Top Marlins, Nats prospects duel tonight

August 25th, 2021

Put it in neon. The future of the NL East will be on display Wednesday night in Miami.

The Marlins have already announced that they plan to give No. 30 overall prospect Edward Cabrera his Major League debut that night at loanDepot park. It just so happens that the Nationals are slotted to send No. 54 Josiah Gray to the mound as their starting pitcher for the same game.

One year after cracking the expanded playoffs, the Marlins have struggled to find their winning form again and are bringing up Cabrera as another piece in their ongoing youth movement.

The Nats kicked their own reliance on prospect talent into another gear at the Trade Deadline, when they picked up Gray, fellow Top 100 talent Keibert Ruiz and two other prospects in a swap with the Dodgers for All-Stars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.

Gray will check in as the more experienced of the pair with six Major League appearances on his resume, dating back to his own debut with Los Angeles on July 20.

Gray moved right into the Washington rotation following the trade and looked immediately like an impact starter at just 23 years old. The 6-foot-1 right-hander sports a 2.86 ERA with 22 strikeouts and only five walks in four starts (22 innings) with the Nats. Notably, all seven of his earned runs have come on home runs. Gray has averaged 94.6 mph on his four-seam fastball in the Majors and throws the heater roughly half the time. His low-80s curveball is his best swing-and-miss pitch, generating whiffs on 56.1 percent of swings taken against it. He’ll also work in a mid-80s slider and the occasional high-spin changeup, but it’s notable that 30 of his 35 strikeouts between both Major League stops have come on the heater or the curve.

“Obviously, I can’t wait to watch Josiah pitch again and compete," said Washington manager Dave Martinez. "He’s done well. [The Marlins have] a kid that’s going to make his Major League debut. I’m anxious to see our guys face a kid like that -- I really am -- especially our young guys, and see how they handle themselves."

Cabrera is the harder thrower of the two with a fastball that can touch triple digits and will typically sit around 93-97 mph with lots of sinking life. His slider also earns plus grades, and he’s done enough work on a changeup to give that pitch above-average potential as well. Cabrera experienced shoulder issues in 2020 that kept him from debuting last season, and an inflamed nerve in his right biceps got him off to a slow start in 2021 as well. But he was looking his dominant self of late, having struck out 40 batters over his last four starts (20 2/3 innings) at Triple-A Jacksonville. He has thrown at least 86 pitches in each of those outings -- an indication that he’s ready for a full workload in Wednesday’s bow.

“I think it's exciting to be able to see him in the rotation, and really to give him this opportunity to get more experience, because that's going to be huge for him,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly told reporters this week. “I talk about him in terms a lot like [All-Star rookie Trevor Rogers] last year -- he got seven starts, I'm not sure exactly how many we get with Edward -- but hopefully that's enough to see of him, enough experience for him to be able to take that into his winter, and work coming into next spring.”

Seeing two top pitching prospects square off at the top level isn’t without precedent. The Royals’ Brady Singer and Daniel Lynch have gotten comfortable seeing the Tigers’ Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal since all four entered 2020 as Top 60 prospects, and Wednesday's matchup will mark the second time since 2004 that a preseason Top 100 prospect will debut against another preseason Top 100 talent (the first coming when James Paxton began his Major League career against Chris Archer on Sept. 7, 2013). But the point is that this type of potential duel is rare. At least for now. Both the Nats and Marlins hope to keep both Gray and Cabrera in their Major League rotations for the long term.

Buckle up. This could be just the start.