JJ Bleday (Photo by Pensacola Blue Wahoos)
At the end of each professional season, each club has at least a few names that surpass expectations and cause the phrases ‘who is that?’ or ‘where did that come from?’ to be rhetorically spoken before those names become household fixtures. In 2021, it was Eury Perez, Jake Eder, Troy Johnston and Anthony Bender among others. Who will it be this year and how will they make their mark on 2022 and beyond? Herein, we provide our predictions.

*Predictions labeled with SH were made by Sam Hemenway
**Predictions labeled with AC were made by Alex Carver

shBryan De La Cruz hits 20 HR as the Marlins’ starting center fielder

De La Cruz was a pleasant surprise for the 2021 Marlins, coming over after the trade deadline to little fanfare and playing well enough to project as a starter going into next season. De La Cruz is one of those guys who never had the advantage of having a “top prospect” billing attached to his name, but he has performed at a higher level as he has matured. Combined between AAA (in the Astros organization) and MLB, De La Cruz hit a career high seventeen homeruns in 2021. That was an increase from the eight he hit in 2019, and the first time that he had ever reached double digits in a single season. De La Cruz hit the ball hard at the Major League level, and while his BABIP indicates he was probably a bit lucky on contact, the power is real. If he can keep his strikeouts in check, than De La Cruz could lock in the starting center fielder spot and show some real power over the entire season. Moreover, he would become the first Marlins center fielder to hit 20 home runs in a season since Marcell Ozuna did it back in 2016. De La Cruz could do that while playing far more acceptable defense in center than Ozuna was able to do.

sh Edward Cabrera makes 20+ starts, holds ERA under 4.00, contends for team lead in strikeouts

Cabrera had a dazzling minor league career with theMarlins. Selected as an 18 year old in the 2016-17 international signing period, Cabrera flew through the levels, making it stateside his second year pro and all the way up to AA in 2019. Despite the lack of minor league baseball in 2020, Cabrera continued to turn heads at the Marlins’ alternate training site and was on taxi squads late in the season and during the postseason as a candidate to potentially make his debut. Despite a delayed start to 2021 due to an inflamed nerve issue in his biceps, Cabrera returned to the mound in June seemingly no worse for the wear. After two starts in Jupiter, a handful in Pensacola and six in Jacksonville, Cabrera made his MLB debut on August 25th and turned in a 6.1 IP, 3 ER quality start.

The rest of Cabrera’s major league tenure was a mixed bag for a couple reasons. For the bulk of his minor league career, Cabrera’s success stemmed from his fiery heat coupled with knee-bending slider, like so:

However, as a major leaguer, Cabrera broke out his third pitch changeup much more frequently. In fact, in three of his seven starts, Edward threw the changeup more than his anchor heater that can touch triple digits and that sits at 95-97. While puzzling, the most plausible reason for his increased usage is that Cabrera’s feel for the pitch was being analyzed by coaching against major league pitching during the back end of a lost season. Cabrera’s time with the Marlins gave the staff a better knowledge of where he is his stuff  and the work to improve has already begun at the big league level. Looking at Trevor Rogers, Pablo Lopez, Sandy Alcantara and others, Mel Stottlemyre Jr has the ability to fully develop a changeup in the blink of an eye. And Cabrera’s was already useable and further ahead than some of those names as he came out of AAA.

With a fully healthy 2022 preseason campaign and spring training, considering what the Marlins’ system does with changeups and with Gold Glover Jacob Stallings joining the fray as the Marlins’ primary catcher, we anticipate Cabrera will pop immediately to begin 2022, defending himself as the top prospect in the organization and as a guy who could one day challenge Alcantara as the long term ace of this staff. Cabrera can be that good.

shNick Fortes emerges as one of the best backup catchers in MLB

Like De La Cruz, Fortes emerged as a pleasant surprise in his 2021 cup of coffee despite being unheralded as a prospect. His .677 slugging percentage in the Majors is the definition of unsustainable, especially considering it came in just thirty-four plate appearances, but think about the lack of quality hitting that exists at the catching position right now. Look no further than Miami, where Sandy Leon was given 220 PA, at a horrible .183/.237/.267, last season. That is the worst offensive season, by wRC+, for any Marlins catcher with a minimum of 200 plate appearances in club history. It just goes to show the lack of offensive options at the position around the league, and how much defense is prioritized while there are still human beings calling balls and strikes. The Marlins have some options at backup catcher, which should be a fun battle to watch if there is a normal spring training that emerges when the lockout concludes. Fortes had more success than his competitors, Alex Jackson and Payton Henry, at the Major League level and should be the favorite for the job. His ability to make contact is far superior to those two, and his reputation as a defender is on the same level if not better.

