- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Oklahoma has sent some physically imposing pitchers to professional ball over the past couple of decades. Jamey Wright and Brad Penny certainly fit the profile. So do Josh Johnson, who was born in Minnesota before moving to the Sooner state, and Tommy Hanson, a native Oklahoman who left for California. And Arizona’s Archie Bradley, the pride of Broken Arrow, has all the makings of a classic front-of-the-rotation “hoss” at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds.
Judged against that stereotype, Miami Marlins lefty Andrew Heaney is vertically challenged and middle of the road in the velocity department. He’s got plenty of fastball at 90-94 mph, but at 6-2, 183 pounds, he’s more content to mix three pitches and keep hitters off balance. His most prominent comparison, for scouts and others who like to play that game, is Tom Glavine.
But Heaney has poise, pitching acumen and a repeatable delivery. And a mere two years after throwing his final collegiate pitch as an Oklahoma State Cowboy, he’s getting a chance to put his mature demeanor to the test.
Billed as the top left-handed pitcher in the minors, Heaney made his big league debut Thursday night against the New York Mets at Marlins Park. He lived up to expectations with six innings of three-hit, one-run ball, only to be outdone by Zack Wheeler’s complete-game three-hitter in Miami’s 1-0 loss to New York.
The move had potentially big ramifications moving forward -- for Heaney, the Miami organization, fantasy baseball aficionados and, quite possibly, the 2014 National League East race. But for those who are tempted to view Heaney as the organization’s new “savior” now that Jose Fernandez is out for the rest of the season with Tommy John surgery, general manager Dan Jennings has some words of caution.
Don’t even go down that road. Please.
“You don’t replace Jose Fernandez,” Jennings said by phone Thursday. “No one can replace him. Some people were saying he might be the best pitcher in baseball. We tried to bridge the gap, and now we think Heaney’s ready. Like we say around here, it’s like an apple on the tree. It has to get fully ripe before you pick it.”
Although the Marlins have built a strong reputation for drafting and developing pitching under Stan Meek (another Oklahoma guy), Heaney became only the fifth first-round pick in the franchise’s 22-year history to start a game in the majors. He joined Marc Valdes, Josh Beckett, Chris Volstad and Fernandez, Florida’s top pick in 2011, in that small fraternity. The Marlins are hoping that Heaney can give them their first impact, homegrown lefty since Dontrelle Willis was doing the “D-Train” thing almost 10 years ago.
Heaney went 7-2 with a 2.47 ERA for Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A New Orleans before getting the call last weekend, and Jennings said the biggest item on his agenda near the end of his minor-league apprenticeship was making more liberal use of his changeup to complement his fastball and slider. According to Brooks Baseball, Heaney threw 14 changeups among his 91 pitches against the Mets, so he appears to be a good listener.
Heaney gave up a long home run to David Wright to dead center field before getting into a rhythm that lasted for six innings. He struck out three and walked one, induced nine swings and misses and finished with a respectable “game score” of 62 (with 50 being average). He just happened to pick a night when Wheeler checked in with an 88.
All things considered, it was a promising debut and the culmination of a heartwarming week in the life of a prospect. On Sunday, Heaney sent out the following Father’s Day tweet in honor of his dad, Mark:
Happy Father's Day to my dad who played catch with me in the back yard until his hand turned blue. Love you pops! pic.twitter.com/wLFnzWEGNk
— Andrew Heaney (@Heandog8) June 15, 2014
At 11:45 p.m. on Sunday night, Heaney called home to Oklahoma with an even bigger present: To tell his dad he had just been promoted to the majors. During an in-game interview Thursday, Mark Heaney said he was so groggy he thought the phone was ringing on the TV in his bedroom, and he wondered why no one was answering it.
Andrew Heaney arrives when the Marlins are starting to look a little frayed around the edges. Giancarlo Stanton is playing like an MVP candidate and manager Mike Redmond has the Marlins playing with a lot of energy, but the Fish are going to need some stability in the rotation if they want to keep hanging around in the NL East.
Henderson Alvarez, acquired from Toronto in the big Mark Buehrle-Jose Reyes trade in 2012, has been solid at the top of the rotation but he hasn’t gotten much help of late. Randy Wolf has come and gone, Jacob Turner has been relegated to the bullpen, and Nathan Eovaldi and Tom Koehler have a combined ERA of 5.49 in June. Things are shaky enough that the Marlins just signed old friend Brad Penny to a minor league deal and sent him to Jupiter, Florida, to knock off the rust. Penny last pitched for the Marlins in 2004, before they shipped him to the Dodgers with Hee Seop-Choi as part of a six-player trade that brought Juan Encarnacion and Paul Lo Duca to Miami.
This is the way it has gone of late in a chaotic NL East. The Nationals have the best rotation on paper, but they’re muddling along at 37-34. Atlanta overcame potentially devastating spring training elbow injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to get off to a great start. But the Braves can’t seem to get much traction at 37-35, and they lost Gavin Floyd to an elbow injury Thursday night.
The Marlins, next in line at 36-36, and the Mets, last in the division behind the Phillies at 33-40, should be better a year from now when their aces return. Fernandez and Matt Harvey are both recovering from elbow reconstructions, and they had time to chat before the series opener in Miami. Even if they didn’t compare Tommy John surgery scars, they have a lot in common as rotation anchors on the rehab trail.
In their absence, Zack Wheeler and Andrew Heaney acquitted themselves quite nicely in an entertaining “young guns” showdown. But it will take time, experience and some setbacks before they chart their long-term courses in the big leagues. In the world of pitching prospects, some apples take a little longer to ripen than others.