on. Bender registered three saves last season, though he did blow two opportunities. The 27-year-old righty registered 12 holds and posted a 2.79 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP over 61.1 innings pitched.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly’s track record indicates he prefers players to have set roles, especially in the bullpen. But injuries and uncertainty may force his hand toward a closer-by-committee approach.
“I think we’re going to be more of a mix-and-match club,” Mattingly said recently when asked about save situations.
If that’s the case, Anthony Bass may get another turn as closer, too. Bass was brought in last season to anchor the backend of the bullpen but blew his first two save chances. Yimi Garcia took over, and Floro from there, once Garcia was traded to Houston. However, over Bass’ final 67 outings last season, he managed a 3.05 ERA, with 19 holds and only two blown saves.
Beyond those names, Bleier could get a turn if the opposing lineup is loaded with lefties. But he’s struggled this spring, giving up seven hits, including two homers, and six earned runs over 1.2 innings pitched. Other holdovers from last year’s Marlins bullpen include Steven Okert and Zach Pop.
Miami’s confident in its developmental system and is leaning toward internal options for their ‘pen. The team’s ability to groom Major League-caliber arms remains evident in its starting rotation, where four of the five projected starters all spent significant time in their system. But the Marlins bullpen is another matter.
The Other Names in Play
The Marlins added to their bullpen this offseason by trading for right-hander Louis Head from Tampa Bay. The 32-year-old reliever made his MLB debut in 2021, posting a 2.31 ERA over 35 innings out of Tampa’s ‘pen. Head has three appearances this spring, allowing one earned run over four innings.
Miami signed righty Jimmy Yacabonis to a minor league deal and there’s a chance he makes the club, too. Over 104 career MLB innings with the Orioles and Mariners, Yacabonis posted a 5.71 ERA. He’s made four appearances this spring, pitching to a 1.80 ERA over five innings.
Right-hander Huascar Brazoban also came on a minor league deal. The 32-year-old has yet to make his MLB debut, but he’s thrown four innings and allowed one run so far in Grapefruit League play.
Another minor league deal brought left-hander Grant Dayton. The 34-year-old has a 3.43 ERA over 102.1 MLB innings in his career. The Marlins drafted Dayton in the 11th round in 2010, and he spent five years in Miami’s system before being traded.
The Marlins like Shawn Armstrong, a non-roster invitee this spring who’s pitched 2.1 innings so far. He has no walks, two strikeouts, and is yet to give up a run over three appearances so far.
Miami claimed right-hander Tommy Nance from the Cubs this week, too. The 31-year-old made his MLB debut last season, posting a 7.22 ERA over 28.2 innings. Although he struggled for Chicago, Nance posted a 2.35 ERA over 15.1 innings, with a walk rate of just 5.3 percent at Triple-A.
25-year-old lefty Sean Guenther is also with the club this spring. He pitched with the Marlins late last season, posting a 9.30 ERA over 20.1 innings. Guenther’s made two appearances this spring, with no earned runs over two innings.
Filling Out the Marlins Bullpen
MLB and the players union agreed to a series of rule changes recently, including expanded rosters in April. Teams will have two extra spots following the abbreviated spring training. This should help the early-season workloads for pitchers. FanGraphs projects the Marlins to carry 15 pitchers coming out of spring.
With the extra roster spots, and considering the versatile utility players on their bench, the Marlins bullpen could get a couple more arms. Miami will more than likely need at least one long reliever in the mix, especially early on.
Paul Campbell, Daniel Castano, Braxton Garrett, and Cody Poteet all remain with the big club this spring, and all have MLB experience that could translate to the long reliever role. The Marlins optioned Nick Neidert to Triple-A Jacksonville recently, despite Neidert’s change to reliever.
Miami may opt to give one of those players the role, but if Edward Cabrera makes a bid for the starting rotation, the Marlins could move Elieser Hernandez to the bullpen.
— Joe Frisaro (@JoeFrisaro) March 30, 2022
The 23-year-old Cabrera threw three scoreless innings, with three strikeouts, in his Grapefruit League debut earlier this week. After being delayed to start the spring with a visa issue, Cabrera’s emerged as a darkhorse to open in the starting rotation.
Hernandez seems well-suited for long relief, considering the struggles he’s had the third time through an opponent’s order. Over his career, Hernandez sees his batting-average-against jump to .346, with an OPS of 1.185, when batters get a third plate appearance against him in the same game. Batters sport a .233 and .230 batting average in their first and second at-bats versus Hernandez.
Floro struggled at times last season in high-leverage situations, as evidenced by his six blown saves. What’s more, he made 32 appearances last season in “save situations” and pitched to a 5.53 ERA with a 1.66 WHIP. In high-leverage situations, opposing batters hit .252 against him, with a .658 OPS. The Marlins are banking on his experience and overall effectiveness as a reliever (3.18 career ERA) to get them through.
Bender could be best suited for the closer role in the long run. Although it’s a small sample size, Bender pitched to a 1.10 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in save situations last season. His batting-average-against in that spot was .203.
Some scouts foresee 2020 first-round pick Max Meyer eventually becoming a reliever, maybe a closer, but the Marlins don’t see it that way. At least for now. Mattingly admitted Meyer could probably pitch out of the bullpen at this point, but the Marlins continue to groom him as a starter, a role he should thrive in for the Jumbo Shrimp with his solid three-pitch mix.
Adding an established closer (who performs well, obviously) puts this Marlins team in striking distance of the playoffs. Toss in an established centerfielder on top of that, and Miami’s a legitimate postseason contender.
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