The Miami Marlins may have said that Jose Fernandez will be around for the full season, but that could not have been absolutely confirmed before Sunday's start against the New York Mets. If Fernandez struggled mightily over the course of 10 or 12 starts, the Fish have the options to promote a pitcher from the minors to take over on a semi-regular basis. Had Fernandez struggled, the Marlins would have a midseason replacement or two ready and willing to take his spot.
But after yesterday's start, it seems almost impossible to imagine Fernandez struggling in the majors. His major league debut was spectacular, as he made the New York Mets look foolish through five innings, striking out eight along the way and setting a new Marlins record for strikeouts in a debut. The Marlins seem to have an ace-in-the-making on their hands after just one start.
But while hyperbole will run rampant about Fernandez's performance here and elsewhere, an equally important question should be answered: what happens to the rest of the Marlins' seemingly marginalized rotation? Fernandez only got the nod because Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez were hurt to start the season, but now it seems his spot is truly permanent and will remain so even when the injured starters return. So who on the Marlins' pitching carousel stays and who goes when those two pitchers return?
Barring a drastic switch in performance over the next few weeks, there is almost no chance Fernandez will return to the minors. After a performance like that, it is difficult to expect Fernandez to struggle enough to be demoted, even if the Marlins are interested in keeping his service time down. The most likely scenario is that the Fish demote him once he reaches an allotted innings count, and that may only work if the Marlins cut him off early enough to get him to the minors before the minor league season ends.
The Fish would only need to demote Fernandez for a few weeks, so it would be a wise move, but it would also be a strictly business play. If he performs well and still ends up being demoted, you can expect the MLB Players' Association will cause an uproar, and seeing as though the Marlins do not care enoug about the service time issue to delay the beginning of Fernandez's season, I doubt they will risk butting heads with the MLBPA for the same issue.
Eovaldi and Alvarez
There is very little risk that Eovaldi or Alvarez will lose their jobs upon return. Eovaldi looked very good during spring training and the Marlins are committed to making him work as a starter for as long as possible. As for Alvarez, he received a lot less work during spring training and he did not impress like Eovaldi, but being an important part of the Toronto Blue Jays trade guarantees a spot in the rotation. Alvarez is the most experienced of the three young starters expected to make the rotation at the start of the year, and the Marlins really do need to evaluate his unique repertoire as a starting pitcher and not against Triple-A competition.
You have to figure that one of these two pitchers will probably get the ax for one of the two rotation spots. Slowey won the starting job late in spring training, but he was competing for a fifth starter role. Wade LeBlanc was the incumbent for that job, but the struggles of Jacob Turner opened up a spot in the rotation for both players. But when Eovaldi and Alvarez return, you have to figure one or both might be in jeopardy.
If the Marlins had to choose one of the two to return to a long-relief role, you have to figure the Fish would turn to LeBlanc for that job. Unfair as it may be for the incumbent LeBlanc, Slowey's skill set simply would not translate well to a bullpen job. LeBlanc is at least a lefty and has that advantage going for him, especially since the Marlins only have one lefty reliever in the majors at the moment. However, if either pitcher struggles significantly, expect that player to lose his job.
Sanabia is the default second choice to lose his rotation spot, as he too made the roster specifically due to the injuries. Sanabia had not pitched in the majors since 2011, and last season his work in Triple-A following his two-year bout with injuries was not impressive. Without any dramatic changes in performance, he will end up being demoted to the minors once Eovaldi and Alvarez return.
However, Sanabia has been given a second chance to earn the fifth starter job, so theoretically this is an extended spring training audition for him. If he outperforms LeBlanc and Slowey, the team may turn to him instead of the other two players for the last starting spot. He has service time working against him, as the Marlins still have an option on Sanabia left. But if he pitches well (and he would have to do better than his deceptively weak performance on Friday night), he may force one of the two above starters out of the rotation.
If that happens, expect Slowey to be the one who is kicked off the roster entirely. LeBlanc is out of options and is likely to stick around, but Slowey is the new member of the Marlins family and the least likely to stick if he is outperformed. In addition, the Marlins may covet keeping LeBlanc for his left-handedness in the pen, as mentioned above.
Prior to Fernandez's strong start, you had to figure that Turner was first in line to return to the rotation early in case of Fernandez failure. But with the top pitching prospect dealing well, the former top pitching prospect Turner may be on the outside looking in. Unlike Sanabia, he is not on the major league roster auditioning in front of manager Mike Redmond and company, which makes his performance more difficult to judge. He is already behind the rest of the roster in the eyes of management, which saw his spring training disaster as a sign of poor development rather than bad luck.
Essentially, Turner is behind the eight ball in all aspects and will need some serious assistance to get back into the starting rotation. He first needs to excel in Triple-A, something he was unable to do in 2012. Then, it is likely he would need an injury or a Ricky Nolasco trade to find his way back onto the main roster. His advantage is that, if Sanabia is demoted, he is likely to leapfrog him on the depth chart by his status as a former top prospect and one who still holds that sheen from last season. But without a loss of one of the current rotation members, it does not look like there will be space for Turner on the Marlins in 2013 thanks to Fernandez's play.