Miami Marlins Prospect Austin Brice Moved To Bullpen

Jun 15, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Justin Nicolino (left) comes out of the game during the fifth inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 15, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Justin Nicolino (left) comes out of the game during the fifth inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s no secret that the Miami Marlins have very little in terms of prospects in their minor league system. That affects the team in terms of possible trades, as has been discussed plenty in the recent days. It also affects the team’s depth down the stretch. This is clear when looking at the names the Fish have had to make toe the pitching rubber every fifth day. Guys like Jarred Cosart, Justin Nicolino, Paul Clemens, and Kendry Flores have made starts for the Marlins in 2016. While all hasn’t been great with the top four of Jose Fernandez, Wei-Yin Chen, Adam Conley, and Tom Koehler, the real issue has been just beyond them in the rotation.

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Justin Nicolino was a promising prospect at one time, but his strikeouts have plummeted each year in the minor leagues and he has shown in his major league time that he does not have an out pitch with which he can challenge big league hitters. In the minor leagues, he is able to nibble around the corners of the strike zone and can get away with mistakes here and there. Those mistakes turn into big innings against major league teams, and that nibbling doesn’t work when hitters know there’s no put-away pitch coming. He has made 12 starts for the Fish this season and has posted a 2-5 record with a 5.57 ERA.

Jarred Cosart, Paul Clemens, and Kendry Flores have made three, two, and one starts respectively. Combined over their six starts, they are 1-1 with 21 runs allowed in just 27 2/3 innings. That simply won’t work for a team with playoff aspirations. The Marlins desperately need to make a trade, ideally before that fifth spot in the rotation comes around again.

So, knowing that they will need to make a deal sooner rather than later, why have the Marlins moved one of their better remaining pitching prospects, Austin Brice, into the bullpen?

Brice is pitching at Double-A Jacksonville and has a 4-6 record with a nice 2.84 ERA. In 85 2/3 innings, he’s struck out 70 and walked just 28. That’s good for a 7.35 K/9 and 2.94 BB/9. Neither number is close to elite, but neither is a cause for concern either. This is Brice’s second time in Double-A and is his age 24 season. He was drafted by the Marlins in the ninth round of the 2010 draft and has been working as a starter in the Marlins system since then.

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This season, his first 13 appearances were starts, and he was pitching well. Despite this fact, the Marlins moved him to the Jacksonville bullpen in mid-June, where he has since made eight appearances. Why would the Marlins, a team desperate for someone to call a prospect in trade negotiations, move one of their better arms into the bullpen?

The theory here is that Brice is not a trade chip, but also not quite an option to start in Miami. The Marlins hope Brice develops into a solid reliever so that he can help the team down the stretch this season if needed. He has only allowed one run since moving to the bullpen, and because he is a converted starter, he is able to throw multiple innings if necessary.

With a strong back end of the bullpen strengthened even more with the recent acquisition of Fernando Rodney, Brice certainly won’t be asked to pitch in the late innings. Also, with guys like Brian Ellington and front-office-favorites Jose Urena, Chris Narveson, and Craig Breslow pitching for Triple-A New Orleans, it would presumably be a while until Brice was called upon to put on a Marlins uniform.

Still, it’s an interesting turn of events for the 6-foot-3 right hander. If Brice sees time with the Marlins this season, it will almost certainly be out of the bullpen. Whether or not he does indeed get that chance remains to be seen, as there appear to be several options ahead of him in the pecking order. Since Brice is in fact on the Marlins 40-man roster, his best chance to contribute may be as part of September call-ups, although that 40-man spot may make him a more likely option than the we-already-tried-that-and-it-didn’t-work guys like Narveson and Breslow (but there are plenty of spots on the 40 that can be vacated with an outrighting of a non-prospect).