Next in the Minor League Previews series is the Southern League’s Southern Division. Thanks to a recent move, I will have the opportunity to watch a lot of Southern League baseball this season, specifically members of the Southern Division. In doing so, I should be able to get a good look at some of the most talented pitchers in the minor leagues. Headlined by the magnificent pitching staffs in Jacksonville and Pensacola, it will be difficult for Double-A hitters in 2014.
Parent Club: Miami Marlins
Simply put, the pitching staff for the Miami Marlins Double-A affiliate may be the best of any in the minor leagues. All five starters rank among the top 20 prospects in the system and are joined by a solid group of relievers. In all, four pitchers are listed on the 40-man roster, and at least that many have an opportunity to pitch in the Major Leagues this season.
The biggest name for the Suns, and in the entire Marlins system, is left-handed starter Andrew Heaney. The 2012 first rounder is widely considered the top prospect among all Miami minor leaguers, and it is easy to see why. In 13 appearances and 12 starts at High Class-A Jupiter in 2013, the 22-year old went 5-2 with an eye-popping 0.88 ERA while holding hitters to a .193 batting average. Heaney received a promotion to Double-A late in the year, and started six games in August for the Suns, compiling a 4-1 record and 2.94 ERA. If he had not allowed five earned runs in three innings in his second start, Heaney’s line would have been even more impressive. Suns fans: don’t get too used to seeing Heaney in Jacksonville. As he is one of the game’s top left-handed pitching prospects, Heaney will be on the move soon: if not to New Orleans, to the big league club.
Joining Heaney in Jacksonville is a remarkable collection of pitchers. Fellow lefty Justin Nicolino will return to the Suns rotation after making his final nine starts of 2013 with the club. A member of the blockbuster Marlins-Blue Jays trade from the 2013 offseason, the 22-year old went 5-2 with a 2.23 ERA in Jupiter before posting a 4.96 ERA with the Suns. Fellow former Blue Jays farmhand, right-hander Anthony DeSclafani will join the Jacksonville rotation in 2014. DeSclafani, 24, spent the second half of the season with the Suns after posting a 1.67 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 54 innings across 12 starts for Jupiter. He has a big fastball and pinpoint control and will likely be the first of the group to move on to Triple-A New Orleans, given his age.
Jose Urena, also ranked among the top ten prospects in the system, is the hardest thrower of the group. Urena (10-7, 3.73) moves up to Double-A after a full season in Jupiter. The 22-year old from the Dominican Republic is a member of the 40-man roster, and started 26 games for the Hammerheads in 2013. Fellow 40-man roster mate Angel Sanchez rounds out the Suns rotation. Ranked among the Marlins’ top 20 prospects, Sanchez started ten games for Jupiter last season following a trade from the Dodgers.
Right-hander Nick Wittgren, who owns a 0.91 ERA and 39 saves in 89 career innings, leads the bullpen. Colby Suggs may see time in Jacksonville as well after pitching at three levels in 2013. He was selected in the second round of last June’s draft. Lefties Edgar Olmos and Grant Drayton spent a lot of time in Double-A last season, with Olmos making his big league debut. The pair could be slated for Triple-A, but are currently listed on the Suns roster.
There is far less star power among the Jacksonville regulars, but 40-man roster players Brent Keys, an outfielder, and catcher J.T. Realmuto will likely start the season with the Suns. Realmuto may share time behind the plate with Austin Barnes before moving up to New Orleans.