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August 22, 2013

Painting the Black

Fish with Arms

by R.J. Anderson

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In the coming weeks the Marlins, just 16 games shy of elimination from postseason consideration, will secure a top-three pick in next June's draft. Yet, despite the awful record, Miami has recently evolved into a watchable team on most nights—something they were not earlier in the season, when Giancarlo Stanton was injured and Jose Fernandez was not pitching quite so well. Contention hopes are a season away, if not longer, but the Marlins are intriguing now in large part because of a young, hard-throwing rotation.

With due respect to Tom Koehler, people are tuning in to see the other four starters: Fernandez, arguably the National League Rookie of the Year, and three arms acquired in trades over the past 13 months: Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez. The quartet—average age 22.5 years, median fastball velocity of 95—has compiled a 3.24 run average over 354 innings. Between the youth, arm strength, and shiny surface-level statistics, there's a lot to like about this group. And that's fitting, because nothing symbolizes Miami baseball more than a good young rotation.

Okay, perhaps a few other objects are better representations of the Marlins and Jeffrey Loria. But there's no sense in ignoring the young talent at hand to bicker about Loria's at-times questionable business practices. Strip away his involvement—admittedly a difficult task—and what remains is a front office that adheres to the typical small-market principles for starting pitching. The Marlins are like any other small-budget team, only smaller.

Since the 1998 season, which covers the last expansion round and Miami's first fire sale, no team has used more young starters—defined as being 24 or younger and making 10-plus starts in a season—than the Marlins, at 48. The A's (36) and Rays (31) come closest, while five other teams check in at 25 or more. The Yankees, the obvious inverse to the Marlins, have tallied five young-starter seasons since 1998; Miami, barring a disruption, will notch four this season.

Those 48 seasons were produced by 24 pitchers, and while a few were forgettable—or, in the case of Andy Larkin and his 9.64 ERA in 1998, memorable for the wrong reasons—some became notable figures in franchise history. What stands out beyond individual accomplishments is how many of the pitchers, 11, were acquired through trades. Each number should increase by two before season's end.

*In alphabetical order: A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster, Nathan Eovaldi, Rafael Medina, Andrew Miller, Ricky Nolasco, Vladimir Nunez, Brad Penny, Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Sanchez, and Dontrelle Willis

Small-market teams don't hang trade trees around the stadium, but if they did the Marlins would have a few plausible candidates*. Take the Josh Beckett tree. Miami drafted Beckett, then traded him a few years later in a package deal for, among others, Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez. Last year Miami dealt both those players in separate transactions and received Nathan Eovaldi and Jacob Turner as part of the bounty. In a few years, should both pitchers develop, perhaps the Marlins spin them for another slate of affordable young starters.

*Believe it or not, the Mike Piazza trade tree continues to grow after more than 15 years. That's because the Marlins acquired Preston Wilson in the original deal, whom they traded in part to receive Juan Pierre, whom they traded later in part to net Ricky Nolasco, whom they traded this season for Steven Ames, John Wall, and Angel Sanchez.

Of course, affordable is often understood as another way to say cheap. That perception is unavoidable with the Marlins, who are unlikely to win an award for best public relations practices anytime soon. Still, the ideology behind the Marlins' tendency to acquire young arms, use them until they get expensive, then trade them for more young arms and continue the cycle is the same employed and applauded by Tampa Bay and Oakland. Fielding a quality rotation is a challenge for small-market teams unable to wade into the priority free-agent market, teams who must instead troll the draft, international free agency, waiver wire, and other teams' farm systems for the next starting five.

The Marlins seem to have done the last bit as well as any team—save for the occasional, and perhaps unavoidable, Rafael Medina or Andrew Miller. But there are remaining questions for their non-Fernandez starters to answer. Each has overcome mediocre strikeout and strikeout-to-walk ratios, and higher-than-average home-run rates, which might become a habit but for now must be viewed skeptically. The arms have enough obvious talent and upside to overcome these issues. For now, though, the Marlins and their developmental team will need to help them mature. It's a task the franchise knows all too well.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Florida Marlins

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