Jerar Encarnacion (Photo by Pensacola Blue Wahoos)

In a week that saw some hiccups for the Marlins top prospects after hot starts to the season, several Marlins hitters had breakout weeks while a few under the radar pitchers came up with impressive starts.

SS Jose Salas, A
This Week’s Stats: 4-16, 2 SB, 3/2 K/BB

While Kahlil Watson has, rightfully so, earned most of the headlines from Jupiter so far this season, Jose Salas is the other big middle infield prospect who is worthy of attention for the Hammerheads. Salas has bounced a round a bit, with starts at shortstop, second base, and designated hitter. This sort of versatility is a testament to Salas’ talent, as well as his being a good teammate to accommodate Watson. More importantly, both players have seen some time at second base, but project to play shortstop in the future. Being able to play both positions will only bode well for their future success.

Sticking to Salas, it is vital for a player with his speed to get on base. While being a bit too aggressive at the plate has been described as a weakness of his in the past, Salas has already walked seven times in forty nine plate appearances this season. The resulting BB% of 14.3% is well above average, and contributing to his overall batting line being above average for the A-level. Salas still has more power than he has shown to this point, but at just eighteen years old there should not be too much concern about that showing up in games just yet.

Salas is also a switch hitter, and scouts are confident that he has the ability to remain one going forward. To this point, he has seen far more right handed pitching, but in a larger sample size in 2021 he hit about the same from both sides of the plate. More importantly, Salas’ swing is quick from both sides and results in a lot of line drives. Continuing to show plate discipline will be vital to Salas’ success, while he can work on unlocking a bit more of that raw power in games.

RHP Gabe Bierman, A
This Week’s Stats: 5.1 IP, 1 R, 5 H, 1 BB, 9 K

Several Marlins starting pitching prospects put together impressive outings this week, including Bierman, Braxton Garrett, Max Meyer, and MD Johnson. Bierman is a prospect who has yet to get much attention, however, so he is worth mentioning. A seventh round pick just last season out of the University of Indiana, Bierman possesses a plus changeup, a four seamer and two seamer that he can locate well in different parts of the zone, and a curveball. The refined repertoire certainly developed in his time pitching for Indiana, and has led to plenty of success so far in the lower minor levels. In 32.1 combined innings over the last two seasons with Jupiter, Bierman has 43/15 K/BB ratio.

On Saturday against the St. Lucie Mets, Bierman showed how far along he is against a lineup of mostly young hitters. Coming into the game in relief of the rehabbing Dylan Floro, Bierman held the Mets bats fairly quiet through the sixth inning in an eventual 6-3 loss. His fastball topped out in the mid-nineties, which seems to be a slight improvement from his college days. The nine strikeouts are the most impressive stat, as Bierman’s changeup and curveball were really working. Using the four seamer up in the zone, and the two seamer lower to get groundballs also seemed to be a solid approach. Ultimately, Bierman should continue to have success at the lower levels because his pitch arsenal is very far along for a pitcher at that level.

OF/1B Jerar Encarnacion, AA
This Week’s Stats: 10-20, 3 HR, 2 2B, 6 RBI, 5 BB

Encarnacion deserves the award for Best Marlins Hitter of the Week, with a Paul McIntosh-esque performance. It has his season batting line up to a gaudy .367/.441/.667, after struggling a bit in his AA debut in 2021. Encarnacion’s strengths and weaknesses are well documented at this point, but it is not a surprise that he has been tearing up minor league pitching. A hitter with his strength and athleticism can really get going as long as he makes contact, and that has been the case so far this year. As is often repeated with high strikeout hitters in the Majors, such as Giancarlo Stanton, as long as they keep that K% below about 30% than they should optimize their contact enough to be a good hitter. To this point, that has been working in Encarnacion’s favor; his K% currently sits at a high, but not unreasonable, 26.6%.

On the other hand, when he has made contact Encarnacion has made the most of it. His .500 BABIP is laughably high, and unsustainable, but hitters who can hit the ball consistently over 100 mph are going to put together two-week stretches where they have that kind of batted ball luck. Encarnacion is not hitting tappers to third base that he is beating out with foot speed, but missiles to all parts of the outfield. That is clearly his path to the big leagues, so continuing to make contact and getting on base are essential to keeping his overall bating line balanced.

Defensively, I was not overly impressed with Encarnacion at first base this spring. His footwork seemed like it needed work, but experience should take care of that for this level of athlete. He has mostly been in right field so far for Pensacola, which suits him well with his elite arm strength. He has already accumulated two assists from the outfield with that cannon of an arm.

OF Griffin Conine, AA
This Week’s Stats: 7-23, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 3 BB

After a rough start to his season, Conine enjoyed a successful series against a powerhouse minor league system’s AA affiliate. This spring, Blue Wahoos hitting coach Scott Seabol said Conine had been working on integrating a few mechanical adjustments in order to improve his contact rates. Conine believes this series against Montgomery, beginning at one key moment, boosted both his confidence and comfort levels.

“It was that second at bat against (Taj) Bradley on Thursday,” Conine said. “That’s a really good arm; he’s a special talent. To be able to square up one to the pull side like that, that felt really good. I felt a couple mechanical things during that at bat.”

Conine rode the successful swing against Bradley, who can reach the high 90s, to a 5-24 finish to the series, including a three hit performance on Sunday. He also homered on Wednesday.

“That was the first good swing to the pull side that I had in velo [all] year,” Conine said of the AB against Bradley following his multi-hit performance on Sunday. “I took a lot off that and kind of just tried to build off it. Hiccups here and there; not perfect, but today was a culmination of what I’ve been working on the last few days.”

