MIAMI -- The wear and tear of logging the most innings in the Majors last year caught up with the Marlins' bullpen. The taxed unit paced the league in innings (612) and ranked in the bottom third in ERA (4.40).
With so many questions regarding their 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.
The bullpen has an abundance of promising, hard-throwing candidates. What they lack is high-leverage experience. Command is key. In 2017, Miami's bullpen walked 271, which was tied with Milwaukee for second most.
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With six weeks remaining before the start of Spring Training, MLB.com is taking a look at the projected relief corps of all 30 teams. Here's how the Marlins might stack up:
BULLPEN IF SEASON STARTED TODAY
Brad Ziegler, RHP (closer)
Kyle Barraclough, RHP
Jarlin Garcia, LHP
Junichi Tazawa, RHP
Drew Steckenrider, RHP
Nick Wittgren, RHP
Brian Ellington, RHP
Caleb Smith, LHP
Ziegler, 38, is the most experienced reliever on the roster, and a frontrunner to close. The submarine-style right-hander has 95 career saves, including 10 after AJ Ramos was dealt to the Mets last July. Ziegler, too, may be traded at some point. Barraclough is another candidate to close, but he'd have to show better command. The right-hander struck out 76 in 66 innings last year but walked 38. Steckenrider is a sleeper candidate to become the closer. The right-hander struck out 54 and walked 18 in 34 2/3 innings after being promoted from Triple-A New Orleans. His four-seam fastball average, per Statcast™, is 95.33 mph, and he has one career save.
Wittgren had a procedure to remove loose bodies from his right elbow. He anticipates being ready for the start of Spring Training. If healthy, the 26-year-old is a candidate to pitch in the late innings, and perhaps eventually close. A strike thrower, Wittgren has 81 Minor League saves, including three seasons with 20 or more. This is a pivotal season for Ellington, whose average fastball was 98.21 mph last year. The right-hander has pitched in parts of three big league seasons, but he's struggled to throw strikes. He struck out 48 but walked 35 and hit six batters in 44 2/3 innings in 2017.
WHAT MIGHT CHANGE
A couple of left-handers could find themselves switching roles. Garcia, coming off a strong rookie season, paced the club with 68 appearances. The 24-year-old is the team's top lefty specialist, but he may wind up in the mix to start. Before shifting to the bullpen in 2016, Garcia had 89 Minor League starts. Smith, acquired from the Yankees, made nine appearances with two starts for New York last year. In the Minors, the lefty was 9-1 with a 2.41 ERA in 19 games, 17 of them as a starter. Smith could perhaps handle a long-relief or lefty specialist role. Justin Nicolino, another lefty who has been a starter throughout his career, may be a long-relief or bullpen option. The same holds true for right-hander Odrisamer Despaigne.