Last week, the Marlins rounded out their starting rotation by acquiring Dan Straily from the Reds. Straily will join Edinson Volquez, Wei-Yin Chen, Tom Koehler, and Adam Conley in likely making up the Marlins five-man rotation to start the year, and let’s be honest, that’s a pretty uninspiring group. Our projections currently rate Miami’s group of starters as the 27th best in baseball, just ahead of the Reds, Twins, and Padres, none of whom are expected to compete in 2017. But what the Marlins lack in quality, they may make up for in quantity, and that could make their pitching experiment worth watching this year.
When discussing the team’s rotation, GM Michael Hill made a couple of interesting comments.
Straily would join Edinson Volquez, Wei-Yin Chen, Tom Koehler and Adam Conley in the team’s projected starting rotation this coming season. But Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said Jeff Locke, Jose Urena and Justin Nicolino would also compete for spots, and that one — or even two — could end up in the bullpen as long relievers.
“We have said throughout the offseason with our acquisitions, we were looking at ways to shorten the game,” Hill said. “I think whomever the players are who aren’t a part of that five-man rotation will still pitch valuable innings for us because they represent bridges to get us to the back end of our pen.”
And then there was this, recorded by Joe Frisaro of MLB.com.
“The thought of eight relievers and carrying a 13-man pitching staff is a possibility,” president of baseball operations Michael Hill said on Thursday afternoon.
In general, the idea of eight-man bullpens make most fans groan, as the expanded relief corps has been used before to simply add another specialist to the mix, giving managers even more opportunities to slow the game down by playing the match-ups late in contests. When you look at the Marlins potential relievers, though, that doesn’t really seem to be what they’ve been accumulating.
The Marlins current end-of-game group is led by four right-handers: A.J. Ramos, Kyle Barraclough, Brad Ziegler, and Junichi Tazawa. The latter two were signed as free agents this winter, and given two year contracts, so you can imagine they were given some degree of certainty about the roles they would be used in. If they go with an eight man bullpen, that leaves four spots for “bridges”, as Hill called them, and this is where things get interesting.
Interesting because the Marlins best reliever might not be any of those four end-of-game guys we just mentioned, but could indeed be part of the bridge group that Hill is referring to. Last year, David Phelps quietly put up one of the best seasons that no one noticed, transforming from a mediocre starter into a dominant reliever after the Marlins put him in the bullpen to start the year. His velocity spiked up from 90 to 94 mph, and his strikeout rate doubled from 16% to 32%, as he posted a 56/70/76 ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- line last year.
But what makes Phelps most fascinating is that, when the Marlins decided to stick him back in the rotation for five starts, he didn’t get any worse. In 62 innings of relief work, Phelps allowed a .256 wOBA, thanks to a 22% K%-BB% and a 44% GB%; in 24 innings as a starter, he allowed a .256 wOBA, thanks to a 23% K%-BB% and a 53% GB%. Phelps didn’t pitch deep in the five games he started, averaging fewer than five innings per start, but he showed he could face batters a second time through the order and still be effective.
So, in Phelps, the Marlins have a potentially high-end reliever capable of working multiple innings, and because of the signings of Ziegler and Tazawa, they don’t really have to use him as as a traditional setup man. And now, with a rotation full of guys who probably shouldn’t be asked to face hitters a third time through the order in close games, the Marlins should have ample opportunity to deploy Phelps as a mid-inning relief ace, giving him the chance to come into games in the fifth or sixth innings and keep games close.
Phelps might even be uniquely suited for this role; during each of his five years in the majors, he’s split his time between starting and relieving, throwing between 87 and 113 innings each year. He’s shown he can pitch multiple innings, pitch on back to back days, and alternate between the two; Phelps’ versatility make him a really good option to see if something like the October version of Andrew Miller can be effectively deployed in the regular season.
Of course, if you’re using Phelps for two or three innings at a time in certain relief outings, there are going to be plenty of days where he’s not available to pitch, since he’ll need more days off between outings. And that’s where the eight-man bullpen could allow this to work, since having three other “bridge” relievers would allow the Marlins to potentially enact a similar plan even when Phelps isn’t available out of the bullpen. And while the Marlins don’t have great pitchers in the other bridge spots, they do have guys who could pitch in non-traditional roles as well.
With the other three bullpen spots, the early favorites probably have to be Jeff Locke and Dustin McGowan, both of whom signed MLB contracts with the team this winter. At $3 million and $1.75 million respectively, they don’t make so much that the team couldn’t cut them if they wanted to go another direction, but generally teams will defer to guys on guaranteed contracts.
Locke, of course, has also pitched mostly as a starter, and pitching coordinator Jim Benedict is familiar with him during their joint time with the Pirates. With Straily’s addition, Locke is likely headed for the bullpen, and could end up just pitching long-relief, but he might be more interesting in a similar multi-inning relief role. As a starter, his career numbers the first and second time through the order are decent enough, as he put up 4.00 FIP/4.07 xFIP; the main reason we think of Jeff Locke as being not that good is that his third/fourth time through the order numbers stink, as he put up a 5.33 FIP/4.73 xFIP when guys got more looks at him.
Locke probably isn’t going to pull a Phelps, find four ticks on his fastball and double his strikeout rate, but if he’s put in a position where he’s asked to get six to nine outs per appearance, he might actually be a decent performer. And even just regular old Jeff Locke pitching in relief is likely to be a good bit better than a tiring Conley, Koehler, or Straily.
McGowan, similarly, is a converted starter who performed well for Miami last year, though not as well as his ERA would suggest. But the Marlins seemed to tinker with the idea of him pitching in extended outings last year, especially in the second half, once it was clear he was healthy for the first time in a while. After not facing more than seven batters in any outing in April or May, after June 1st, McGowan made four appearances where he faced 10 batters or more, plus another seven outings where he faced either eight or nine batters, and he averaged 5.3 batters faced per outing from June through September.
With those two, plus Jose Urena — who is out of options and wouldn’t clear waivers thanks to his 95 mph fastball — the Marlins have three potentially useful “bridge” guys even when Phelps isn’t able to pitch. Urena also threw 84 innings between starting and relieving last year, and while the results weren’t great, the stuff is there, and Steamer’s projections for him are fairly optimistic. If he figures out how to turn his velocity into missed bats with more regularity, Urena could also be a good candidate for the multi-inning role, getting the team to Tazawa or Barraclough without having to ask their lesser starters to pitch deep into games.
It’s January, and right now, this is all talk. The Marlins could end up signing a fifth bench guy and go with a more normal bullpen setup. They could end up deciding they want to match-up more often, and carry a guy like Hunter Cervenka instead, which would limit their chances to pull their starters early. Guys will get hurt, and the January pitching plan is almost never the April pitching reality.
But right now, the Marlins look to be considering the kind of pitching usage pattern that baseball is clearly headed towards; more guys throwing fewer innings at a time, but maximizing their chances of fresh relievers getting struggling starters out of jams before the game gets out of hand. While every team in baseball would rather just have reliable starters, the Marlins seem to have compiled a group of arms that could allow them to be fairly aggressive in getting their weak starters out of the game early.
So, yeah, it’s perfectly fair to look at the current Marlins rotation and question how this team is going to contend without their departed ace, Jose Fernandez. But if Hill was serious about utilizing bridge relievers as early-game options, then the Marlins plan probably relies more on guys like Phelps, Locke, and Urena. While Terry Francona’s playoff bullpen usage has created one of the more interesting storylines heading into 2017, the real test of whether a modified version of that kind of plan can work in the regular season might happen in Miami.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.