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Weighing In On Zac Gallen


Zac Gallen isn't a name that anyone outside of prospect hounds and die-hard NL-only fantasy players will be aware of. I would include Marlins fans in that group but I'm not sure there are much of us around anymore. Gallen has emerged as an under-the-radar name that could jump onto the scene without any fanfare while pitching in the Marlins farm system. As I'm in the rare company of fitting all three of those categories as a Marlins fan (I was born and raised in Miami), hardcore fantasy gamer, and MLB prospect-watcher, I'm here to rectify this problem and bring light to Gallen's potential.

Just before the season began, I evaluated the entire Marlins young rotation to give an idea of what to expect in 2019 and beyond. Aside from claiming the right to do victory laps for my prediction that Smith would be the one Marlins starter to own this year, I wanted to look back at what I said about Gallen: "Gallen is the other piece of the Ozuna trade that may prove fruitful.... as a back-end starter who will neither overwhelm with electric talent or put his team at risk through repeated bad outings." Essentially, he seemed like a slightly safer but less exciting version of Trevor Richards. Not the stuff dreams are made of.

Eight starts into the 2019 MiLB season, Gallen is 5-1 with a 1.79 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, and 74 K in 60 1/3 IP. Did we miss something or has he just taken a big step forward in his age-23 season? Either way, we must take notice, as he could soon find himself as the next rookie to debut. The difference is that he'll get lost in the shuffle playing for a last-place team and could go overlooked. Let's decide if he is worth a look in the first place.

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Tasty Cakes

Since being promoted to Triple-A to play for the New Orleans Baby Cakes, Gallen has been tremendous. Pitching in the notoriously hitter-friendly PCL, Gallen finished second in the league with a 3.65 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 2018. As mentioned above, he's been far better this year. Despite facing talented hitters like Keston Hiura, Nicky Lopez, Kyle Tucker, and AL Rookie of the Year candidate in waiting, Yordan Alvarez, Gallen has been lights out.

Prior to reaching the highest level of the minors, Gallen was striking out less than a batter per inning and had an ERA in the mid 3.00 range. His lack of elite velocity and low 90s fastball didn't generate much buzz despite last year's success. His ability to locate and change speeds has been good enough to fool hitters and could carry on to the bigs. The first comp that comes to mind is Braves rookie Max Fried. Despite a fastball that averages 93.8 MPH, his filthy curveball and pitch selection has brought him immediate success. Gallen also sports a curve and changeup but relies mostly on a cutter to confuse hitters. His pitch mix will be essential to his success but he seems to have figured it out and won't be a one-trick pony like Trevor Richards with his changeup.

 

Bigger Fish to Fry

In case you hadn't looked at the standings since 2003, the Marlins aren't contenders. They started the year with a rotation that featured four pitchers who each hadn't thrown more than 130 innings in the majors, with an average of 80 between them. The veteran of the staff is Jose Urena, who has taken great strides to lower his ERA to 4.30 but still carries a 1.45 WHIP. He can effectively eat innings and will probably stick in the rotation despite a SIERA that indicates he should be doing worse. Pablo Lopez has a terrible 5.06 ERA but he had been pretty solid until his 10-run implosion against the Mets. Meanwhile, Caleb Smith has been a revelation for the Marlins and fantasy owners alike. He ranks fifth in the majors among qualifiers with a 2.38 ERA and is whiffing 12 batters per nine innings.

That leaves both Trevor Richards and Sandy Alcantara, who are great candidates to get sent down at some point if they don't turn things around. Among qualified starters, they ranked dead-last and second-to-last in xFIP at 5.55 and 5.53 respectively just a week ago and still sit in the bottom 10. Alcantara is just 23 and has less than a year of Triple-A under his belt, so he's most likely to be moved unless he truly has turned a corner after his last gem. There are always injuries too.

That would clear the way for Gallen to get a chance. Ironically, he arrived in Miami at the same time as Alcantara as part of the Marcell Ozuna trade. An overlooked part of that package, Gallen could wind up being more valuable in the near future if he's able to carry forth his minor league success. There is a very viable path for Gallen to get called up in June, if not sooner.

 

2019 Outlook

Despite everything I laid out about Gallen's potential to contribute soon, he is a risky add in mixed leagues. That goes for any rookie pitcher regardless of pedigree. Look at how the year started for top SP prospects like Dakota Hudson (4.40 ERA, 1.70 WHIP) and Sandy Alcantara. Meanwhile, the top pitching prospects in the minor league universe, Forrest Whitley, is getting pounded in Triple-A. There's no promise Gallen will have success right away and we know the run support just won't be there. Despite their recent winning streak, Miami is still dead last in runs scored by a big margin with 134. Detroit is next with 158 followed by the Giants with 186.

Wins are no-go, strikeouts are an iffy proposition given his up-and-down K-rate through the minors and reliance on pinpoint control, so a Gallen owner is hoping that he can keep his ratios down in the spacious vacuum of Marlins Park against mediocre NL East opponents. Only one team is in the top 12 in runs scored (Philly) and only Atlanta is in the top half of the majors in team batting average. It's good to know that Miami is 26th in HR Factor this season after finishing 30th last year.

Gallen is worth a speculative add in NL-only leagues but should be nothing more than a player to watch in 10 or 12-team mixed leagues. If you have a spare NA spot or are simply a promiscuous prospect collector like my pal Jorge, who has his eye on every promising minor leaguer before they get the call, then you can be proactive and bet on his potential to be the next Fried. It's just a roster spot, after all.

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