If there was a story I expected to write when I woke up yesterday morning, this wouldn’t have come close to being something I thought about. It’s a story that I don’t want to write, but one that certainly has to be discussed.
If you haven’t caught up with the news, Miami Marlins starter Jose Fernandez passed away in a tragic boating accident yesterday. At just 24 years of age, Fernandez had already put together some outstanding numbers in the majors and certainly had a bright future ahead of him.
In the minds of many, he was the face of the Marlins franchise, already a two-time All-Star, rookie of the year award winner in 2013 and a CY Young candidate this season. Fernandez would have undoubtedly earned a big paycheck by the time he reached free agency in 2019. Sadly, we will never know what might have become of this young star.
What we do know however is that this death, as tragic as it is, has significant ramifications for the Miami Marlins organisation and their future on-field ambitions. Fernandez was the ace of the starting rotation thanks to a 2.58 ERA in his 76 career starts. He’d already amassed 589 strikeouts at 11.2 per nine innings, punching out 31.2% of the batters he faced – the best rate in major league history. His 1.49 ERA at Marlins Park was also the best home ERA of any starting pitcher all-time. That record is hard to replace.
There had been speculation the Marlins were considering the possibility of parting ways with Fernandez during the upcoming offseason anyway, but his passing leaves a gaping hole in the rotation.
Right now, Jose Urena and Adam Conley at 25 and 26 respectively would be crucial pieces of the future Marlins staff, and are currently complemented by Tom Koehler, Andrew Cashner, and Wei-Yin Chen. Cashner is the only one of those five who becomes a free agent at season’s end, with the rest still under team control either through arbitration or their existing contract.
The problem is Fernandez was an ace who could be relied upon for a great start every fifth day. No one else on the Marlins staff is suited to that role. Chen could return to #2 status, but his 5.02 ERA this year certainly harms those opportunities to reach his potential.
Heading into 2017, the Marlins currently have four players on guaranteed contracts paying them a total of $41.7 million. That’s thanks largely to Chen and Giancarlo Stanton who will combine to pocket $30 million next year. Conley won’t command much money, while Koehler could make less than the $3.5 million he got this season.
Realistically, the Marlins should look to go out and get themselves another front-line starter if they want to have any chance of making the playoffs next season. Guys like Justin Nicolino are nice depth options, but shouldn’t be forced into 32 starts a season.
The problem is none of the upcoming free agents are worthy of being the ace of the rotation. Cashner is a good pitcher, but he has a 5.73 ERA in 10 starts with Miami. Ivan Nova has been almost unhittable since joining the Pirates, though he’s not about to shock everyone and become a great starter. Rich Hill has been good in patches too, but he’s 37. That’s just about it as far as possible aces go.
The only way Miami could get an ace is through a trade. The Chicago White Sox are the obvious target with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana putting up impressive numbers in 2016. Sale has gone 16-9 with a 3.19 ERA and Quintana is just a fraction off that at 13-11 with a 3.21 ERA.
Both are 27 years old and have pitched north of 200 innings this year. The White Sox could yet be swayed into having another crack at success with Todd Frazier and Jose Abreu still around, so they might not want to part with their two All-Star hurlers.
The Tampa Bay Rays may consider trading Chris Archer to their interstate rivals, while Milwaukee might be tempted to part with Jimmy Nelson if the Marlins can put an attractive offer on the table. The Braves have Julio Teheran as a tradable asset, but considering they want to make a good first impression in the new ballpark and would also be trading to a division rival there’d have to be a strong return for them to budge.
Miami has some young arms in their system, with four of the organisation’s top five prospects according to MLB.com being pitchers. All four, however, appear to be at least two years away from reaching the major league level and need plenty of development before they can be expected to compete. Left-hander Braxton Garrett and righty Tyler Kolek are both exciting arms, but they can’t be used to replace the void of Fernandez just yet.
If we were talking about a number four or five starters in the rotation, then they’d be much easier to cover for, but Fernandez was so good that there’s almost no one like him available. Being so young, the Marlins were expecting to be able to build around him and Giancarlo Stanton for the next ten years or so and had been hoping the dynamic pair would one day lead them to their first World Series appearance since making the move to Miami in 2012.
Away from the field, Fernandez’s death also means that Miami has lost one of their most marketable franchise players. Giancarlo Stanton now becomes almost the only pin-up superstar on the Marlins roster assuming they don’t go out and get a Sale or Archer type pitcher. He was young, fun and a great role model for young children. Since his death, people have been talking much more at length about the joy he brought to the field. Now the Marlins no longer have that.
Good baseball players can be replaced, but what can’t be replaced is their personality and their marketability off the diamond. This tragic accident leaves a gaping hole the Miami Marlins need to somehow to try and fill.
It goes without saying that I send my condolences to Fernandez’s family and friends, and everyone in the Miami Marlins organisation. Importantly, I also remember the two other men who were on the boat with Fernandez.