How the Marlins have quietly built what could be one of baseball's best bullpens
Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa join holdovers A.J. Ramos, David Phelps, and Kyle Barraclough
This promised to be a trying offseason for the Miami Marlins, one of baseball's most unique franchises. They've never won a division title, yet they have two World Series titles to their name and have never lost a postseason series. They've employed some of the greatest players of the last quarter-century (Miguel Cabrera, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, etc.) and also held several high-profile fire sales.
The present day Marlins were in desperate need of rotation help this winter, even before staff ace Jose Fernandez was tragically killed in a boating accident in September. With a limited payroll and very few prospects to trade, rebuilding the rotation was going to take some creativity. Miami opted to spread the wealth around and sign five free agent pitchers:
- Edinson Volquez: Two years, $22 million
- Brad Ziegler: Two years, $16 million
- Junichi Tazawa: Two years, $12 million
- Jeff Locke: One year, $3 million
- Dustin McGowan: One year, $1.75 million (re-signed with Marlins)
Volquez will join Adam Conley, Wei-Yin Chen, and Tom Koehler in the Opening Day rotation. Locke figures to compete with youngsters like Jose Urena and Justin Nicolino for the fifth starter's spot. David Phelps could be in the rotation mix too. There's no reason not to bring him to spring training as a starter and see what happens, you know?
On paper, the Marlins rotation is underwhelming and probably not enough to compete with the Mets and Nationals in the NL East. Miami has attempted to compensate for the thin starting staff by building a deep bullpen, which is a fairly common practice these days. You can thank the 2014-15 Royals for that. At the moment, five spots in the Marlins bullpen are accounted for. Here are the 2016 stats:
|Kyle Barraclough||72 2/3||2.85||1.23||2.11||36.9||14.4||52.1||0.12|
|Junichi Tazawa||49 2/3||4.17||1.23||4.23||26.0||6.7||39.9||1.63|
Bet you didn't realize McGowan was that good in 2016! I know I didn't. Anyway, there are some scary high walk rates in there, but generally speaking, that's a solid collection of bat-missing, homer-suppressing relievers. When Tazawa is your fifth best bullpener, you're doing okay. He's spent the last few years as a high-leverage reliever in the offense-heavy AL East.
Keep in mind that fivesome doesn't include Phelps, who was electric in relief last season. Here are his stats as a reliever only (he made five spots starts as well):
|David Phelps||62 1/3||2.31||1.17||2.75||32.3||11.0||43.6||0.58|
Phelps was arguably Miami's best reliever a year ago. He was no worse than their third best reliever behind Ramos and Barraclough. Assuming Phelps doesn't win a rotation spot, manager Don Mattingly will have a three-deep setup crew (Barraclough, Phelps, Ziegler) behind Ramos, the closer. Or maybe Mattingly goes with the veteran Ziegler in the ninth inning with Ramos setting up. He has options.
The one thing Miami's bullpen lacks at the moment is a lefty. Those guys are all righties. Mike Dunn left as a free agent, so the only lefty reliever on the 40-man roster is Hunter Cervenka, a 27-year-old journeyman who was pitching in an independent league in 2015. Don't be surprised if the Marlins scoop up a southpaw in the coming weeks. They'll need one given all the big lefty bats in the NL East (Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman, Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, etc.).
Among those also in the mix for bullpen spots are Nick Wittgren (3.14 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 2016) and Brian Ellington (2.45 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 2016), so the Fish have some arms to stash in Triple-A. Depth is important! Relievers are prone to wild fluctuations in performance, so even though the Marlins have a great looking bullpen on paper, who knows how things will shake out. Volatility comes with the territory.
Trying to compensate for a thin rotation with a stacked bullpen could work, but ultimately, it's going up to the rest of the roster to hand the bullpen a lead, and that's where things will get tricky for Mattingly. Bullpen usage depends on the game situation. Great relievers really only help when the rotation and offense hold up their end of the bargain.
Also, bullpen performance can be unpredictable, so while the Marlins appear to have a great relief crew at the moment, things could be very different once the season begins. The only thing you can do is have many great options, and that's what Miami focused on this winter. This has a chance to be one of the deepest and most dominant relief crews in baseball in 2017.
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