There was a bit of off-season speculation that the Marlins could trade the right-hander Pablo Lopez in an attempt to balance the list. Miami had a surplus of starting pitchers but a lackluster offense, and multiple reports said they could manage their rotation to take care of the lineup.
It didn’t really end up transpiring other than Miami including arm depth Zach Thompson in the agreement that brought back Jacob Stallings Pirates. Otherwise, the fish signed Sandy Alcantara to a long-term extension and retained López, Elieser Hernandez and their collection of highly vaunted younger weapons. Perhaps general manager Kim Ng and his team would have liked to buy Hernández more aggressively given the extent of his struggles so far, but hanging on to López certainly seems to have been the right decision.
The Venezuelan-born right-hander has quietly been one of the best arms in the sport over the past few years. López has been an unspectacular starter at the back of the rotation for his first two seasons, but he’s upped his game during the shortened 2020 campaign. López posted a 3.61 ERA while knocking out batters at a solid pace for the first time, a promising 11 start showing he hoped to replicate or improve on a full schedule. He was on track to do so last season, hitting a 3.03 ERA with an above-average strikeout percentage of 27.1% and an excellent walk rate of 6.1% in 101 frames. until July.
Unfortunately, López suffered a right rotator cuff strain around the All-Star Break. The injury virtually cost him the rest of the season, as he only returned for a 1 2/3 inning appearance over the final weekend of the year – long after the Marlins were knocked out of the playoffs.
Perhaps the shoulder problem complicated any efforts Miami could have made to treat it over the winter. Prospective acquisition teams may not have liked it as much as they did a few months before due to the health uncertainty. Perhaps Ng and his team would never have seriously considered dealing López anyway, seeing him as the kind of rotation staple that could put the club back in contention. Either way, López picked up where he left off before the surgery, putting him on track to earn his first career All-Star nod.
Across 11 starts, the 26-year-old has a 2.18 ERA while averaging six innings per appearance. It’s the 10th-lowest ERA among 87 pitchers with over 50 innings entering Friday, and he’s in the top 30 in strikeout/walk rate differential (19th at 19.5 percentage points) and ground ball rate (26th at 46.8%). López caused swing strikes on 13.7% of his offers, the highest rate of his career and the 11th mark league-wide. He freezes batters for a good number of strikes called, and batters make less contact than ever when they’ve swung.
López has seen speed drop on both his fastball and cut compared to last season, perhaps a moderate concern given the shoulder issue. He’s averaging 92.8 mph across his four seams, an average number that’s down a tick from the 94.1 mph average he had before the year’s surgery last. His cutter is down three MPH, though this may be a deliberate modification to generate more two-plane movement. Whether intentional or not, the slower cutter was a better swing-and-miss throw than last season’s harder but shorter version.
More than anything, however, change is key to López’s success. This land continued to prosper. He’s always had one more gear off offer, but he’s using it more and more successfully than ever. López throws his change to a career-high 37.5% of the time, a rate nearly equal to his use of the four-seam fastball. Among the starters, only Tyler Anderson and Shane McClanahan caused hitters to swing on the pitch more often, according to Statcast. Change continued to be an elite weapon even though López featured it more frequently in his arsenal.
As he doubled his success in 2021, the 6’4″ pitcher will be of great interest to needy suitors ahead of the August 2 trade deadline. Nothing requires the Marlins to seriously consider offers, of course, and Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported yesterday that they “currently have no plans” to trade López.
That’s no surprise, as Miami is just four and a half games shy of the Wild Card’s last spot in the National League. They started just 25-30 and would need to climb four teams to qualify for the playoffs, but they also outscored their opponents by 21 points on the year. Winning eight of nine games against last-place Nationals certainly helps, but the Fish entered 2022 intent on competing and could point to their point differential to say they’re better than their record indicates. Anyway, they’re pretty close to the Wild Card race, it would be more telling if they were intend to move López at this time.
If the team struggles over the next six weeks, they may reconsider this course of action, but there is no pressing contractual urgency to get a deal done. López plays on a modest salary of $2.45 million, and he’s controllable by arbitration until 2024. The asking price over two and a half years of cheap control for a starter of this caliber would be astronomical if the fish made him available.
That won’t stop other clubs from asking if Miami is fading in the standings, and one could argue that the plethora of young arms on the horizon and the risk of injury associated with any pitcher should lead Ng and his staff to be genuinely open to offers. It’s not hard to find recent examples — the Tigers with Matthew Boydthe Orioles with John means, etc. – of teams holding out for high asking prices on controllable starters, only to see those pitchers lose much of their market value through injury or regression in performance. The Marlins would undoubtedly rather see López take the hill for meaningful games in Miami than see him don another uniform, and Heyman’s report makes it seem even more likely that he will remain in South Florida in a foreseeable future.