Marlins reward Alcantara with Opening nod

March 19th, 2021

JUPITER, Fla. -- On the first day of camp, right-hander Sandy Alcantara set the tone by making it known he wanted to be the leader of the Marlins' pitching staff. With exactly two weeks until the 2021 season begins, the club announced on Thursday he would be its Opening Day starter for the second straight year.

"It was more like, 'Sandy, hey, we're going to let everybody know,'" manager Don Mattingly said during a Zoom call. "I think Sandy in his own mind thought he was going to be that guy. I think you guys probably thought the same. We've kind of thought the same, but we wanted to let it play out, make sure there wasn't anything going on. It just kind of got to that point where it's like no reason to hold any kind of news like that. We kind of made that decision."

Alcantara, who struck out nine batters over five scoreless innings in the Marlins' 3-2 walk-off win over the Mets on Wednesday at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, will become the ninth pitcher in franchise history to start consecutive openers. He will counter right-hander Tyler Glasnow and the reigning American League champion Rays at 4:10 p.m. ET on April 1 at Marlins Park.

"That would be a great opportunity for me again this year," Alcantara said during a Zoom call after his fourth spring start. "I feel great, I think I feel healthy."

Last season, Alcantara allowed one earned run over 6 2/3 innings in Philadelphia for an Opening Day win, but he landed on the injured list with COVID-19 shortly thereafter. The righty compiled a 3.31 ERA in six starts upon his return, and when it came time for the Marlins' first playoff run in 17 years, Alcantara got the nod in Games 1 of the National League Wild Card Series and NL Division Series. He pitched into the seventh inning in both outings.

While Mattingly held back on announcing the decision following Alcantara's spring gem, it does come on the heels of confirmation on Tuesday that the Marlins will open with a five-man rotation despite two off-days in the first nine days of the schedule. It's part of the organization's long-term plan to help its pitchers over a 162-game season. Based on the order Miami has used this spring, right-handers Pablo López and Elieser Hernandez project to follow Alcantara. Left-hander Trevor Rogers (Miami's No. 7 prospect, per MLB Pipeline) and righty Sixto Sánchez (MLB Pipeline's No. 15 overall prospect) are the likely candidates to round out the starting staff. All five are 25 years old or younger.

Alcantara has the most career starts of the group with 45 -- all since joining the Marlins in a trade with the Cardinals. He was new ownership's first centerpiece prospect acquisition during the 2017-18 offseason. In parts of three years in Miami, he has a 115 ERA+ and a 1.31 WHIP. During his All-Star campaign in '19, Alcantara recorded two complete games and finished with 197 1/3 innings in his first full season.

"I think Sandy has matured obviously with his stuff," Mattingly said during a Zoom call following Wednesday's start. "Talked about him over the last couple of years a lot. I feel like the progression has been really good and continues to be good. Still see a little inconsistency -- last time out, he walks five, this time he's just filling up the strike zone. So obviously, that's this time of year. But Sandy's a guy that's on the move, his stuff is great. He's got a lot of pitches, obviously just a lot going for him in his game. He's really good now, and he's going to keep getting better."

Speaking last week on a Zoom call, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. noted Alcantara turned the corner by upping his percentage of sinkers (27.6 to 34.9% from 2019-20 per Baseball Savant). Not only did that strategy lower his walks and pitches per inning, but it also increased his strikeouts. The pitch averaged 96.2 mph, just a tick lower than his four-seamer at 96.8 mph.

"I look at our key guys in Sandy and Pablo really taking some big steps forward and trusting their stuff," Stottlemyre said. "We've talked a lot about that. And get out of survival mode. We know with all young players that there's that transformation in that time that you have to allow for guys to get to that point where they believe that they belong there.

"And both of those guys' willingness to get in the zone and get in good counts, made some big strides, and they've worked hard on it. It's not that they weren't aware before, but it was a matter of trusting that process and being able to do it. And they both had some some good feedback in some games, and players need that. It's time for them to take another step forward."