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Jose Fernandez debut: Does Fernandez's performance justify Marlins' decision?

The Miami Marlins have to be pleased that Jose Fernandez performed brilliantly in his debut on Sunday. But does his performance justify the Marlins' decision to promote him so early?


Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote an article yesterday praising the New York Mets for standing their ground and keeping top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler in the minors as the Marlins rush their elite prospect, Jose Fernandez.

That Fernandez was facing journeyman Aaron Laffey yesterday rather than Zack Wheeler emphasized the Mets are following a different and, I believe, proper strategy with their best pitching prospect.

The Marlins lost Nate Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez to injury, and Jacob Turner did not show enough progress to warrant a rotation spot. So Miami went from limiting Fernandez’s exposure in spring training and ticketing him for Double-A to starting him in Game 6. Of course, the Marlins are as steady as Lindsay Lohan. They are the champions of changing plans — Team U-Turn.

This brings up an interesting point regarding our excitement about Jose Fernandez's spectacular debut. Prior to the start, the majority of fans were unhappy about the promotion for financial reasons. This Marlins organization, more than perhaps any other organization in baseball, needs to be careful about its finances and team control time. Since owner Jeffrey Loria continues to run the Marlins as a low-budget, small-market team (with a big, fancy, publicly-subsidized stadium, mind you), the Fish need to make each and every decision with the goal of avoiding losing talent earlier than they need to.

But all the talk after Fernandez's start on Sunday was about how amazing it was and how we want to see more. And indeed, Marlins fans want to be excited about Fernandez. He struck out eight batters in five innings, allowed only one run on three hits, and dominated the Mets' lineup. Marlins fans could see signs of aces of the past in Fernandez, and they are giddy to see more of the youngster's development in 2013.

But if Fernandez performs well, shatters all of our preseason expectations, and goes on to, let's say, win the Rookie of the Year award, does it justify the Marlins' decision to bring him up in 2013?

The answer, of course, is no.

In our previous analysis, we covered why promoting Fernandez might be a good thing, and one of the reasons that it could be a positive move is that the young pitcher was ready for the majors. And yes, if Fernandez is indeed ready, as an award-winning 2013 season would indicate, then him languishing in the minors was not going to help his development as much as facing major-league talent would.

But the benefits of his added development via major league hitters are just not as prevalent as the downside of losing him earlier in his career. As Sherman indicates, with the Marlins way out of contention, they need to plan more for the future.

Organizations that have even a whiff of contention should be aggressive in moving prospects to the majors. But after yet another payroll gutting of their roster, the Marlins will need a baseball miracle simply to avoid the worst record in the NL.

Thus, it makes no sense to start the arbitration and free-agent clocks on as talented a prospect as Fernandez, especially because money probably is going to remain an issue for the franchise.

The Fish are going to struggle to be a winning team this season, so the need to have Fernandez immediately on the roster was almost nonexistent. Even if the Marlins felt he was ready for the majors before the start of the season (which is a sketchy assumption given their previously-stated plan to play him in Double-A), the team only had to leave him in the minors for one month at most to save one year of team control. That means that, had Fernandez been assuredly ready to face big league hitters, he would have to miss about five regular season starts at the beginning of the year to give the Marlins an extra year of team control.

Think about what that means for one second. The Marlins essentially valued five of Fernandez's 2013 starts over all of his 2019 season.

No matter how good Fernandez is in 2013, that decision is still incorrect. The best projections for Fernandez expect him to be a 3.42 ERA pitcher this season. That is highly impressive for a 20-year-old minor leaguer with no Double-A experience, but what kind of performance would we expect from such a player? If Fernandez pitched his allotted 170 innings, we expect that to be worth 3.5 wins in 2013. That would make him the best pitcher on the team, but again, the Marlins are not evaluating that his 2013 season as a whole is more valuable than 2019, but rather that about five of those starts are more valuable than all of that future season. Assuming he makes 29 starts to make his 3.5-win projection, the Fish are putting 0.6 wins at the start of the season on a pedestal.

This brings up an overarching concern with the Marlins. The organization is still not planning for future contingencies despite its claims. On the one hand, it slashes payroll with a major fire sale trade in the name of future performance and prospect mining. On the other hand, it rushes the service time clock on an elite prospect with seemingly no explanation. This highlights the sort of helter-skelter approach the Marlins have in managing the organization. If the team is playing for the future and using 2013 only to evaluate acquired players and see what parts they have, then Fernandez's presence is irrelevant, no matter how strong the performance. If the Fish are trying to win in 2013, then why would they send away players like Jose Reyes who were positive contributors last season?

The Marlins need to make a decision on the direction of the franchise. If the future is to be upheld, the Marlins need to be careful with their finances and with their service time. If the plan is to win now, the team needs to make moves to make that evident. The bottom line is that the organization needs a plan, and a coherent, long-term one, that will not get busted within a year of unexpected results. The Marlins seemed to have a plan with Jose Fernandez, but they turned the ship around quickly at the drop of a dime (or some shoulder inflammation). Even if Fernandez is spectacular, he will not be good enough to carry this franchise into contention this season, and thus the move has already failed to pay off. No matter how good Fernandez's 2013 season is, the Marlins have already made the wrong decision, and there still is no justifying the move when you take into account the financial implications.