Three months into this immensely disappointing Marlins season, the organization — in one regard — is in the same spot as it was last October: Having every reason to feel very good about its long-term starting pitching outlook but less certain about whether the organization has enough position prospects who can hit big-league pitching.
Offensively, infielder Jazz Chisholm’s offensive development this year has been heartening in that regard, and outfielder Jesus Sanchez’s two homers in the past week — and the way he crushes the ball — offer reason for hope.
But for all of their physical gifts, nobody can be certain how the organization’s other most talented position prospects will hit major league pitching.
That group includes first baseman Lewin Diaz (.236 in Triple A Jacksonville, .125 in 16 at-bats with the Marlins this season); outfielders JJ Bleday (.204 at Double A), Peyton Burdick (.209 at Double A), Kameron Misner (.231 at High A), Victor Victor Mesa (.152 at Double A), Connor Scott (.255 at High A) and Victor Mesa Jr. (.229 at Low A) and catcher Will Banfield (.155 at High A).
At least three of those eight likely must become productive big-league starters for this rebuild to go anywhere.
The good news on the pitching front is that nearly all of the key young arms who have been healthy have performed well, fueling hopes that at least eight in the organization might become (or already are) above-average big-league starters.
The concern is the health of Sixto Sanchez (who is again working his way back from an injury) and the reasonable question about whether his continued arm problems — and Edward Cabrera’s in 2020 and earlier in 2021 — are an anomaly or something more.
When the Marlins acquired Sanchez in the J.T. Realmuto deal, they knew he had past injuries, including elbow inflammation that led the Phillies to shut him down for much of the 2018 season before collarbone soreness kept him out of the Arizona Fall League.
Sanchez — who went 3-2, with a 3.46 ERA for the Marlins last season and is rated by MLB.com as the 12th-best prospect in baseball — missed the start of this season with shoulder tendinitis and was working his way back but was then shut down again after experiencing more shoulder discomfort.
He’s now working his way back again, hoping to appear in a minor-league game in the weeks ahead.
Cabrera, rated the 54th-best prospect by MLB.com, was sidelined several weeks last summer with shoulder soreness — Marlins manager Don Mattingly said he would have made his big-league debut otherwise — and didn’t make his first minor-league start until last weekend after missing two months with an inflamed nerve in his right bicep.
No. 4 starter Elieser Hernandez is now out with a quad injury after missing two months with a biceps injury. But the young arms who have pitched have generally met or exceeded expectations.
Sandy Alcantara has been very good (2.93 ERA) and batters are hitting .214 off him. He’s clearly a No. 1 starter or No. 2 if on a staff with a perennial All-Star.
Pablo Lopez has built on a strong 2020, with a 2.86 ERA and a .224 batting average against.
Lefty Trevor Rogers has been a revelation, with a 7-4 record, a 2.08 ERA (fourth in the National League) and 101 strikeouts in 86 2/3 innings. He’s holding batters to a .202 average and looks like the Marlins’ All-Star representative.
Cody Poteet has surprised everyone, with a 2-2 record, a 3.90 ERA and a .188 batting average against.
And four of the six pitchers from the Marlins’ 2020 draft class have impressed in their first two months of pro baseball:
— Fourth-rounder and 104th overall pick Jake Eder, the former Vanderbilt left-hander, has been brilliant at Pensacola, allowing five runs and 22 hits in 42 innings (1.08 ERA) with 62 strikeouts.
— Third overall pick Max Meyer, MLB’s 22nd-best prospect, is 3-1 with a 2.09 ERA at Double A Pensacola with 44 strikeouts in 43 innings.
— Competitive balance and 61st overall pick Kyle Nicolas, the former Ball State standout, is 3-1 with a 5.13 ERA after a couple of poor starts but has 47 strikeouts in 33 innings at High A Beloit (Wisconsin).
— Third-rounder and 75th overall pick Zach McCambley, the ex-Coastal Carolina star, is 2-2 with a 2.88 ERA and 50 strikeouts (and just four walks) in 64 innings at Beloit.