Another factor that has aided Conine recently is that he is enjoying himself on the baseball field, playing in competitive games as part of a stacked AA roster. So far this year, Conine, Encarnacion, Paul McIntosh, Troy Johnston and the rest of the Blue Wahoos’ lineup have hit a AA South leading 19 home runs. The club has been within two runs in all but one of their contests and they own a +2 run differential. They’re also housing some of the top pitching prospects in the Marlins’ organization.

“It’s fun, man. It’s really fun. It’s a lot different,” Conine said. “Last year, I came up late, obviously. That’s tough in August. It’s a complete 180 for me with how the offense has started this year. We just got a lot of dudes, man. A lot of guys that can hit the ball hard and with authority. It’s fun to be a part of.”

While strikeouts will always be a part of his game, it is refreshing to see Conine starting to speak highly of his mechanics and equally encouraging to see him begin to string together hits. If his barrel meets the ball, its going to go for at least extra bases. If Conine can build off his successes physically and mentally this week, the strikeout rate could begin to look a lot more manageable as he gets more familiar with AA pitching.

1B Lewin Diaz, AAA
This Week’s Stats: 4-19, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 7 BB

Diaz is the type of player that I love, so I am excited to highlight him after a quality week with Jacksonville. The slick, lefty first baseman is an exceptional defender who has still been figuring things out offensively. Diaz seems to be putting things together, however, and with the struggles of Jesus Aguilar at the Major League level it may not be long before we see Lewin in Miami again.

In his Major League cup of coffee in 2021, Diaz dealt with a problem that plagues plenty of young, exciting hitters: over-aggressiveness. He swung at nearly 50% of pitches outside of the strike zone, and posted a BB% lower than 5%. At AAA this year, Diaz has looked much more comfortable at the plate in the middle of a productive Jumbo Shrimp lineup. His BB% currently sits over 15%, in what is undoubtedly a small sample. Still, it is a good sign that Diaz is willing to take some walks, while also still getting to some power in games.

Diaz was a thorn in the side of Gwinnett pitching all week, and continuing to put up professional at-bats will be the quickest way for Lewin to get back to the big leagues.

3B/OF Charles Leblanc, AAA
This Week’s Stats: 9-20, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 6 R

We really could have highlighted Leblanc each week so far this season, because he has done nothing but hit. The former Texas Rangers farmhand was picked up off waivers in December, and now seems like he may be a vital piece of the Marlins’ organizational hitting depth. The big league hitters have been fairly fortunate this far with injuries (knock on wood), but Leblanc’s success has made him a real option in the case of injury. Considering he is not even on the 40 man roster, that is a testament to Leblanc’s work effort to have this level of success at the level nearest to the Majors.

I remain impressed by Leblanc’s ability to turn on balls on the inside of the plate. He has a high load depth, which typically results in a chopped down swing with a plethora of ground balls, but Leblanc has managed to avoid that. He has hit just as many fly balls as grounders this season, and that does not even take into account the high number of line drives that he has hit. In AAA last year with Texas, Leblanc struck out at a concerningly high 35%. This year, that rate is down to a more reasonable 25%, while his walks are up as well. The total product has resulted in one of the most productive hitters in the minor leagues to this point, with a batting line eerily similar to the one Encarnacion has put up at Pensacola.

Further adding to the value of Leblanc is the defensive versatility he has shown this year. Leblanc has started games at third base, second base, and left field for Jacksonville. As if his hitting was not enough, that should put Leblanc in a great place when it comes to calling up a hitter. Whether it is an infielder or an outfielder that the Marlins prefer, Leblanc can serve in both roles.

RHP Max Meyer, AAA
This Week’s Stats: 10.2 IP, 2 R, 7 H, 4 BB, 14 K

While we initially were going to recap this past week without looking at the week that Meyer had, the way he held his own against MLB superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. in two starts made us reconsider. In two starts against Gwinnett, Meyer did what he has done throughout his brief career in the minor leagues: dominate. His command was not quite as sharp as we have seen in moment’s past, but Meyer managed to get through it by locating his fastball well up in the zone and displaying his always nasty slider.

The lineup that Meyer was facing was also representative of essentially a poor Major League team. Former MLB’ers Delino Deshields Jr., Ryan Goins, Pat Valaika, Chadwick Tromp, Preston Tucker, and William Contreras were all in the Gwinnett lineup. That does not even include Acuna, who Meyer managed to strike out on Sunday. If the Marlins do end up expanding to a six man rotation, or need a spot start, it is hard to see a better option than Meyer right now. With Edward Cabrera’s season still being delayed, there is nobody with the quality of stuff this close to the big leagues. Against a quasi-MLB lineup this weekend, Meyer’s justified the Marlins’ fans excitement.

Next Up (4/26-5/1)

  • AAA Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp at Charlotte
  • AA Pensacola Blue Wahoos at Biloxi
  • A+ Beloit Sky Carp vs Cedar Rapids
  • A Jupiter Hammerheads vs Palm Beach

Marlins Links

  • The Miami Herald‘s Jordan McPherson and Andre Fernandez provide a minor league update and chat about other Marlins’ topics on the latest episode of Fish Bytes
  • Fish Stripes‘ Nicole Cahill previews a big early season series for the Marlins against the Nationals
  • MLB.com‘s Mark Feinsand interviews Marlins’ GM Kim Ng, recapping her career until now and her career growth