For a Marlins team that actually made some moves in the off-season that had them increase their 2015 payroll by 50%, the front office was expecting them to compete for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, they are not off to a great start as they sit with a 15-17 record, 5.5 games back in the NL East. Obviously it is still early in the season, but the poor start is discouraging and a good part of that falls on the shoulders of closer Steve Cishek. Trying to protect a one run lead at San Francisco on Sunday, Cishek blew the save and took the loss as he fell apart to allow 2 runs on 3 hits and 2 walks (one intentional). For Cishek, that was his 3rd blown save of the season, which is just as many as he has converted. On the season, Cishek is now 0-2 with a 8.18 ERA and 1.82 WHIP. While he is still striking out more than a batter per inning, there are a couple of red flags being raised. First, he is only pitching in the strike zone 40% of the time and that has led to an awful walk rate of 5.72 BB/9. Secondly, over his first 4 seasons in the Majors he averaged better than 92 MPH on his fastball and it sat at 91.7 MPH last year, but this year he is has lost a couple ticks and is only averaging 89.6 MPH for his “heater.”
With his poor performance thus far, Cishek’s future as the Marlins closer looks ominous. One of two things will likely happen with Cishek. First, because the Marlins made so many off-season moves to put what they thought would be a competitive team on the field, Cishek will get demoted from his closing gig to work in lower leverage situations. The second possibility is that the Marlins stick with Cishek but even if he improves, I don’t see the Marlins being in competition for a playoff spot come summer time. So the Marlins will then seek to trade Cishek and his $6.6 million salary. Cishek is eligible for one more year of arbitration, so for 2016 he would be looking at a raise to over $8 million, which is not likely a number that the Marlins are going to want to pay for a mediocre closer. So one way or another, Cishek’s days pitching the 9th inning for Miami are probably numbered. So who is going to step up and take over?
Mike Dunn and Bryan Morris are the two players who seem to have worked in the 8th inning ahead of Cishek the most this season so far, so let’s look at them. Dunn is a left-handed pitcher with the knack for striking guys out (career 10.0 K/9), but that strikeout rate has dipped to 7.71 K/9 this year and coinciding is an inflated ERA at 4.63. Plus, Dunn does not do as well versus right-handed bats. Morris possesses the mid to upper 90’s power fastball that you like to see out of a closer, but that has not translated to missing a whole lot of bats as his career strikeout rate is just 6.42 K/9, although it is higher this year at 8.04 K/9. Morris, too, has been knocked around and has a 4.60 ERA. So I would not look for either of those two pitchers to get the first look at closing out games should Cishek be removed. Instead, A.J. Ramos should be next in line.
Ramos has been pitching a lot in the 7th inning this year, but he is pitching lights out having been scored upon in only 2 of his 16 appearances so far. He is the owner of a 1.06 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 21 K/6 BB in 17 IP. He does not have a blazing fastball (92 MPH average), but he mixes in a slider and changeup that has produced great results. The one area where he has struggled in his career is with his control as he walked 6.05 batter per 9 innings last year. However, in the early going, he seems to have harnessed his control, and with the new found control and strikeout ability, he has the skill set to be given a chance in the 9th. Plus, Ramos has previous closing experience in the Minors. So if you want to speculate on saves, I believe Ramos is the handcuff to Cishek and would pick him up ASAP.