Former first-rounder Braxton Garrett has been average at Triple A and for the Marlins, but even if he doesn’t work out, the Marlins could have at least eight legitimate top-four starters (several top-two worthy) in Alcantara, Lopez, Rogers, Sanchez, Cabrera, Hernandez, Meyer, Eder and potentially Nicolas and McCambley. Few teams can match that.
And that doesn’t even include hard-throwing Jorge Guzman, who has missed substantial time this season with elbow inflammation, or Poteet, or Jordan Holloway (working his way back from an injury; could end up in the bullpen) or Nick Neidert (2-0, 1.13 ERA in Triple A Jacksonville) and 2020 second-round draft pick Dax Fulton, a very good prospect who had Tommy John surgery two years ago who has a 5.63 ERA at Jupiter and hasn’t yet pitched as well as Meyer and Eder.
The Alcantara trade – which brought Zach Gallen (flipped for Chisholm), Magneuris Sierra and Daniel Castano from St. Louis to Miami for Marcell Ozuna – will end up being a rousing success, if Alcantara continues down this path and if Chisholm becomes an All Star caliber infielder.
The background on the Rogers selection — including Jeffrey Loria needing to be convinced — is interesting, which was explained here.
As for Lopez, then-Marlins executive Michael Hill wisely asked for him when they traded David Phelps to Seattle in 2017.
“I remember asking for Pablo and Nick Neidert in that deal and they wouldn’t give us both,” Hill said. “They said they couldn’t move Neidert but they would include Pablo and that’s where [pitcher] Brandon Miller got inserted in his place. We eventually got Neidert anyway [in the Dee Gordon deal months later]. Pablo was in high A for Seattle. He hadn’t fully developed but had those powerhouse legs that were obvious.”
This replenishment of young pitching was so important, because the Marlins traded five quality pitching prospects in five regrettable deals in the final years of the Loria regime.
Overall, those five deals don’t look as bad now as they did two years ago:
— Luis Castillo — sent to the Reds with Zack White and Austin Brice for Dan Straily in 2017 — has been awful for Cincinnati this season (2-10, 5.61 ERA). He leads the National League in losses.
— Chris Paddack — sent to the Padres for Fernando Rodney in 2016 — was brilliant as a rookie in 2018 but is 8-10 with a 4.40 ERA in 25 starts since.
— Trevor Williams — sent to Pittsburgh in 2015 in a ridiculous trade for pitching coaching “czar” Jim Benedict (though it was never announced in those terms) — has regressed after going 14-10 with a 3.14 ERA for the Pirates in 2018. He’s 12-19 since, with an ERA well over 5.00, including 3-2, 5.36 in 10 starts for the Cubs this season. He has been out since May 28 after an emergency appendectomy.
— Anthony DeSclafani — sent to the Reds for Mat Latos in 2014 — is pitching well for the Giants this season (8-2, 2.77) after a pedestrian career for the Reds (35-37, 4.19).
— Domingo German — sent to the Yankees for Martin Prado as part of a multiplayer trade in 2014 — went 18-4 with a 4.03 ERA in 2019, missed last season because of a domestic violence suspension and is 4-4 with 4.17 ERA for the Yankees last season. But Prado gave the Marlins five pretty good seasons before retiring, and Phelps — acquired by the Marlins in that deal — ultimately was parlayed into Lopez. And German hasn’t been nearly as good since returning from his suspension.
So the Marlins have overcome those mistakes and few teams have a stronger collection of young pitching than Miami. Now they need Sanchez and Cabrera to stay healthy.
And most importantly, the Marlins — in last place in the National League East at 31-42 — need some of these offensive prospects, beyond Chisholm, to prove during the next two to three years that they can hit big-league pitching because the current offensive cast and bullpen can’t even get sniff .500 with one of the better top three pitching trios in baseball this season.
©2021 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.