Under the Radar Prospects: Mac Marshall
The mercurial left-hander has traveled one of the strangest paths in the organization
Photo Credit: Mike Janes | Four Seam Images
I would imagine that Mac Marshall is tired of hearing about Brady Aiken, tired that Aiken’s name is often the first thing mentioned when people speak of Marshall. I know I would be. It’s unfair, but it’s difficult to talk about the baseball journey of Mac Marshall without first talking about money and the machinations of the modern front office.
On June 23, 2014, LHP Brady Aiken, the top overall pick in the 2014 draft, showed up in Houston to take his physical and sign a professional contract. Aiken and the Astros had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus — a healthy cut of money for the high school lefty that still left Houston an additional $1.5 million of the overall $8 million slot value for the top pick. The $1.5 million in savings was to go to another high school pitcher selected in the 5th round, Jacob Nix. Things took a different turn, however, when Houston became concerned with what the MRI revealed in Aiken’s pitching elbow. Believing that the MRI showed a significant possibility that Aiken would ultimately need Tommy John surgery (which he would end up going through), the Astros lowered their offer to Aiken to just $5 million.
Much of what happened after that is shrouded in mystery and acrimony. But Mac Marshall definitely got sucked into the backdraft of it all.
The Georgia prep left-hander was Baseball America’s 57th overall draft prospect heading into the 2014 draft, but teams feared that his commitment to LSU was going to be too costly to overcome, and he ended up falling to the 21st round of Houston’s draft. After the 10th round, players who don’t sign don’t cost the drafting team their bonus slot value. So, players with strong college commitments often slide down near the end of the draft where teams can take a run at them if they end up with extra money.
Unlike Nix, it’s unlikely that Marshall had any agreement with Houston at the time of the draft or through much of the summer. Rather, it appears that once Houston downgraded their offer to Aiken (from $6.5 to $5 million), they decided to use that extra $1.5 million to make a late pass at getting Marshall on board. But, obviously, that offer was conditional upon Aiken taking the new deal. While the $5 million offer still had to have had some appeal (he would wind up with just half that amount a year later when Cleveland selected him 17th overall), Aiken’s camp ultimately couldn’t abide by the pulled offer and refused to sign. And, with that refusal, the deals to both Nix and Marshall vanished as well.
While Marshall didn’t appear to harbor the same anger towards Houston that the other two did (he, alone, of the trio gave Houston permission to re-draft him the following year), the close call with a big signing bonus does appear to have affected his commitment to LSU. A month after the narrow miss with pro ball, he made a momentous announcement:
“With pro ball being so close, coming down to the last day of signing finding out I wasn’t going to go, it kind of had a little extra sting to it, I felt like my game played at a professional level and I just wanted to prove that, so I went ahead and decided to play for coach (Jeff) Johnson at Chipola.”
Perhaps some clarification is needed here. Major League Baseball’s eligibility requirements allow players to be drafted after high school, or following a player’s Junior or Senior years at a four-year college. In rare cases, they can also be drafted following their Sophomore year IF they are 21 years old (typically these players “red-shirted” a year with injuries). Players at Junior Colleges on the other hand, are eligible immediately following their Freshman year. For Marshall, had he followed his commitment to LSU in 2014, he wouldn't have been eligible to be drafted again until 2017. By going to JC, he was eligible to return to the draft again the following year (2015).
Are you still with me? It’s all pretty confusing, I know. The Astros believed they had found a perfect philosophy for gaming the draft according to the new CBA, taking players at 1-1 who weren’t likely to be selected for another 5 or so picks and so would be willing to agree to an underslot deal that left Houston plenty of money to use on other hard-to-sign high school players. It had worked perfectly in 2012 when money saved signing Carlos Correa allowed them to also nab Lance McCullers, Jr. with their second pick. But in 2014, it created a cascading fiasco that cost three players their chance to start a big league career.
And, ultimately, it brought Marshall to the San Francisco Giants. The Giants had liked Marshall in 2014 as well, but, like many other teams, didn’t believe they could sign him away from LSU. A year later, when given a second chance at Marshall, they pounced, taking him with their 4th round pick in 2015 and signing him for $750,000. At the time, they felt like they were getting virtually another 1st round talent in their draft (a draft that had, ironically, been topped by Phil Bickford, another player who had famously declined to sign a 1st round deal and used the Junior College route to re-enter the draft).
It’s likely that Marshall was hoping to boost himself further up the 2015 draft with a strong performance at Chipola Junior College, but his freshman year had been stymied by a broken thumb that cost him six weeks of action. And that leads us to a second thing that Mac Marshall is probably tired of hearing about — injuries. His professional career has been riddled with them.
During his first professional spring training, he began losing feeling in his pitching hand. He’d been bothered by the nerve in his pitching arm since high school, but this was a whole new level of weird sensation. Ultimately, he’d be diagnosed with “nerve subluxation” — where the ulnar nerve slides back and forth from its normal position — and underwent surgery for nerve transposition.