Ultimately, if Fortes can keep making contact, hit the ball hard, and play solid defense, he will become one of the best backups in the league by default. Having that insurance behind Jacob Stallings will give the Marlins their best caching tandem since the JT Realmuto era.

shAntonio Velez dominates in the upper minors; makes late season Marlins debut

Antonio Velez: the ultimate diamond in the rough. A Miami native and attendee of Brandon High School in Tampa, the 6’1”, 200 pound lefty attended JuCo at Hillsborough Community College before being recruited to Florida State University in 2019. After a respectable season out of the bullpen for the Seminoles in 2019 (44.1 IP, 4.26 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 47/10 K/BB), Velez allowed just one earned run on a solo shot while striking out 21 and walking just three in 17.1 IP before COVID canceled the collegiate season. The shortened draft also caused Velez to go undrafted but the Marlins signed him shortly thereafter.

After a brief appearance in the Puerto Rican Winter League, Velez began his MiLB career at the A+ level. In his first taste of pro ball, Velez was fantastic for the Snappers, holding down an even 3.00 ERA by way of a 0.88 WHIP. The lefty showed off impeccable control and command as he struck out 75 while walking just nine. In September, the 24-year-old made the jump up to the AA level where his success permeated. In three starts and 18 IP for the Blue Wahoos, Velez allowed just one earned run via a 0.78 WHIP while striking out 18 and walking just two. 

If Velez was going to make it to his capable ceiling, he needed to show it pretty immediately at the professional level. And in 2021, that is exactly what he did. The 6’1”, 200 pound lefty lacks size and has average velocity usually sitting 92-94. The rest of his arsenal — a best pitch biting slider in the low-mid 80s and a useable changeup — is good but not elite. However, Velez makes up for all

of that with a mature knowledge for his craft, the ability to mix pitches advantageously and the ability to spot pitches with pinpoint accuracy in all four quadrants. He has also shown the ability to throw outside of the zone with purpose and garner whiffs. 

It takes more than 26 players to get through a major league season. A pitcher the Marlins have very little invested in as an undrafted free agent, I view Velez as a command-over-stuff guy who limits contact and plays to a ceiling 4-5 starter or multiple innings reliever. Velez should start 2022 back in Pensacola but he should be a quickly promoted to AAA. As either an injury replacement or fresh arm, he should be one of the first guys on call in the second half. Upon his promotion to his home town team, we foresee this under-the-radar arm impressing for the Marlins and earning a permanent spot on the roster.

shNick Neidert becomes a part of the rotation by midseason

The Marlins have a tremendous amount of pitching depth, to the point where the national focus on this team has become when they will swap some of that pitching for offense. In the meantime, the Marlins have exciting options like Sanchez, Edward Cabrera, and Braxton Garrett able to contribute despite not appearing to be in the Marlins Opening Day starting rotation. One other guy worth noting, who may be the steadiest of the bunch, is Nick Neidert.

Neidert has pitched 44 major league innings over the last two years to get his feet wet, and the Marlins should be ready to call on him at the first sign of injury. Neidert is not the most sexy option; he does not throw as hard or strike out as many guys as the Cabrera’s of the world. However, what he offers is a pitch-to-contact profile that should limit hard contact and let a quality Miami defense make plays behind him. Neidert has yet to live up to his reputation as a pitcher with exceptional command in the Majors, but hopefully the added experience will have driven out any nerves and slight mechanical issues. Guys who can limit hard contact, and Neidert’s changeup is an excellent weapon with that goal in mind, have a tendency to get “hot” for a stretch if the BABIP gods are in their favor. I am betting that could happen if Neidert gets an extended look in 2022.

shJJ Bleday is the best hitter in AAA in the first half; called up midseason

For most of 2021, JJ Bleday was the talk of the Marlins’ system for all the wrong reasons. After posting an overall .212/.323/.373 line in AA Pensacola, the 2019 third overall pick was sent to the Arizona Fall League to continue working on his craft. There, Bleday was a different player. In 24 games, the Vanderbilt product hit .316/.435/.600 and won the league’s Co-Hitter of the Year award. JJ also added to his accolades a Fall-Stars Game MVP. Although the purely offensive friendly scope of the Arizona Fall League this past season should not be understated, what Bleday was able to accomplish after his regular season struggles was very encouraging.

Though Bleday truly popped in Arizona, he began to figure it out late in the regular season. After hitting through the first week of August, the lefty slashed .263/.362/.453 in  through his last 27 games of the Blue Wahoos’  slightly abbreviated season (the team’s last series was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns). Per his own admission midseason, Bleday was tinkering with his swing all season long. Here is the before (a 3-1 pitch with the bases loaded in mid-July) and after (one of his six AZFL home runs)

Not only was Bleday the talk of the Arizona Fall League, he has continued to be the talk of the current development camp taking place in Jupiter. According to Fish Stripes’ Isaac Azout, Bleday stated he put on more than 15 pounds. During a sim game on February 12th, Bleday used his newfound approach and size to go yard on the first pitch of an at bat.

