Under the radar bullpen candidate: Nick Wittgren

The Miami Marlins head into the 2015 season expecting the bullpen to once again be a team strength.

Anchored by closer Steve Cishek, many familiar names project to return to the reliever corps, including Mike Dunn, A.J. Ramos and Bryan Morris. The Marlins ‘pen had a 3.33 ERA last year over 510.0 innings, and was one of the more taxed bullpens in baseball.

A few spots in the bullpen could be decided in Spring Training, with Aaron Crow, Carter Capps, Preston Claiborne and Andre Rienzo among the candidates to make the club.

One under the radar name to keep an eye on is prospect Nick Wittgren, who the Marlins have invited to big league camp as a non-roster invitee.

After being drafted by the Marlins in the ninth round of the 2012 MLB draft, Wittgren has soared through the minor leagues, putting up “video game numbers,” and spending last season at Double-A Jacksonville. He features a fastball that reaches the mid-90’s and is also working on a curveball and changeup. MLB.com ranks the 23 year-old Purdue product as the Marlins 13th best prospect, so he’s not an elite name that fans are chomping at the bit to see get the call to the big leagues.

But when you look at what he’s done in the minors, it’s puzzling as to why he’s not getting more attention. Across three levels of A-ball and Double-A, Wittgren owns a 2.03 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 1.7 BB/9 and 1.090 WHIP. He allows less than a hit per inning (8.1 H/9) and a 0.4 HR/9. For some perspective, Wittgren has only surrendered seven home runs in 155 minor league innings.

Before last year, Wittgren never had an ERA above 1.46 in a season. In 2013, he had a 0.83 ERA in 48 games for High-A Jupiter. He struck out 9.8 per nine innings and owned a 0.957 WHIP.

Those are some outstanding numbers.

His ERA is actually inflated by his first full season at Double-A, where in 2014 he posted a 3.55 ERA in 52 games and a career-high 66 innings for the Jacksonville Suns. His strikeout rate dipped somewhat to 7.6 K/9 and hitters made more contact, as evidenced by his increased 10.9 H/9. He had a 1.318 WHIP and .282 opponent batting average, so the more advanced hitters in Double-A brought him down to earth somewhat.

Those are still solid numbers, and if he gets off to the same start in Jacksonville in 2015, there won’t be much more for him to prove in the minor leagues.

Wittgren has never started a game in the minors, so he is exclusively a reliever. With his strikeout rate, he could potentially become the Marlins closer one day when the team parts ways with Cishek.

MLB.com gives Wittgren a 2015 MLB ETA. He’s not on the 40-man roster, though, so his callup would have to come at the expense of another player. But if he doesn’t break camp with the Marlins, don’t be surprised if Nick Wittgren is one of the first to get a phone call if a bullpen arm struggles or gets hurt.