MIAMI -- The countdown is on, and the September callup period is just around the corner, which means decision time is quickly approaching for the Miami Marlins. In the final 1 1/2 months of the season, the most pressing question surrounding the organization will be how to monitor its young pitching.
Already, the club has stated All-Star Jose Fernandez will be shut down at around 170 innings. He's currently at 139 2/3 innings, so that threshold could be reached by the end of August.
MLB teams are allowed to expand their rosters on Sept. 1, so Miami is weighing which Minor League arms to bring up and which to shut down.
One of the rising pitching stars in the game, Fernandez is being handled with care because of his age and the fact he entered the season not having previously pitched above Class A. But the 21-year-old isn't the only starter being watched with a cautious eye. Jacob Turner is another. No firm innings limit has been set for the promising 22-year-old, but if he shows signs of fatigue, he also could be given a breather in the final month.
The Marlins are rebuilding around a core of quality young pitchers, and the final weeks of the season will be a chance to look at some Minor League arms who are big league-ready. Brad Hand and No. 10 prospect Brian Flynn are a couple of Triple-A left-handers who are candidates to get the call in September to add rotation depth, and so is right-hander Sam Dyson. Hand and Dyson already are on the 40-man roster.
While those three could be headed to the big leagues in the upcoming weeks, it is doubtful southpaw that Andrew Heaney, the club's No. 1 pick in 2012, will be promoted from Double-A Jacksonville. A more likely plan for Heaney, the team's third-rated prospect who opened the season on the disabled list with a lat strain, is to finish up his Minor League season, take time off in September and then log some innings in the Arizona Fall League.
The Marlins also will not likely bring Double-A standouts Anthony DeSclafani (No. 15 prospect) or Justin Nicolino (No. 4) to the big leagues this year. The two began the year at Class A Jupiter, and there is no need to rush either of them.
One reason the Marlins are excited about their future in a season when they've been entrenched in last place is because of their overall pitching.
"Our pitching is impressive," said Marlins vice president of player development Marty Scott. "I was looking at our Minor League numbers, and we only have one of six teams with an ERA over 4.00. Everything is 3.70 or lower in five of our six teams. That goes to show the depth.
"When you have that kind of depth, where entire teams have ERAs like that and two or three guys don't take you down, it's impressive."
From top to bottom, the Marlins haven't had this many quality young arms in more than a decade. In 2003, the organization won the World Series at a time its future ace, Josh Johnson, was beginning his professional career.
Even though the Marlins have struggled, their pitching ranks near the top of the National League. But a number of the young arms haven't pitched late into September. So the final month offers a time to give current starters a rest, while offering opportunities for others to get a taste of the big leagues.
All eyes are on Fernandez, a rising sensation who is a strong NL Rookie of the Year Award candidate. In 23 starts, the hard-throwing right-hander is 8-5 with a 2.45 ERA and 149 strikeouts. Although Fernandez is still going strong, the Marlins aren't willing to risk overloading him in his rookie season.
Turner, too, may find his season cut short in the final month. The right-hander opened the season at Triple-A, and he's thrown 87 1/3 innings in 14 starts for the Marlins, and 143 2/3 innings total counting 10 Triple-A starts.
Hand and Flynn are possibilities to replace Fernandez and/or Turner. Dyson could get the nod as either a starter or long reliever.
Hand has previous big league experience, and he's logged 1 2/3 innings of relief for Miami this year. At New Orleans, he's thrown 61 1/3 innings and posted a 3.67 ERA.
The 23-year-old has had his ups and downs, including issues with command. When Hand is on, like he was on Aug. 4, he can be outstanding. Hand struck out 11 and allowed one hit over six scoreless innings that day. But on Wednesday, he was tagged for six runs (five earned) with three walks and three strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings.
"The thing about Hand you have to remember, even with all the ups and downs he's had -- he's still only 23 years old, and he's left-handed," Scott said. "This year, I wouldn't hesitate bringing him up in the month of September."
Flynn is a 6-foot-7 lefty options who has impressed with a 2.94 ERA combined at Double-A and Triple-A. In 141 innings, he's struck out 137.
"I could see a September callup for Flynn," Scott said. "At the big league club, when they are so many games out [of the postseason race], it's time to see some guys and let them get their feet wet, and get some of the jitters out of the way. Then, come to Spring Training, [they can] try to make the club with that experience they got in September."