Miami Marlins Position Review: Jose Fernandez

The collective hearts of the baseball world were shattered when the Marlins announced that Jose Fernandez would require Tommy John surgery on May 16. The 22 year-old Cuban sensation was fresh off a 2013 rookie campaign in which he earned National League Rookie of the Year honors and finished third in NL Cy Young award voting at age 21.

Fernandez was the Marlins 2014 Opening Day starter and infused energy and optimism into a docile fanbase which suffered through yet another last place finish a year ago. He picked up right where he left off on Opening Day, shutting down the Colorado Rockies to the tune of nine strikeouts and a single earned run, while walking none in six innings. The Fish screamed out of the gates and found themselves above .500 and leading the NL East into the month of May.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Jose Fernandez was knocked around by the San Diego Padres on May 9 and pulled after five uncharacteristic innings. His velocity was down by several miles per hour and he gave up a pair of home runs — uncharacteristic, indeed. Something clearly wasn’t right. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list three days later, and an MRI finally confirmed a UCL tear which all but guaranteed corrective surgery.

The Marlins ace’s season was over after eight starts.

But here we will be looking at Jose Fernandez’s season through an optimistic lense. During his brief 2014 campaign Fernandez was one of the more dominant pitchers in baseball, just like he was last year. Had his arm held up, one is left to wonder how far Fernandez might have carried the Marlins in a year where they still finished 77-85, a 15-win improvement over last season.

How dominant was he? In eight starts he surrendered 14 earned runs. Those eight starts spanned 51.2 innings — an unremarkable workload, but keep in mind he was still just 22. The Marlins already knew they had to be careful with Fernandez’s arm, hence his innings limit last year.

Let’s reflect on some of Fernandez’s numbers and then cry softly as we think about what could have been.

In 2014, Fernandez posted a 2.44 ERA. Before that last game against the Padres his ERA stood at 1.74. He gave up four home runs; two of them came in San Diego.

Opposing base runners were few and far between, as Fernandez allowed 36 hits and 13 walks; good for a 0.948 WHIP. He posted a 157 ERA+ and a 2.18 FIP. Opponents batted .188 against him.

In 51.2 innings, he struck out 70 batters. That equates to a 12.2 K/9 rate.

That’s just silly.

The Marlins called on guys like Brad Hand, Tom Koehler, Kevin Slowey and Brad Penny (yeah…) to try and pick up the slack, but there’s just no replacing Jose Fernandez. The team still performed above expectations, and were technically in the playoff race until the waning days of the season, which makes losing Fernandez a horse pill to swallow.

But that’s life, and Clayton Kershaw will likely cruise to his second straight Cy Young. I’m not saying Jose Fernandez would have been the best pitcher in baseball had he stayed healthy, but I am saying Jose Fernandez would have been the best pitcher in baseball had he stayed healthy.

Count your blessings, Clayton.

May 20, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez (16) fields questions from reporters during a press conference at Marlins Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Doesn’t that picture just break your heart?

It’s hard to place blame on the Marlins for overworking him. You want Fernandez on the mound as often as possible. The team is in business to win games, and Fernandez gives them the best chance to win every fifth day. I get that. It’s a conundrum. But you have to remember he never threw a pitch above Single-A before his emergency call-up, and he only logged 138.1 IP in the minors.

It’s actually pretty remarkable he made it 172.2 innings in 2013, and stayed as effective as he was for the duration.

Tommy John surgery traditionally has required 12-18 months of rehab before pitchers could come back at full strength. That means Fernandez could return in May of next year at the earliest, but don’t bank on it. A return at the All-Star break would still be a stretch. Fernandez did start his throwing program earlier this month, so he might be ahead of schedule.

If the Marlins know what’s good for them, however, they won’t rush him back and risk further damage. The team is convinced they will contend next year and has said they will pursue a front-end starting pitcher, according to MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro. That would put them in a great position once Fernandez finally returns.

Whenever that is remains to be seen, but risking the future of your ace is not worth “maybe” making the playoffs next year.

Get well soon, Jose Fernandez. But not too soon; we need you out there for a long time.