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Bullpen Battles Abound

by | Mar 19, 2021 | Baseball, Daily Coverage, Pitching

Statistics as of 3/17/21

As the Miami Marlins prepare for the 2021 MLB season, fans feverously scroll through social media, searching for hints on who might break camp on the active roster. The team continues to methodically navigate through its Spring Training schedule with success. Miami sits atop the Grapefruit League standings with a 8-2-5 record and a plus-12 run differential heading into Thursday night’s action.

Among the notable storylines this Spring remains the potential makeup of the bullpen. And with the current roster thinning out and other arms becoming available, things are getting interesting with these bullpen battles.

Coming off a surprise season, the team looked to reshape their register of relievers. Miami’s bullpen posted the league’s fifth-worst ERA (5.50) in 2020. Marlins relievers also ranked among the bottom five in Batting-Average-Against (.269), Home-Runs-Allowed (42), Strikeout-to-Walk Ratio (1.58) and WHIP (1.55).

So entering 2021, Miami sought to upgrade the reliever corps, searching specifically for different looks out of the ‘pen.

This Spring, these pitchers find themselves vying for one of likely 13 or 14 spots on the roster. And when Marlins Manager Don Mattingly indicated recently the club will roll with five starters from the start, bullpen spots remain at a premium.

Closer Battle

When Brandon Kintzler elected to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies instead of the Marlins, the closer spot opened in Miami. Although he shies away from naming a specific individual, history tells us that Mattingly usually opts for a single player to fill that role. The contenders for closer include new additions Anthony Bass and Dylan Floro, as well as 2020 bullpen holdover Yimi Garcia. Of the three, Bass’s standout Spring seems to suggest he might have the inside track for the job. Bass signed a two-year contract (with a club option for a third year) in late January, and although he’s bounced around in his career, his time in Miami may very well start with him closing games. Miami stands as Bass’s fourth city in the last four seasons, but over the last three, he’s developed into a quality high-leverage reliever. He’s tallied 12 saves over the last two seasons, and over the last three he’s posted a combined 3.44 ERA. In 2020, Bass was particularly effective for the Toronto Blue Jays. According to Statcast, he ranked in the 95th percentile or above in Expected Weighted On-Base Average, Expected ERA, Expected Batting Average, Expected Slugging and Barrell percentage. Bass, much like Kintzler, induces ground balls at an elite rate (62.3 percent according to FanGraphs). That number put him sixth among qualified MLB relievers in 2020. What separates Bass from Kintzler is the ability to secure a strikeout. Bass’s slider remains his go-to out pitch and last season, it generated a .188 opponent batting average with 13 strikeouts. The other notable option for closer is Garcia, but he has struggled thus far in Spring. Garcia remains the only holdover from last season’s Opening Day bullpen, and he was excellent in 2020. He allowed just one earned run in the regular season and posted a 0.93 WHIP with four holds in 14 appearances. He struck out batters at a 31.7 percent rate and stranded 92.9 percent of runners. This Spring, though, Garcia’s numbers aren’t great. He’s posted a 9.00 ERA over five innings pitched, allowing seven hits and five earned runs, including serving up a pair of homers, with five strikeouts. He sports a 1.40 WHIP and a .333 batting-average-against. He’s 0-for-2 in Save Opportunities so far. This showing, coupled with Bass’s lights out performance, might signal Bass will be the closer in 2021. So far this Spring, Bass has yet to allow an earned run in five appearances (five innings pitched). He’s allowed three hits and two walks, a 1.00 WHIP and .167 batting-average-against. He tallied four strikeouts as well. The only other potential closer is Dylan Floro. Acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in February in exchange for Alex Vesia and Kyle Hurt, Floro provides a veteran presence in high-leverage situations. He’s a ground-ball specialist who limits walks and works to avoid hard contact. Soreness delayed Floro’s Marlins debut, but the 30-year-old right-hander kept throwing with a couple of live BPs and bullpen sessions. In his Spring debut, Floro worked one inning, registering a lineout then inducing a double play.

