Sports

Marlins bolster bullpen to help compensate for loss of ace

Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, right, watches pitcher Junichi Tazawa (25) throw during a spring training baseball workout Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, right, watches pitcher Junichi Tazawa (25) throw during a spring training baseball workout Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

JUPITER, Fla. — A cluster of Miami Marlins relievers stood chatting and laughing on a sun-splashed practice field Wednesday, enjoying the leisurely pace of February baseball.

They'll be busy soon enough.

The Marlins hope to win more games by shortening them, joining baseball's trend of relying more on relievers and less on the rotation. Miami acquired three established relievers in the off-season and is counting on a deep bullpen to help compensate for the loss of ace Jose Fernandez.

"We've taken what we considered a strength and made it even better," manager Don Mattingly said.

The veteran skipper is well experienced when it comes to pitching changes, and he'll likely make a lot of them. The Marlins plan to carry eight relievers, one more than usual, allowing Mattingly to turn to the bullpen as early as the fifth inning, even in low-scoring games.

"If you try to get five innings every day out of your pen, you're going to be in trouble," he said. "But it's nice when you have that extra guy. That means you probably have a couple of guys you consider bridge guys who can get you to the sixth."

Deep bullpens contributed to the recent post-season success of such teams as the Indians and Royals. Relievers are more affordable than starters, making a stacked bullpen an appealing payroll option for those teams — and for the Marlins.

After Fernandez died last September in a boat crash, the Marlins couldn't afford to go shopping for a Chris Sale. They did pursue free agent closers Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen but were outbid.

Instead Miami added two economical starters, Dan Straily and Edinson Volquez, relievers Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa, and left-hander Jeff Locke, who can start or relieve.

"We had a hole on the ballclub with what happened to Jose," holdover reliever David Phelps said. "And we added pieces."

The Marlins not only have a lot of arms, but a wide variety. Locke, Phelps, Jose Urena and Dustin McGowan can all throw multiple innings out of the bullpen. Ziegler has a submarine delivery. Tazawa is a right-hander who's especially tough on left-handed batters, which will help make up for the lack of a situational lefty in the group.

All-Star A.J. Ramos, Kyle Barraclough, Nick Wittgren and Brian Ellington return. Ramos, who has 72 saves the past two seasons, will again be the closer. Other roles aren't set, but the mix gives Mattingly plenty of flexibility, another element of bullpen use that's becoming increasingly common.

"The biggest trend to me is you don't have the roles defined," Ziegler said. "You might use your eighth-inning guy in the sixth inning. If you want me to be the first guy up after the starter, I have no problem with that. If you want me to pitch the eighth inning, I have no problem with that."

Phelps echoed that sentiment. Mattingly moved him to the bullpen last year, and he had a career-low 2.28 ERA with a career-best 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He was rewarded with a $4.6 million contract in arbitration last week.

Phelps said he hasn't been told how he'll be used this season and doesn't really care. But he's excited about the bullpen mix and depth.

"It's 27 outs, however that equation works," he said, "whether it's one guy throwing 27, or six guys coming together to get it done."