He returned in 2018, performing in San Jose as a piggy-back partner with Logan Webb, his roommate and rehab-buddy, who was, himself, returning from elbow surgery. But while Marshall’s appearances on the hill were impressive in the early going, he had trouble building momentum.
He was sent to the IL in May for a month with elbow irritation. He returned for just two weeks before a pulled groin/hip sent him back to the injured list for another stint. He made it back for the final six weeks of the season, but struggled over that stretch with a 7.76 ERA. The whole thing made for a frustrating season of starts and stops, which you can hear him discuss with San Jose play by play man Joe Ritzo here.
The health concerns didn’t end with 2018, either. He missed the entire first half of the 2019 season with an undisclosed injury and made it through just a week throwing in San Jose’s bullpen before he was shelved again. Put it all together and you have a pitcher who has thrown just 72 innings over the past four years combined.
All contributing to a career that feels like it’s come to be defined by the things that have kept him off the field. So, let’s talk about Mac Marshall on the field at long last. What are we to make of a pitcher who has a 4.73 career ERA and a history of walking nearly a batter per inning over 159.2 career innings?
The first thing to say is that the control problems that have plagued his on-field career were almost entirely unanticipated from a pitcher whose pre-draft scouting report included the line:
“He has an excellent feel for pitching and fills up the strike zone with his whole arsenal.”
The best pitch in that arsenal was always his changeup, which flashed plus potential early on. His fastball wasn’t a blazer — topping out around 93 or 94 but often settling in more 89-91 — but had it had good ride and he paired it with an excellent high 80s cutter that really got on right-handed hitters. Baseball Prospectus’ Brendan Gawlowski identified Marshall as “one of the most promising pitchers” in the Northwest League in 2015. And prior to the 2019 season, Baseball Prospectus literally wrote this about Marshall in their rankings of the Giants system:
“The stuff’s not that far off Logan Webb” was a thing written in our internal discussion of Marshall w/r/t the Giants list.”
That line alone — coming just months before Webb would make his own major league debut — might cause you to suspect that Marshall ranked highly on B-Pro’s list that year. But, alas, the caveats that came after that line were legion: the durability and workload concerns, the control problems, the constant injuries. There were even some concerns about his ability to maintain composure on the mound, as Marshall sometimes showed visible frustration when he missed his spots and would sometimes respond by over-throwing the next pitch, leading to another bout of frustration.
All the things. All of these things that have left the career of this talented young man in a perpetual “failure to launch,” despite the plummeting changeup and the cutter that jumps on righties and darts away from lefties. Despite the bat-missing ability that has piled up 10 Ks per every 9 innings he’s pitched as a pro. All the little failures that can make pro ball so mentally and psychologically and physically wearing and debilitating. Such “a grind,” as players perpetually refer to it. It’s not always (or perhaps even often) talent that makes the difference between those who make it and those who don’t. It’s just all the little things.
It’s easy to forget about a prospect like Mac Marshall, to dismiss him completely. He’s never stayed healthy. He’s never been consistent. He’s rarely managed to throw even 5 innings in a game. The way it is now is the way it will always be. But there he was at Instrux this fall, trying to find the groove. The Giants haven’t forgotten about him, haven’t dismissed him. They’re still there trying to coax the magic out of the man.
And if, someday, they do? If everything clicks? If he gets some prolonged period of health? Pitchers can move quickly, if…if…if…If it all comes together for, at least, some small period of time.
After all these years, it feels like we’re still waiting for Marshall’s career to really begin. Maybe it never will. But there’s always the chance that, like Jim “The Rookie” Morris, or Ray Black, or Rich Hill, one day he’ll just start to feel good again. The arm will respond to a game of catch with the old zip, and the aches and woes that have plagued him are suddenly forgotten. It feels good to throw once more and things will begin again. When Marshall made the decision to pull out of his commitment to LSU, he said, “I felt like my game played at a professional level and I just wanted to prove that.” The sad truth is that six and a half years later, he’s still waiting for that chance — the chance to prove to himself that his game will play at this level. Opportunities have flashed before, but never stayed. The chance has always flitted away.
I often meditate on the final paragraphs of Richard Ford’s wonderful novel The Sportswriter. And, as it’s one of my all-time favorite passages, I want to share it with you here, now. I think about Mac Marshall’s hopes (and my own to be honest), and I think about this:
Only suddenly, then, you are out of it—that film, that skin of life—as when you were a kid. And you think: this must’ve been the way it was once in my life — though you didn’t know it then, and don’t really even remember it — a feeling of wind on your cheeks and your arms, of being released, let loose, of being the light-floater. And since that is not how it has been for a long time, you want, this time, to make it last, this glistening one moment, this cool air, this new living, so that you can preserve a feeling of it, inasmuch as when it comes again it may just be too late. You may just be too old. And in truth, of course, this may be the last time that you will ever feel this way again.