With the Miami Marlins on the verge of wrapping up their Spring Training schedule, the team enters its final phase of preparation for the 2021 season. The crunch continues to squeeze players in the waning days of March, and soon the 26-man active roster will be set for Opening Day on April 1st.
How the Marlins elect to populate that roster remains a primary source of intrigue. Who will be the fifth starter? Will the team keep 13 or 14 relievers? Will any of the position prospects break through? These questions, and others, linger.
The answers, though, might surprise some fans. What’s more, the surprising performances from camp have made these questions all the more difficult to answer. Here’s a look at three of those surprises.
Most acknowledge Miami’s starting pitching as a strength. Their depth at that position in the farm system remains the envy of most Major League clubs. The difficulties of the 2020 season afforded the Marlins a glimpse at some of that depth, and most came away impressed by the club’s cadre of young talent.
Trevor Rogersmade seven starts for Miami in 2020, posting a 6.11 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 13 walks over 28 innings pitched. He flashed his top-10 potential at times, including in a 10-strikeout performance against the Tampa Bay Rays. Entering camp, most saw the 22-year-old as just another name in the race for fifth starter, but his performance this Spring has propelled him to the front of the line.
He’s posted a 4.05 ERA and 1.13 WHIP with 19 strikeouts and just four walks over 13.1 IP. Over his last two starts, he’s faced many of the expected regulars of both the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros with reasonable success. And despite only limited experience beyond Double-A, Rogers remains confident.
“I’ve definitely earned a spot,” Rogers said after beating the Nationals last week. His confidence, and his pitches, continue to come in hot. He’s sat in the mid-90s with his velocity, topping out at 97.
“He should be confident,” Marlins manager Don Mattinglysaid. “I’m glad to hear it, honestly, because the biggest step in being able to perform here and being really good is believing that you are.”
I’m not sure I’ve seen the Marlins have a left-handed starter look this good since Dontrellle Willis. Trevor Rogers has a real chance. https://t.co/u4GhuZ4J2E
— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) March 16, 2021
Rogers has filled out more of his 6-foot-6 frame, and that can only help him over the long haul of a 162-game season. He sports a solid, four-pitch repertoire with a high-spin, mid-90s fastball and an improved slider. He has added a cutter this offseason and his changeup, which features significant vertical break, will be integral.
What will be key for Rogers is keeping command of all these pitches. In his most recent start, Rogers began the game with 11 consecutive strikes, so that’s a great sign.
He’s competing with a handful of other hopefuls for the fifth starter spot, including fellow pitching prospects Nick Neidertand Daniel Castano. Veteran Gio Gonzalezlooked to be in the running as well but opted for retirement instead. The South Florida native had hopes of finishing his career with his hometown Marlins, but he said via Instagramthat his “body wasn’t keeping up with [his] mind.”
Rogers has the highest ceiling of this group and, at this point, it would be no surprise if he’s earned that spot. Some might think at 22 that he’s too young, and that he could additional seasoning at Triple-A, but Rogers is out to prove last year was no fluke.
Trevor Rogers was dealing on the hill for the Marlins, fanning five over four innings. pic.twitter.com/i4bB9DwYHn
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 17, 2021
This offseason, the Marlins reshaped their bullpen after a season of instability and inconsistency. The team sought pitchers who attack at different angles to keep the hitters uncomfortable. In this process, a number of interesting veterans came aboard, but so too have several young hurlers with tons of upside.
Among those stands Anthony Bender, a minor league free agent who seemed like just another arm entering camp. Since Spring started though, Bender’s vaulted himself into the conversation for one of the team’s bullpen spots.
Bender has appeared in six Grapefruit League games, throwing seven inning, and, as of Wednesday, he’s yet to allow an earned run. He’s recorded 10 Ks and has allowed two walks and only one hit. He’s 1-for-1 in Save Opportunities, a 12-pitch effort in a 1-0 win over the Astros.
And it’s not like he’s pitching to the dregs of the opposing team’s roster. Among Bender’s strikeout victims so far: Josh Bell, Starlin Castro, Brandon Nimmo and Kyle Schwarber.
What Bender brings to the bullpen table is heat. His sinker has topped out at 98.6 mph this Spring, and he pairs that with a slider and the occasional splitter. That velo streaks in stark contrast to the stuff sported by many of the veteran relievers whom the Marlins will carry into Opening Day.
He’s had success at the minor league level, though he’s never pitched above Double-A. He’s notched 16 Saves and sports a 9.49 SO/9 rate over nearly 60 IP in 2019-2020.
Marlins may have found a gem in RP Anthony Bender. Making an extremely strong case to make the 26-man. This is now becoming one of the better stories of the spring for Miami.
— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) March 11, 2021
“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 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 season, and we’re going to need him.”
Whether or not Bender breaks camp with the club might come down to whether or not Miami carries 13 or 14 relievers. Regardless, he’ll be a Marlin at some point this season.
Perhaps the biggest surprise at Marlins camp has been the play of Joe Dunand. A forgotten man among Miami’s top prospects, Dunand’s burst back onto the scene through a combination of productive play this Spring and a dynamite performance in Winter Ball.
Dunand entered the Marlins system after Miami selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft out of North Carolina State University. He came to the team as a shortstop but has since transitioned over to what seems like a better fit for his frame, third base. This Spring, he’s flashed defensive versatility with a few innings at first, something he tried this Winter in the Dominican Republic.
The 25-year-old has hit .250 thus far, with a pair of homers and seven RBI. His .849 OPS ranks fourth among Marlins with at least 10 ABs this Spring. This coming after an appearance in the Dominican Winter League, playing for Leones del Escogido, where he raked: Dunand posted a .319/.398/.542 slash line, with 10 extra-base hits and 12 RBI over 21 games.
In 2019, Dunand had a solid season with Double-A Jacksonville, hitting .242 with five home runs, 42 RBIs and 112 hits. He cut down on strikeouts and improved his on-base percentage. 2020 proved to be a lost season for him (and so many others) and he’s likely to start 2021 at Triple-A, which will be in Jacksonville as it turns out.
Mattingly noted Dunand has always had a “pretty clean swing” and “nice tempo to his game.” The manager said what’s stood out about Dunand so far is that he “just kind of continues to get better.”
Although it’s highly unlikely he wins a spot on the Opening Day roster, Dunand has certainly shown he’ll be ready for a shot at the big-league level.
He’s the Marlins’ top third base prospect, though he’s slipped from Baseball America’s Top-30 for Miami. In the past, Dunand was considered the 23rd(2019) and 14th(2018) best prospect in the system. He fell out of Miami’s top-30 prior to the 2020 season, so he’s definitely surprised some with his play of late.
A local product out of Gulliver Prep in Miami, Dunand is famously Alex Rodriguez’s nephew. He’s been a great story this Spring, forcing his name into the conversation through his productive play. Should anything happen to Brian Anderson(God forbid!), Dunand might very well see his first MLB action this season.