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Strength in numbers: Marlins to lean on 'pen

Veteran Ziegler likely to begin 2018 as closer, with hard-throwing Barraclough, Steckenrider waiting in wings
MLB.com @JoeFrisaro

Spring Training is quickly approaching, with the Marlins opening camp on Feb. 14 at the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium complex in Jupiter, Fla. As the countdown gets closer, MLB.com will break down the 2018 roster, position by position. Today: the bullpen.

MIAMI -- A year ago, the Marlins were banking on a "super bullpen" backing up what they hoped would be a durable group of veteran starters. The theory didn't match the reality.

Spring Training is quickly approaching, with the Marlins opening camp on Feb. 14 at the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium complex in Jupiter, Fla. As the countdown gets closer, MLB.com will break down the 2018 roster, position by position. Today: the bullpen.

MIAMI -- A year ago, the Marlins were banking on a "super bullpen" backing up what they hoped would be a durable group of veteran starters. The theory didn't match the reality.

The 2017 season turned out disappointing for the Marlins, who finished 77-85. Ultimately, the rotation either broke down or underperformed, causing the bullpen to be overused.

As the organizational buildup begins, high on the priority list is fortifying the bullpen. There are a number of high-end pitching candidates, and Spring Training will help decide how many profile as starters or relievers. On a team with many question marks, the bullpen has a chance to be a strength.

How it shapes up promises to be a work in progress, because roles are expected to evolve over the course of the season.

Brad Ziegler, 38, is the most likely candidate to close -- at least initially, if not for the long haul. The submarine-style tossing right-hander is in the final year of his contract and provides experience, along with 95 career saves. Ziegler handled the closer role in the second half last year after AJ Ramos was dealt to the Mets. He locked down 10 saves.

The wear and tear of logging the most innings in the Majors last year caught up to the 'pen. The taxed unit paced the Majors in innings (612) and ranked in the bottom third in ERA (4.40).

With so much uncertainty regarding the rotation, the Marlins again are bracing for the bullpen to take on an expanded role. That's why it is likely they will carry eight relievers -- and 13 total pitchers -- for the second straight season.

Kyle Barraclough and Junichi Tazawa are the most experienced late-innings relievers. Barraclough is a candidate to close. Nick Wittgren is recovering from having bone chips removed from his throwing elbow, and the right-hander could wind up in a setup role. Jarlin Garcia is the most dependable left-hander of the group, but he may wind up in the rotation.

What the bullpen lacks is high-leverage experience.

If the young pitchers are to prosper, command will be key. In 2017, Miami's bullpen walked 271, which was tied with Milwaukee for second most in the Majors. Miami's relievers also posted a K/9 rate of 8.22 last year, which ranked 25th. Of additional concern were the 3.99 walks per nine innings, -- seventh most among all 'pens -- and the unit's 1.43 WHIP (26th).

An organizational directive is to improve fastball command. The Marlins have relievers capable of missing bats. But if they aren't throwing enough strikes, that's a big issue.

A sleeper candidate to close is Drew Steckenrider, a hard-throwing right-hander who struck out 54 and walked 18 in 34 2/3 innings after being promoted from Triple-A New Orleans. He also notched one save. His four-seam fastball average, per Statcast™, was 95.33 mph.

Joe Frisaro has covered the Marlins for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro and listen to his podcast.

Miami Marlins, Kyle Barraclough, Junichi Tazawa, Brad Ziegler