Marlins' system in young hands with top two hurlers

March 20th, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. -- Typical strategy says to avoid prep pitching early in the MLB Draft. Arms can take years of development, and the injury risk is raised compared to other demographics. But what happens when a club takes not one but two high school pitchers high up in the process? Well, that comes from another draft axiom – take the best available.

The Marlins selected Oregon prep right-hander Noble Meyer (ranked as MLB Pipeline’s No. 8 prospect in the class) with the 10th overall pick last July and then went with Massachusetts prep lefty Thomas White (No. 24 in the class) with the 35th overall pick. Now in their first springs, the pair have become the top two prospects in Miami’s system.

“Not to be super optimistic, but the sky’s the limit for both guys,” said director of minor league operations Hector Crespo. “I think it’s rare that you see two high school pitchers – one right-handed, one left-handed – have such a feel for pitching already at such a young age. Controlling the strike zone, utilizing the secondary pitches, getting themselves in good counts [are priorities].”

The two pitchers -- both checking in at 6-foot-5 -- already have some pro success under their belts, having both reached Florida State League champion Single-A Jupiter after signing for bonuses above $4.1 million. Marlins fans can expect both to be paired together in development moving forward for a host of reasons.

“There’s a nice little competitive rivalry going there – not in a bad way,” Crespo said. “It’s more about how they push each other, so it’s been cool for them to take that in stride and show some leadership aspects too. These guys were here early. They wanted to get down here and work … It honestly makes the entire group better.”

It can be tough to separate the two from a stuff perspective as well.

A noted data lover, Meyer has worked to add more vertical action to his mid-90s heater and told MLB Pipeline he’s gotten his induced vertical break up to 20 inches in recent backfield work. He’s also worked on using a Vulcan-style changeup grip to improve the quality of his cambio. White impressed with a fastball that averaged 95.2 as Miami’s Spring Breakout starter last week and got whiffs on both his four-seamer and upper-70s breaking ball as he struck out the Cardinals' side. The Marlins have worked with White to find a more consistent changeup look and pitch more in the strike zone after some control concerns dropped him in the draft.

Crespo was hesitant to put an innings limit on both 19-year-olds at this stage ahead of their first full seasons but noted the club has been building them up to hit the ground running this spring. Getting two teenagers to work, improve and develop together may only increase Miami’s odds of finding a future ace, no matter what typical draft philosophies say.

“I think if they're ready to run, we let them run,” Crespo said. “If there need to be any guardrails, we should have them installed. We’ll let these guys be athletes and go out and prove who they are and show what they can do. I think we're all for building the complete guy.”

Breakout potential: Fabian Lopez

Having only turned 18 back in September, Lopez was one of the youngest Spring Breakout participants this year, and considering he only has Dominican Summer League experience, he was one of the biggest names to pop off the Marlins roster for the inaugural event. As an above-average runner, Lopez has already stood out to scouts and Marlins evaluators with his ample range, quick hands and good arm strength defensively. The Marlins felt those skills alone could make him a valuable member of the Breakout squad in his first spring stateside.

The switch-hitter’s defensive gifts also help with the belief that he’ll get that athleticism to translate at the plate, perhaps as early as this summer. Lopez produced a .265/.327/.405 line with four homers in 49 games in the DSL last year – numbers that translated to a slightly below-average 94 wRC+. He can be aggressive with his hacks, but the biggest key to his offensive development will be on the strength side.

“I think it starts with the weight room,” Crespo said. “Getting him physical on that end is going to consistently help on both sides of the ball. That’s his priority. It’s continuing to stress the conditioning aspect and getting some good weight on him.”

Something to prove: Troy Johnston

The 2019 17th-round pick was Rule 5-eligible after the 2022 season but went unprotected and unpicked. He responded in 2023 by having his best offensive season, hitting .307 with 26 homers, 24 steals and a .948 OPS over 134 games between Double-A and Triple-A. He didn’t lose much of a step at the higher level either, slashing .323/.403/.520 in 51 games with Jacksonville.

The result: Still no 40-man spot or Rule 5 selection.

Johnston’s positioning as a first base prospect has elevated the need for him to perform offensively and perhaps hurt him in roster deliberations, but ahead of their No. 18 prospect’s age-27 season, the Marlins believe his current trajectory could make him a true Major League option before long.

“You can’t root for a guy more than Troy Johnston,” Crespo said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked of him. To his credit, he’s mentally resilient. He’s been through a lot, but I think continuing the course and defensively getting better. It’s been cool to see the strides he’s made at first, but I think one thing that doesn’t get noted as much is his base running. That’s something we covet heavily, and it’s been cool to see him take that in stride.”

Spring standout: Sixto Sánchez

Sánchez ranked as high as No. 15 on MLB Pipeline’s 2021 preseason Top 100 after he made seven Major League starts for the Marlins the year before and added two more appearances in the NL Wild Card and Division Series rounds. He’s pitched on a regular-season mound only once since then – last Sept. 12 for Double-A Pensacola in a one-inning start.

Recurring shoulder issues -- including arthroscopic surgery in July 2021 and bursectomy surgery in October 2022 -- kept him away from the diamond and in a consistent state of rehabilitation until late last summer. But the 25-year-old righty has returned with more regularity this spring. That alone would be a cause for celebration; even more so is the fact that he’s touched as high as 98.8 mph with his fastball (per Statcast) while also mixing in a low-80s slider and mid-80s changeup.

Following a scoreless frame Wednesday, Sánchez has still yet to allow a run over seven innings this spring. He's scattered one hit and three walks in that span.

“You can sense the frustration of being dominant at one point and having to work his way back from that,” Crespo said. “Seeing him recently once he got to camp and back on the mound, you can see that passion and fun that he has. I don’t know if the velo was ever going to get back, but just seeing him have fun out there and go about his business has been the most rewarding part.”