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Fernando Rodney a significant upgrade for Marlins’ pitching

The Fernando Rodney acquisition sets up Marlins as wild-card contenders, writes SI’s Cliff Corcoran. 

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Apparently, sharks aren’t the only fish that can smell blood in the water. On the day that National League wild-card leading Dodgers put the best pitcher on the planet, Clayton Kershaw, on the disabled list with a herniated disc in his lower back, the Miami Marlins, who trailed Los Angeles by just one game in the wild-card race entering Thursday’s action, acquired one of the league’s best relief pitchers, San Diego’s Fernando Rodney.

Rodney, who has allowed just two runs, one earned, in 28 2/3 innings on the season and is a perfect 17-for-17 in save opportunities, doesn’t necessarily address a glaring need on the Marlins roster. Incumbent closer A.J. Ramos has arguably been as good as Rodney, converting all 24 of his save opportunities and allowing just six runs in 31 innings. Nonetheless, Rodney represents a significant upgrade for a pitching staff in need of depth.

As dominant as 23-year-old ace Jose Fernandez has been, there is a huge drop off from him to the two next-most effective Marlins starters, sophomore Adam Conley and 30-year-old Tom Koehler. Meanwhile, free-agent addition Wei-Yin Chen, who was brought in to fortify the rotation, has struggled, and the team has yet to settle on a fifth starter. As a result, the Marlins’ rotation ranks 10th in the National League in innings pitched, placing an above-average burden on the Marlins' bullpen.

Big changes impacting four different teams

Miami’s bullpen has shouldered that burden well thus far this season, led by Ramos, converted starter David Phelps and rookie Kyle Barraclough, the last acquired for former closer Steve Cishek at last year’s non-waiver deadline. However, Phelps is on pace for 79 appearances with Barraclough and Ramos close behind. One reason for that is that, with fellow righties Cater Capps (Tommy John surgery) and Bryan Morris (herniated lumbar disc) entrenched on the disabled list, the drop-off from that top three to the rest of the bullpen is significant. However, of those three right-handers, only Ramos is accustomed to such a workload.

Rodney, who has a 149 ERA+ since the start of the 2012 season and averaged 70 appearances a year over the last four seasons, gives the Marlins another dominant, high-leverage reliever who is used to the regular use that accompanies such a role. His presence should thus allow first-year Marlins manager Don Mattingly to keep this other top relief arms, Phelps and Barraclough especially, fresh and effective.

As to whether or not Rodney and his quiver full of invisible save-punctuating arrows will usurp Ramos as the Marlins closer, it seems unlikely that the Marlins would remove Ramos from that role given how well he has taken to it since replacing Cishek as Miami’s closer last May. Dating back to last September, Ramos has converted 33 straight save opportunities. In the big picture, Ramos has posted a 2.12 ERA (181 ERA+) while allowing just seven home runs in 165 1/3 innings dating back to the start of the 2014 season.

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Beyond that, Rodney has games-finished bonuses in his contract that could increase not only his 2016 salary (currently $1.85 million) by as much as $3.25 million, but could increase his $2.25 million option for next season by an identical amount. Both salaries seem likely to be increased by $1.5 million due to the appearances clause in Rodney’s contract, but the additional expense associated with the games-finished clauses would seem to give the Marlins the extra reason they need not to have Rodney close games except when Ramos is unavailable.

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In exchange for Rodney, the Padres receive 20-year-old right-hander Chris Paddack, who was selected out of his Texas high school in the eighth round of the 2015 draft. Paddack has dominated in six Sally League starts thus far this season, but amounts to little more than a lottery ticket at this stage, the sort of prospect whose most favorable evaluations speak of the expectation of his filling out his 6’4” frame and adding velocity and a third pitch to his low-90s fastball and already impressive changeup. He’s certainly a compelling arm for a rebuilding team such as the Padres. However, for a Marlins team with a real chance to reach the postseason for the first time since 2003 and just the third time in franchise history, Paddack was an easy price to pay for a known quantity such as Rodney.

For their part, the Dodgers also made a trade on Thursday, acquiring journeyman Bud Norris from the Braves in a four-player trade designed to provide their injury-riddled rotation much-needed depth. The 31-year-old Norris is joining his fourth team since last August when he was released by the Orioles and signed by the Padres, who used him exclusively in relief to finish last season. The Braves signed him to a one-year, $2.5 million contract in November, but pulled him from their rotation after he went 1-4 with a 8.74 ERA in April. Returned to the rotation earlier this month, Norris posted a 2.15 ERA in five starts, the first of which came at Dodger Stadium.

Norris and his career 90 ERA+ and 2.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio arrive along with 27-year-old Cuban outfielder Dian Toscano, whom the Braves signed to a four-year, $6 million contract in January 2015 only to have him spend all of the 2015 season on the restricted list because he was not cleared to play. Finally back on the field this year, Toscano, who is no longer on the 40-man roster, has hit .226/.310/.271 in 203 plate appearances in Double A and arrives in the Dodgers system as a pure salary dump. Heading to the Braves are a pair of 23-year-old minor league relievers, righty Caleb Dirks, a former 15th-round pick who has excelled at Double A this year, and lefty Philip Pfeifer, a former third-round pick out of Vanderbilt who has exhibited alarming control problems thus far in his young professional career, walking 5.9 men per nine innings.

The idea of Norris replacing Kershaw should be enough to send any Dodgers’ fan into convulsions, but even with Norris in the rotation, the Dodgers still need Brock Stewart in the fifth spot and are still one starter shy of being able to replace 19-year-old rookie Julio Urias, who is already less than 14 innings pitched away from his previous career high. Hyun-Jin Ryu (May 2015 shoulder surgery) and Brandon McCarthy (April 2015 Tommy John surgery) are on minor league rehab assignments and hope to return to the major league rotation soon, but given the severity of their injuries and length of their absences, neither can be counted on until he arrives. Ryu, for example gave up eight runs in four innings when his rehab moved to Triple A and his second Triple A start was ended after 1 2/3 innings due to rain. McCarthy, meanwhile, has yet to throw more than 72 pitches in a rehab start.

Elsewhere, Alex Wood (triceps) and Brett Anderson (back surgery) aren’t close to returning. Ross Stripling spent a month in extended spring training in an effort to suppress his innings after his own 2014 Tommy John surgery. Off-season addition Frankie Montas is still working his way back into shape after having a rib removed in the spring, and the Dodgers chose to trade for Norris rather than re-call Mike Bolsinger or Carlos Frias.

Norris will make his Dodgers debut at home in Friday’s series opener against the Rockies. With Rodney in place, the Marlins, meanwhile, get to spend the weekend picking on the Braves, who have now traded away four veterans this season, sending Jhoulys Chacin to the Angels, Jason Grilli to the Blue Jays, Kelly Johnson to the Mets and now Norris to the Dodgers. Don’t be surprised if L.A. wakes up Monday morning looking up at Miami in the standings.