August 15, 2022

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As Marlins struggle, pitching raises questions

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MIAMI — After dropping their season-high fourth straight game to fall back to .500, the Marlins hopped on a cross-country flight to San Diego with plenty of time to think.

Right-hander Elieser Hernandez went four innings and closer Anthony Bender blew his second save in Wednesday afternoon’s 8-7 loss to the D-backs at loanDepot park, highlighting two important questions.

Does Hernandez need to be replaced in the rotation?
Hernandez was cruising until a five-run fourth inning, culminating in Daulton Varsho’s go-ahead two-run shot. Entering Wednesday, his 2.66 HR/9 rate was second-worst in MLB among pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched, behind only Marco Gonzales.

A former Rule 5 Draft pick, Hernandez has a 4.87 career ERA in 75 outings (43 starts). He broke out in 2020 with a 3.16 ERA, but injuries derailed the end of that season and most of ‘21. Through five starts in ‘22, the 27-year-old has a 6.66 ERA and has completed at least five innings only twice.

“We’re still working on it,” Hernandez said via an interpreter. “Baseball’s like that. When you don’t get the results, you can see the mistakes. But when you pitch well, those mistakes are unseen.”

Here’s the thing: Hernandez isn’t alone in his struggles. In May, Marlins starters have compiled a 9.16 ERA. It’s a far cry from their 3.03 ERA in April, which ranked as the seventh lowest in the Majors.

So are there better options in the Minors? Fans have been clamoring for Top 100 prospects Max Meyer and Edward Cabrera at Triple-A Jacksonville. Meyer (No. 33 overall prospect) has dominated, posting a 1.71 ERA and an 0.80 WHIP through five starts. And the 23-year-old hasn’t been shy about saying he’s ready for The Show.

“I guess I would ask, ‘What prospect says he’s not ready?’” general manager Kim Ng told a small group of reporters on Tuesday. “I think credit to Max [to be] in that frame of mind. We want those guys to say that. They should be saying that. But I think for us, we have to make sure the timing is right. This is about the long term and not about what he is necessarily doing at this one particular point in time.”

What isn’t standing in the way is a spot on the 40-man roster. A spot opened up earlier in the week, when the Marlins designated Shawn Armstrong for assignment in order to trim the active roster from 28 to 26.

Cabrera (No. 32 overall prospect) made his first start for the Jumbo Shrimp on Tuesday, walking four batters and giving up two runs in four innings. He’s not yet fully stretched out: He threw only 64 pitches. The 24-year-old righty started just once during Spring Training, then rested a couple of days with biceps fatigue. Prior to rejoining Jacksonville, Cabrera pitched in an extended spring training game, then made a start for Single-A Jupiter. The Marlins will keep an eye on Cabrera, who missed several months in 2021 with an inflamed nerve in his right biceps.

Upon his MLB callup last season, Cabrera recorded a 5.81 ERA, 6.5 BB/9 IP and 9.6 K/9 IP in seven starts. It was clear that while talented, Cabrera could use more seasoning.

There’s another thing to keep in mind with Meyer, Cabrera and the other young arms: Workload. Their innings are being monitored, and that “adds into the equation,” Ng said. Meyer was part of the 2020 MLB Draft class that didn’t debut in the Minors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his first pro season, he threw 111 combined innings between Double-A Pensacola and Jacksonville after 27 2/3 frames at the University of Minnesota. In ’22, Meyer has tossed 26 1/3 innings and pitched into the sixth just twice.

Lefty Braxton Garrett and righty Jordan Holloway are on the MiLB IL, while lefty Daniel Castano isn’t built up to start yet after acting as the long man in April.

Should Miami go full closer-by-committee?
Though Wednesday marked just his second blown save, Bender also served up the walk-off play on April 12 in Anaheim and Nolan Arenado’s homer that broke a scoreless deadlock on April 20.

While Bender entered Wednesday with four consecutive scoreless outings, he has allowed at least one baserunner in all but one of his 10 appearances. Bender surrendered five taters in 61 1/3 innings in 2021; Pavin Smith’s go-ahead shot was the third in 9 1/3 frames in ‘22.

Even without Dylan Floro (right rotator cuff tendinitis), Miami’s bullpen features several high-leverage arms. The initial plan called for a closer-by-committee, but no one besides Bender has gotten more than one chance. Within a five-game span last week, Cole Sulser, Tanner Scott and Louis Head recorded saves.

“We know what kind of ‘pen we have,” manager Don Mattingly said. “He’s been pretty good back there. We’ve used other guys. Every time somebody gives one up, it doesn’t mean you go a different route.”

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