Should the Miami Marlins Turn A.J. Ramos into a Starting Pitcher?

The Miami Marlins have a true ace in Jose Fernandez. It’s a luxury few teams have, but despite this fact, the Fish are reportedly open to trading Jose for the right package. Even if they don’t trade Fernandez, the Marlins rotation is a mess behind him. Without Fernandez, this group could quickly devolve into one of the worst rotations in the league (depending on what the Marlins get in return, of course). As of today, the Marlins starting rotation will be some combination of Fernandez, Tom Koehler, Justin Nicolino, Adam Conley, and Jarred Cosart. In previous Marlins seasons, maybe a motto of, “Jose, then pray for rain four days in a row” would have worked, but now that the Marlins play in a stadium with a roof, something needs to be done to improve the rotation.

The Fish were reportedly in on Johnny Cueto but never came close to the offer he received from the San Francisco Giants. They have also had interest in Scott Kazmir and Doug Fister, but both players will likely receive better offers elsewhere. So what should the Marlins do? Assuming they trade Jose Fernandez, they can likely get back at least a rotation piece or two in the package that comes back. Another option could be a return in a Marcell Ozuna trade, as the team is looking for a number-two caliber starter in exchange for the outfielder. But what about something a little less conventional?

Marlins closer A.J. Ramos has been excellent working in the back end of the Marlins bullpen since 2013 after a cup of coffee in 2012. He served as the team’s setup man to closer Steve Cishek before taking over the role in 2015 when Cishek struggled mightily to open the season. In his first year as closer, Ramos picked up 32 saves while posting a 2.30 ERA and striking out 11.13 batters per nine innings. Ramos has always put up excellent strikeout numbers (career 10.42 K/9), but he took his game to a new level in 2015 by limiting his walks. He led all pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in 2014 with an astronomical 6.05 walks per nine innings. He nearly cut that in half in 2015, walking a more tolerable 3.33 per nine. He only walked 2.21 per nine in the first half before reverting a bit to his old ways in the second half and posting a 4.85 BB/9. If he can keep his walk rate closer to his first half performance and maintain the strikeout rate he’s always had, he can be an elite closer for years to come.

That is, unless the Marlins decide to try him out as a starter. Ramos has never started a game in his professional career (aside from a first inning appearance in a rehab start that officially counts as a “start” but wasn’t at all). Despite this fact, his repertoire lends itself well to a starting role. While many closers are two-pitch pitchers (fastball/slider, fastball/changeup, etc), Ramos has four pitches that he throws effectively.

He throws a low-90s fastball that he uses 53.4% of the time in his career (45.8% in 2015). He supports that fastball with a slider in the low-80s that he utilizes on 24.3% of his pitches (27.7% in 2015). He has a curveball that he rarely uses, spinning it only 3.4% of the time (0.5% in 2015). Finally, he has his “out pitch”, a changeup in the mid-80s that he throws for 17.4% of his pitches (23.1% in 2015). Ramos’ curveball use has sharply declined in his four-year career, starting out as 14.5% of his pitches his rookie year and bottoming out at only half a percent in 2015. He would likely need to rediscover that pitch if he were to become a starter.

Most major league pitchers can probably throw some version of every pitch, but throwing it effectively is what matters. All four of Ramos’ pitches have been above average throughout his career. In 2015, his fastball was worth 5.4 runs more than the average fastball, his slider was worth 4.0 runs more, his curveball was -0.1 (but with a career number of 1.7) runs above average, and his changeup came in at 4.8 runs above average. So, he showed three plus pitches in 2015, plus somewhere in his arsenal is a curveball that was worth 1.6 runs above average in 2013.

If Ramos can pitch effectively in high-leverage situations (he faced 103 batters in such situations in 2015 and allowed a mere .196 batting average against), then he should be able to fare well in the earlier parts of games as well. His handedness splits are not pronounced enough to be an issue, as he allowed a .168 average to right handed hitters and a .198 average to lefties. Really, the pieces are all there for Ramos to be an effective starter, the only question is how his arm would respond to being stretched out to pitch multiple innings. Of his 71 appearances in 2015, he threw more than one inning only seven times. He has pitched in 218 Major League Baseball games, but has amassed only 223.2 innings total. Ramos has been very much a one-inning guy, even before he was officially named the team’s closer.

So the pitches are there, the success is there, the only question would be the endurance. Barring several significant moves before Opening Day, the Marlins are looking at another season of missing the playoffs by quite a bit. With a rotation full of guys who might not even be number-five starters on a good team, some creativity could help to make the team better from within. Carter Capps, Kyle Barraclough, Bryan Morris, and Brian Ellington all showed that they could be effective late-inning relievers last season, so the loss of Ramos from the bullpen would not be huge. The gain from having a guy who can strike out over a batter an inning in the rotation, however, could be quite significant. There would be plenty of steps to take and many hurdles to jump, but if Ramos himself is willing to give it a shot, it might be the best chance the Marlins have at finding a decent arm to start in Miami.

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