Whether the Miami Marlins can live up to their sleeper status depends on their obvious strength: pitching.
Despite 100 losses last season, the staff set a franchise record for lowest ERA (3.71) led by National League Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez.
Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez make up a trio of pitchers who average at least 93 mph on its fastballs. Only two other Major League Baseball clubs can claim that feat.
Eovaldi and Alvarez both began 2013 on the disabled list but rebounded for strong performances, including the latter’s no-hitter on Closing Day. Jacob Turner, who struggled last spring and started in the minors, seemed to figure things out this Grapefruit League season.
Tom Koehler, the elder statesman of the rotation at 27 years old, won the fifth spot in a close race with Brad Hand and Kevin Slowey. All three pitchers posted sub-3.00 ERAs this spring.
Hand and Slowey will join a bullpen anchored by set-up men Mike Dunn and A.J. Ramos. Closer Steve Cishek’s unorthodox delivery still fools hitters to the tune of 27 consecutive saves dating back to last June.
Here’s how the Marlins’ pitching staff breaks down (with last year’s stats in parentheses).
Jose Fernandez, RHP (12-6, 2.19 ERA): The Cy Young finalist is the type of player to build a franchise around. Fernandez will become the youngest pitcher to start on Opening Day in seven seasons. The 21-year-old All-Star struck out 187 batters in 172 2/3 innings with his mid-to-high 90s fastball and devastating curveball. Miami will monitor how he feels after tossing a career-high number of innings — even with a limit — last season.
Nathan Eovaldi, RHP (4-6, 3.39 ERA): Right shoulder inflammation forced the 24-year-old to miss the first three months of the 2013 season. He started (1-0, 2.00 ERA in June) and finished (2-1, 2.43 ERA in September) strong. Eovaldi, who can throw in the mid-to-upper 90s, has been working on his secondary pitches to get more strikeouts (78 K, 106 1/3 IP).
Henderson Alvarez, RHP (5-6, 3.59 ERA): Like Eovaldi, right shoulder inflammation sidelined him until July before he made his Marlins debut. The 23-year-old recorded the club’s fifth no-hitter on Closing Day. Alvarez surrendered just two home runs in 102 2/3 innings, a vast improvement over 2012 (29 HR in 31 games).
Jacob Turner, RHP (3-8, 3.74 ERA): Last season was an up-and-down one for Turner, who pitched himself out of a rotation spot with a horrible spring (0-3, 9.69 ERA). Upon his promotion on May 31, the 22-year-old threw seven scoreless innings. The team won four of his first six starts, but he closed 2013 on a seven-game losing streak. Turner went 2-1 with a 2.79 ERA in five spring starts.
Tom Koehler, RHP (5-10, 4.41 ERA): With the final rotation slot up for grabs, the 27-year-old seized the opportunity this spring by posting a 1-1 record and 1.50 ERA in five games (four starts). He built momentum off a 2-1 record and 3.14 ERA in five starts last September. Koehler started 2013 — his first full season in the majors — in the bullpen until an injury to Kevin Slowey.
Steve Cishek, RHP (4-6, 2.33 ERA, 34/36 saves): Cishek took over full-time closing duties in 2013 after the failed Heath Bell experiment. The 27-year-old struggled in April and manager Mike Redmond went with a committee until Cishek regained his footing. He did, closing out the year with 27 consecutive saves, the longest active streak in the majors.
Mike Dunn, LHP (3-4, 2.66 ERA, 18 holds, 2/5 saves): The 28-year-old is more than a lefty specialist as he led the bullpen with 75 appearances. Dunn also set a career-low ERA for a full season as well as career-highs in innings (67 2/3) and strikeouts (72). He has combined for 36 holds the past two seasons as a reliable set-up man.
A.J. Ramos, RHP (3-4, 3.15 ERA, 11 holds, 0/4 saves): Ramos ranked near the top of most categories for MLB rookie relievers: seventh in appearances (68), first in innings (80) and third in strikeouts (86). The hard-throwing 27-year-old is an option at closer should the Marlins trade Cishek for a bat.
Carlos Marmol, RHP (2-4, 4.41 ERA, 6 holds, 2/5 saves): Everyone knows Marmol’s history — a former closer (117 saves) with wildness (28 blown) over parts of eight seasons with the Cubs. The 31-year-old bounced back in 21 appearances with the Dodgers, posting a 2.53 ERA with 27 strikeouts yet 19 walks in 21 1/3 innings.
Dan Jennings, LHP (2-4, 3.76 ERA, 1 hold, 0/2 saves): The 26-year-old lowered his walk total, which allowed him to succeed during his first substantial taste of the big leagues. Over 40 2/3 innings, Jennings issued 16 walks compared to 11 over just 19 frames in 2012. As of Friday, he has pitched 8 1/3 scoreless spring innings.
Brad Hand, LHP (1-1, 3.05 ERA): Hand missed out on the fifth spot in the rotation, but not because of a poor spring. He went 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA in six outings. Redmond plans on using Hand in either situational starts or as an extra lefty. As a major leaguer, the 24-year-old is 1-10 with a 4.88 ERA in 15 starts and 1-0 with a 1.04 ERA in five relief appearances.
Kevin Slowey, RHP (3-6, 4.11 ERA): Slowey entered his second consecutive spring as a non-roster invitee and once again earned a spot on the 25-man roster. Last year, the 29-year-old was named the fifth starter after sudden injuries to Eovaldi and Alvarez, but his season was cut short by right forearm tightness. Slowey is 2-0 with a 4.19 ERA in 16 big-league relief outings, which includes seven scoreless innings against the Mets in 2013.
Pitching is a hot commodity, and the Marlins boast plenty of depth. Should any of the rotation members falter or need rest, Hand and Slowey are options for spot starts. Top prospects Andrew Heaney and Justin Nicolino would’ve lasted longer in big-league camp with other teams. Instead, the organization sent them down to continue developing until the time comes for their major-league debuts.
Which Marmol will show up? Miami wanted to add an experienced arm to complement guys like Ramos and Jennings. Marmol’s story is notorious — a lack of control takes away from his stuff and makes him unpredictable. The Cubs got tired of the inconsistency and dealt him. The eight-year veteran rebounded with the Dodgers last season and in six spring outings with the Marlins. Will this move blow up in the organization’s face? Can it ruin the reliability of a strong bullpen?
Fernandez sets the tone not only for the pitching but the entire ball club. The Marlins were victorious in 18 of his starts, accounting for 29 percent of the entire win total last season. His personality and enthusiasm is contagious. Half of his award-winning season was spent as a 20-year-old. His numbers forced reporters to research stats not seen since Dwight Gooden in the 1980s. Should he continue at this pace, Fernandez will beat out Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw for the NL Cy Young.
Miami has a deep group of quality pitchers, and it’s young — ranging from the low-to-mid 20s. If the staff improves upon last year’s results, the Marlins will have a legitimate shot to win every night. By season’s end it could be considered one of the top rotations in baseball. It’s just a matter of whether the offense can produce enough run support.