Miami Marlins: Why an Elite Closer Should Not Be Necessary


The Miami Marlins are still said to be chasing top free agent closer Kenley Jansen, but could this need in the bullpen have been avoided?

To start, let’s look at the current bullpen, as well as how it has done in the past. In 2016, the Miami Marlins relievers finished 14th in the MLB with a 3.63 ERA. In 2015, they were also 14th (3.66 ERA), and in 2014 they were 13th (3.33 ERA). Not great, but definitely not bad. As a non-playoff team these three years, it could be said that the bullpen was a strength.

With A.J. Ramos and Kyle Barraclough already in place, and Dustin McGowan recently brought back, the Marlins have a nice backend even if Mike Dunn does not resign and they stand pat the rest of the offseason. Beyond the three is David Phelps, who may end up starting, and then Nefi Ogando, Brian Ellington and Nick Wittgren, who have collectively been more average than good. Consequently, the team feels they need to spend big on a dominant free agent arm to complete their bullpen. 

To take a brief scope of the rest of the team, it seems the lineup is set with J.T. Realmuto, Justin Bour, Dee Gordon, Martin Prado, Adeiny Hechavarria, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Giancarlo Stanton across positions two-nine, with Ichiro, Derek Dietrich, and newly-signed A.J. Ellis as subs off the bench.

The rotation is the team’s main weakness, with left-handed reliever is a secondary weakness. The starters are headlined by Adam Conley, Wei-Yin Chen, Edinson Volquez, Tom Koehler, and possibly David Phelps. But, with the weak crop of available starting pitchers in free agency, management felt it would be advantageous to add an impact reliever as an alternative to improve the squad. But when looking at the team’s transactions over the last few years, it is clear this issue the hole of an impact reliever could have been avoided. 

More from Call to the Pen

With the St. Louis Cardinals signing Brett Cecil to a four year, $30 million contract, it was made clear relievers are in high demand, even if they are just a bit above average (Cecil 110 ERA+ 2016). Though admittedly Cecil was better from 2013-2015, the point is that even set up men are worth a lot in today’s MLB.

To start the look at recent transactions, in 2014, left-hander Dan Jennings pitched in 47 games for the Fish. In 40 ⅓ innings, he gave up six earned runs for a stellar ERA of 1.34. Through metrics like WHIP and FIP were less enthusiastic about his performance, it was clear that Jennings could get batters out. After the season, the Marlins shipped Jennings off to the White Sox for a lottery ticket starter in Andre Rienzo. The Brazilian right hander pitched in 28 games in Chicago for a 5.89 ERA and a 5.79 FIP from 2013-2014. Miami must have seen something in Rienzo to make such a move, but it did not pan out as he pitched in 14 games out of the bullpen in Miami in 2015 for a 5.98 ERA. He did not reach the majors in 2016, though he was pretty good in the minors (2.85 ERA in bullpen).

Fast forward to July of this season and the Marlins are unexpectedly in the playoff chase. The team needs a starter and they go after Andrew Cashner. Since we will not get into the messy Colin Rea situation, the trade was virtually Josh Naylor, Jarred Cosart, and Carter Capps for Cashner and Taylor Guerrero. The trade initially shocked me, though many others did not have the same reaction. Why would the team trade the injured Capps? He flashed elite potential and was expected to close before Tommy John surgery. 

Miami Marlins
Miami Marlins /

Miami Marlins

After reforming his mechanics, Capps threw 30 innings in 2015 with a 1.16 ERA and 8.29 SO/BB ratio. Numbers regressing a bit, especially after surgery, could be expected but those were elite numbers. Plus, he’s controllable through at least 2018! Why the Fish would let him go when his value was so low makes no sense. The Cecil signing showed how teams value relievers, yet the Marlins decided to trade their top guy just because he was hurt.  Plus, why they let him go as a complementary piece in a deal for a starter who has not pitched well since 2014 is a whole other discussion.

Lastly, the Marlins made another questionable decision when they let Bryan Morris sign with the Giants just the other day (announced December 6th). Morris was coming off an injury shortened season after back surgery, but had been a productive reliever in Miami for 130 games since mid-2014. In 121 ⅓ frames, the former Pirate pitched to a 2.30 ERA. While he did not have flashy strikeout totals, Morris does have a career 58.6% ground ball rate. Still the Marlins did not seem interested in resigning the righty as it was announced with the Marc Melancon signing that Morris got a minor league deal with the Giants. Just a minor league deal!

To review, the Marlins shipped out one potentially-elite reliever in Carter Capps and let another solid bullpen arm in Bryan Morris walk in just the past few months. Two offseasons ago, they shipped off lefty specialist Dan Jennings for what has turned into nothing.

Now, the team is debating whether or not to splurge on a high-level closer that will squash the record for largest contract ever for a relief pitcher. If this was the Yankees that would be one thing, but this is the Marlins. The same team whose payroll hovers between $60-80 million if we ignore the 2012 disaster. Spending all available money on a closer would help the team a bit, but would also leave a huge hole in the rotation.

Though this is a lot of what-ifs, the team could have entered 2017 with a bullpen of:

Player2016 Stats
AJ Ramos 67 G, 2.81 ERA
Carter Capps30 G, 1.16 ERA (2015)
Kyle Barraclough 75 G, 2.85 ERA
Bryan Morris 24 G, 3.06 ERA
Dan Jennings (BIG WHAT-IF)64 G, 2.08 ERA
Dustin McGowan 55 G, 2.82 ERA
Brian Ellington32 G, 2.45 ERA

(Wittgren, Ogando as insurance in AAA)

Next: Unpopular Opinion: Chris Sale Trade is not Great

This would seem to have the potential of a top five MLB bullpen. Instead, the team is forced to chase Jansen, which would improve the bullpen to possibly top five still, but also leave huge holes in the starting rotation. The team would also be left without a platoon partner for Bour, a left-handed reliever, and other much-needed depth.