When Andrew Heaney toed the rubber at Marlins Park on Thursday night, the 23-year-old lefty wasn't just making his major league debut. It was the start of something much bigger. Beyond the stellar, six-inning debut lies a special future for a loaded, young Miami Marlins core.
Heaney, Miami's first-round pick in 2012, received the call to the majors after dominating the Southern and Pacific Coast League this season to the tune of a 2.47 ERA and 5.27 K/BB mark. One year after Miami's 2011 first-round pick, Jose Fernandez, arrived to dominate the National League, Miami's brass now has another young star in the fold.
Prior to Heaney's debut, the rookie attempted to temper comparisons or expectations based on Fernandez's 2013 Rookie of the Year campaign, per Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald.
“I’m not going to do what Jose did,” Heaney said. “That guy’s unbelievable.”
While Heaney is correct in his assessment, Miami's latest call-up showed the kind of ability that will lead to success on the big stage. His line told the tale of a pitcher in control throughout the night. Aside from one mistake to David Wright, Heaney's debut was spectacular.
With a solid fastball, excellent swing-and-miss slider and developing changeup, Heaney kept the Mets off balance over six frames. By tossing first-pitch strikes to 15 of 21 batters, he stayed ahead and away from dangerous counts. Of the 18 outs Heaney recorded on the night, 12 were either ground balls or strikeouts.
As the new, young Marlins contributor develops, don't look for him to reprise the success of Fernandez. In a similar vein, few expect Miami's recent influx of young position players—Christian Yelich, Derek Dietrich, Marcell Ozuna—to replicate the numbers and production of NL MVP candidate Giancarlo Stanton.
Moving forward, Heaney is simply another impressive piece on a 40-man roster overflowing with talented players under team control. Many organizations can extol the virtues of prospect rankings and potential contributors, but Miami has actually graduated those types of players to big league service time.
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That group could be the backbone of major success in Miami. At some point, arbitration years and rising salaries will begin for those eight elite, young talents, but none can escape to the tantalizing world of free agency before the 2016 season. Furthermore, most of the group is under club control through at least the 2017 campaign.
Due to immense early career success, Stanton and Fernandez are well-known commodities and thought of as building blocks. The other six youngsters, including Heaney, all have the type of talent to join Miami's superstars as future All-Star-caliber players.
In the rotation, Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi have outperformed many older, expensive arms this season. With a 2.56 ERA and three shutouts, Alvarez owns a higher WAR (2.1) than Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner and Jon Lester. Through 93.1 innings, Eovaldi's 4.63 K/BB mark is better than those of Adam Wainwright, Tim Hudson or Johnny Cueto.
If Fernandez can return from Tommy John surgery as a replica of his dominant self—172 ERA+ through 36 career starts—Miami's starting staff could be remarkable. In fact, it could soon do something only one staff has done since 1984: boast a quartet of under-30 pitchers with 4.0-or-better WAR marks in a single season, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Offensively, the upside is similar and eye-opening. Led by Stanton's light-tower power, the Marlins are on pace to score 716 runs in 2014. On the surface, that's not particularly impressive. Yet, when considering that Miami plated just 513 runs last season, improvement is evident.
Although Dietrich was recently sent back to the minors to work on defensive issues, his inclusion here gives the Marlins four everyday players around which to build an above-average offense. Assuming that Stanton's numbers aren't a fluke, the development of Dietrich, Ozuna and Yelich could give Miami a uniquely valuable four-man core.
Over the past 30 years, only nine teams have boasted rosters that included more than three under-30 position players with at least a 4.0 WAR in the same season, per Baseball-Reference. Of those groups, two—the 2002 Angels and 1984 Tigers—won the World Series. Three more—the 1988 Reds, 1996 Indians and 2002 Red Sox—went on to appear in the World Series within the next two years.
To be fair and logical, it's a stretch to expect all eight of Miami's young phenoms to emerge at once. From Fernandez's rehab to Stanton's impending mega-deal, the anchors could dissipate quickly, leaving the Marlins to rebuild again.
However, for the first time in the history of this franchise, a legitimate window of long-term contention could soon open. Heaney's arrival to the 2014 NL East race opened the door for present and future success of the Marlins to converge.
If everything goes right, this young core could soon deliver the first division championship in team history.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs and ESPN unless otherwise noted and valid through June 19. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.