Middle Relief Roles

The middle of the Marlins ‘pen will likely be made up of a relatively new cast of veteran relievers. Richard Bleier came to Marlins last season in the wake of the COVID outbreak and impressed. He went 1-1 with a 2.63 ERA over 19 appearances for the Marlins in 2020. Beyond Bleier, the offseason additions of Adam CimberJohn Curtiss and Ross Detwiler can be inked as members of the relief corps in 2021, too. Cimber provides a unique look out of the ‘pen. The 30-year-old sidearmer has made 152 career appearances over three MLB seasons, posting a 3.89 ERA with 104 strikeouts and 38 walks in 136.1 innings pitched. Curtiss comes to the Marlins from Tampa Bay via trade. The 27-year-old reliever has experience pitching in the World Series and sports elite-level control. In 2020, Curtiss issued just three walks over 25 innings pitched. Against lefties in 2020, he allowed a .184 batting-average with 11 strikeouts over 40 plate appearances. He and Bleier will be useful weapons against lefties this season. Detweiler, meanwhile, comes with questions. He’s struggled so far, but he’s likely to make the Opening Day roster thanks to his experience, versatility and guaranteed contract. He’s posted a 9.00 ERA over five innings of work this Spring, surrendering five earned runs along the way. He’s 0-for-2 in Save Opportunities, but he’ll be a middle-to-long reliever during the regular season. Another name to watch out for in middle relief is James Hoyt. Acquired from the Indians in 2020, Hoyt provided a steady veteran presence out of the ‘pen, particularly during the time when the roster was in flux post-COVID. Hoyt managed a 1.23 ERA, allowing just two earned runs over 14.2 innings pitched. He’s an odds-on favorite to make the club despite struggles this Spring. He’s posted a 6.23 ERA with three earned runs and four walks over 4.1 innings pitched thus far.

Fighting For a Spot

With the team expected to carry 13 or 14 pitchers on the Opening Day roster, most of the bullpen spots are accounted for. Vying for just the one or two remaining roles are a number of intriguing young options and one veteran. Of the young group, Zach Pop, a Rule 5 draft acquisition this offseason, has particularly impressed. The 24-year-old right-hander had posted a 1.34 ERA with 80 strikeouts over 80.1 minor league innings before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2019, and his two innings of work this Spring have really turned some heads. He’s yet to give up a hit over two innings, posting three strikeouts along the way. Pop sports a two-seam fastball, which tops out at 96.7 mph, and an 84-mph slider. He’s got great swing-and-miss potential and profiles as a late-inning, high-leverage reliever down the line. Over 57 minor league appearances, he sports a 1.34 ERA. In 2019, he managed a 0.84 ERA with 11 strikeouts over 10.2 innings pitched at Double-A. Prior to his surgery, Pop was considered one of the top relief pitching prospects.

Another player that’s turned heads this Spring is Anthony Bender. The 26-year-old has made three appearances thus far and has yet to allow a baserunner. He has recorded eight strikeouts over 4.1 innings pitched and notched a Save in a 1-0 win over the Houston Astros.

Like Pop, Bender sports some serious velocity. His sinker has topped out at 98.6 mph this Spring, and he pairs that with a slider and the occasional splitter. He’s never pitched above Double-A, but he does have 16 saves in his minor league career.

“He has definitely been a surprise,” Mattingly said of Bender recently. “His stuff has been as good as anyone in camp. Power stuff.”

Mattingly assured reporters via Zoom on Tuesday that Bender will be with the club even if he doesn’t break camp with the Marlins.

“If he’s this good now, he will be this good during the season, and we’re going to need him.”

The Other Names to Know

Rule 5 draft pick Paul Campbell remains in the running for a bullpen spot, probably as a long reliever, but he only recently rejoined the club this Spring. Campbell missed time due to a personal issue, but he’s remained on the team’s radar.

In his Grapefruit League debut on Tuesday night, Campbell flashed some of his potential. He worked two scoreless innings, striking out four along the way, en route to the Save. 16 of his 18 pitches went for strikes.

This week also saw the Grapefruit League debut for Jordan Holloway, who made one appearance for Miami last season. In that appearance, he allowed a pair of hits and walked a batter before registering his only out. Holloway comes with an electric arm, but he never made it back to the active roster after battling COVID-19 last season.

Holloway’s outing not only demonstrated his potential, but also showed the room for improvement. He touched 98 mph with his fastball, but he gave up a home run and walked a batter in his one inning of work. 13 of his 22 pitches went for strikes.

“Obviously you see stuff,” Mattingly said of Holloway on Tuesday. “This is a big league arm, big league stuff. And then just more consistency. I think that’s the biggest thing, and just kind of keeping himself under control, using all his pitches.”

Holloway spent 2020 in the bullpen after primarily being a starter in the minors. It remains to be seen how Miami will manage him moving forward.

Miami may also opt to keep recently signed veteran starter Gio Gonzalez on the roster as a long reliever if he doesn’t win the fifth starter role. The Marlins stand to closely monitor the workloads for the young pitchers and having a proven vet like Gonzalez available could help manage those challenges this season.

Bullpen Predictions

Closer – Anthony Bass

Late-Inning – Yimi Garcia, Dylan Floro

Middle Relief – Anthony Bender, Richard Bleier, Adam Cimber, John Curtiss, Zach Pop

Long Relief – Ross Detwiler

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