Bleday has always had the tools to succeed as a major leaguer. After a lost 2020 season, he had to learn how hit professional pitching at the most difficult level of development. Not shying away from admitting he had adjusting to do, it took Bleday some time but he finally found his comfort zone late in the season. Then he went to work in the gym and has returned to the Marlins looking more like a physical representation of one of the strongest guys in the organization, Peyton Burdick than the former version of himself. Inasmuch as 2021 was the winter of JJ Bleday, 2022 will be the summer of JJ Bleday. I foresee him starting his age 24 season in AAA Jacksonville and having a first half as impressive as Jesus Sanchez’s 2021 campaign. He gets the call to the Marlins in July after the trade deadline and carves out his role as the Marlins’ long term left fielder.

shPeyton Burdick is the starting DH by September

The designated hitter in the NL was long rumored to be an inevitable outcome of whatever is agreed upon in a new CBA, and commissioner Rob Manfred confirmed as much this past week. That opens up an extra spot for the Marlins offensively, which should be beneficial considering two of their top hitters from a season ago, Garrett Cooper and Jesus Aguilar, both profile as first basemen. Cooper and Aguilar could be trade candidates at midseason, however, if the Marlins are still a year away from playoff contention. Many expect that to be the outcome; could a youth movement be the result in the second half of the season? Lewin Diaz would slot in at first base due to his exceptional glove, while a young hitter like Burdick could benefit from the addition of the extra offensive slot in the lineup. Burdick, a stocky corner outfielder out of Wright State, has hit at every level despite never getting much attention. He has hit to the point of finally getting some attention on prospect lists, and slugged 23 HR with a 137 wRC+ in 2021 at AA-Pensacola.

A brief cup of coffee at AAA prior the season’s expiration showed that Burdick is knocking on the doors of the Major Leagues. As long as he keeps hitting in 2022 at Jacksonville, and there is no indication with this track record that Burdick will do anything but hit, he should be given a chance to play with the Marlins. Burdick has a quality arm, but not great range in the outfield, meaning that he could be given his first Major League chance at DH in order to get his bat in the lineup.

shEury Perez is the best pitching prospect in baseball by the end of the season

Eury Perez is skyrocketing up prospect lists at a meteoric pace; Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and The Athletic’s Keith Law all included him in their recent Top 100 Propsects lists. Perez will only turn nineteen years old in April, and was not included on any of these lists a year ago. The following line is a solid way to vault one onto the radar of the experts who put these lists together: 78 IP, 1.96 ERA, 108 K, 26 BB, 0.89 WHIP.

Minor league statistics are notoriously fickle, and they should not be given too much weight. However, when a pitcher this young dominates two levels it is always noteworthy. Look at it from this perspective: Perez pitched exceptionally well at two levels of A-ball last season at a time when most players his age are still seniors in high school or freshman at college. To perform that well at such a young age, while also being 6’8, 200 lbs., and hitting the upper nineties in velocity, is sure to garner some warranted attention.

The sky is truly the limit for Perez. He was the youngest pitching prospect on Law’s Top 100 list, showing how unprecedented his success has been. As some of the older pitchers graduate off of the list, Perez can move past the remaining prospects if he has another season that shows scouts just how much potential he has.

shRonald Hernandez breaks out; emerges as top organizational prospect

Since Eury Perez lit the world on fire and became a top prospect after signing his international contract in 2018, the question has often been posed: who in this Marlins’ system is next? My answer: Ronald Hernandez.

Hernandez, a Venezuelan catcher, came to the Marlins as part of the 2020-2021 international signing class. His bonus: $850,000. While he may not come as quite a surprise as Perez who signed for just $200,000, he is coming fast. And this past October, he just turned 18 years old.

Hernandez is a switch hitter. Looking at his 2021 splits which heavily favored his performance from the left hand side. However, in a small sample, Hernandez was able to show similar plate discipline from the opposite side. Against lefties as a right handed batter, he had a 10/6 K/BB. Hernandez is also a right handed thrower leading to the assumption he will catch up his bat to ball skills from the right side which he has all the time in the world to do.

Hernandez has shown a good approach and a  selective line drive swing with uppercut that could eventually come by more power. The one knock on Hernandez that inhibits that is his lack of projectable size. He comes to the Marlins listed just 6’1”, 155, leading to questions surrounding his muscle as well as his ability to stick at the catcher position. But the Marlins are opening a brand new state-of-the-art Dominican Academy this season and Hernandez is already making use of the club’s stateside facilities as a participant in the current development camp. In addition to reaping the benefits of stateside facilities and his coaches’ tutelage, on the field this winter, Hernandez is both facing off against and receiving as high as AA pitching, experiences that should be considered invaluable for one of the youngest players on the development camp roster.

Already with a lot of intangibles out of the way at age 18 with fantastic athleticism, good receiving skills, an accurate arm and the ability to stick as a switch hitter, Ronald Hernandez has youth and the means on his side to pop in 2022 and potentially become the top catching prospect in the Marlins’ organization.