2015 was not exactly the peak of achievement for the Marlins franchise. The team finished in third place in the NL East at 71-91. Despite a couple superstars, and a few other bright spots, organization-wide turmoil has left the baseball world feeling as though the Marlins are much further from being a legitimate contender than we might have thought even one year ago.
With a core group of position players under control and either in their prime, or about to enter it, the Marlins are the type of team that theoretically could take an unexpected leap forward with a few breakouts and some luck. The pitching staff was underwhelming for most of 2015, but has a bit of talent to hope on. Whether or not the organizational culture under owner Jeffrey Loria can support a winner is probably just as important as the talent on the field, but such matters are outside the scope of this series. Instead, we will take a look at a handful of players that could take a step forward in 2016.
Top Candidate: Adam Conley. Selected in the 2nd Round of the 2011 draft out of Washington State, Conley has made a steady climb through the Miami system. Despite never being regarded as an elite prospect, Conley has been a consistent performer during much of his minor league apprenticeship. After suffering both performance and injury related setbacks during his first exposure to Triple A in 2014, Conley's future was in question. In his pre-season rankings, John gave Conley a C+ noting the significant questions that had arisen in 2014.
Conley was able to get back on track in 2015. In his return to New Orleans and the PCL, Conley pitched 107 innings while posting a respectable 6.81 K/9, 3.36 BB/9, and 3.83 FIP. By August, he was in the Majors for good and finished the season with four straight quality starts. Conley's first taste of the Major Leagues included 67 innings with 7.93 K/9, 2.82 BB/9, and 3.81 FIP.
Conley features a fastball that sits in the low 90s and touches 96. His slider and change up are both potential average or better offerings. If his command holds up and he can stay healthy, Conley has a chance to be an average starter at the Major League level. He may not have tremendous upside, but in an organization with an unsettled rotation picture, a league average lefty would be a welcomed piece.
Dare to Dream: J.T. Realmuto. The Marlins selected Realmuto in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft out of Carl Albert High School in Midwest City, Oklahoma. He started his pro career with a solid full season debut at Low A Greensboro where he posted 119 wRC+ while demonstrating the potential for a broad base of skills. Realmuto's offense sputtered through the next two seasons as he advanced a level at a time. Despite his apparent offensive stagnation, Realmuto earned strong reports on his defense as he climbed through the system.
In his repeat of Double A in 2014, Realmuto finally experienced an offensive breakthrough. His .299/.369/.461 line and 132 wRC+ in his return to Jacksonville exceeded even the most optimistic expectations for his offensive production at the time. Indeed, Realmuto's prospect stock reflected this changing baseline. John raised his 2015 grade to borderline B/B-, up from C+ for 2014. Both Baseball America and MLB.com rated Realmuto in their Top-100 prospects heading into 2015 as well.
Realmuto played 126 games at the Major League level in 2015 ending with a .259/.290/.406 line and 86 wRC+. Boosted by solid defense and good base running marks, Realmuto carried his below average bat to 1.8 fWAR during his rookie campaign. His 15% K Rate was reasonable, and fairly well in line with his minor league track record, suggesting he was far from overmatched at the plate. It's not at all unreasonable to hope for an increase in BABIP, an uptick in walk rate, and a few more extra base hits along the way. As he gains familiarity with Major League pitching, Marlins fans can #daretodream that Realmuto will reach his ceiling as the elusive above-average regular backstop.
Rookie Watch: Nick Wittgren. A 9th round pick out of Purdue in 2012, Wittgren has been a highly effective reliever throughout his minor league career. In four minor league seasons, his total line stands at 219 innings with a 2.30 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.58 K/9, and 1.52 BB/9. Wittgren has a full season at Triple A New Orleans under his belt where he posted a 3.23 FIP on the strength of 9.24 K/9 and 1.16 BB/9, leaving him poised to make his big league debut in 2016.
Reports indicate that Wittgren succeeds based on plus control and command of average stuff. His low 90s fastball and average breaking ball leave questions about his ceiling. While he may not fit the profile of a dominant closer, Wittgren has a chance to be a valuable member of the Marlins bullpen as soon as 2016.
Final Notes: The Marlins are largely devoid of impact talent in the upper-minors. Luckily, Realmuto joins Justin Bour, Dee Gordon, Adeiny Hechavarria, Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Derek Dietrich, and perhaps Marcell Ozuna (if he isn't traded) in an impressive group of young position players who will all play 2016 at age 28 or younger. Any combination of improved consistency, performance, or health could go a long way toward reversing the team's fortunes.
Things are not nearly as rosy on the pitching side of the coin. Both Jose Urena and Justin Nicolino have acquitted themselves reasonably well at Triple A. Each has work to do before he can be counted on to fill out the rotation behind Jose Fernandez.
A.J. Ramos, Bryan Morris, and Carter Capps give the Fish the fairly anonymous foundation of a very strong bullpen. With a fastball that averaged just under 97 during his 25 inning Major League trial and a solid slider, Brian Ellington joins Wittgren in looking to make the Marlins pen one of the deepest in the National League.