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2015 Miami Marlins Season Preview: Jose Fernandez

With the position player side of the Marlins preview series complete, we now turn our attentions to the most important name on the pitcher's side: Jose Fernandez and his recovering elbow.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins have their expected production from their position players, and they are going to need strong play from the pitching side in order to expect to compete in 2015. The club made a few additions on the pitching ledger, but also made subtractions along the way. Ultimately, however, only one name will be most important to the franchise: Jose Fernandez.

Fernandez is recovering from a torn UCL that required Tommy John surgery, and his recovery is critical to the 2015 season. When Fernandez returns will have a major impact on the team's chances of a playoff spot, and that does not even account for the potential for his skill level decreasing thanks to the injury. As much as we want to believe Fernandez is healthy and ready to return to the form he showed in early 2014, we have not seen him pitch a live game in 10 months.

Starting Rotation

1. Jose Fernandez
2. Henderson Alvarez
3. Mat Latos
4. Jarred Cosart
5. Dan Haren

Additional Depth: Tom Koehler, Brad Hand, David Phelps, Aaron Crow
Minor League Depth: Justin Nicolino, Jose Urena, Adam Conley

The Marlins know they will not have Fernandez for the first few months of the season. The expectation has always been for him to return some time close to the All-Star Break, with the possibility of a June recovery in the mix. The likelihood is that the earlier he would return and the latest he would return likely has a difference of 38 games, which would translate to roughly seven starts at most. According to Fernandez's average innings per start of about 6 1/3 innings, those seven starts could mean the difference of about 44 innings.

Forty-four innings is a big deal when you are talking about a major talent like Fernandez. When we last saw him, San Diego start aside, he was in the argument for most dominant starter in baseball. In the first seven starts of the 2014 season, Fernandez could not have had a scarier set of numbers. He had a 1.74 ERA and was striking out nearly 36 percent of batters faced (!) while walking just 6.5 percent of them. No starting pitcher could have held that kind of resume throughout an entire year, but Fernandez was more than a fifth of the way through the season and had racked up huge numbes in just 46 2/3 innings. Even after that disastrous start versus the Padres, Fernandez had a 2.44 ERA and 2.18 FIP, and FanGraphs had him worth 1.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), while Baseball-Reference had him at 1.1 WAR. Out of the 87 qualified Major League starters in 2014 (pitched at least 162 innings), Fernandez outperformed 20 of them by fWAR.

Needless to say, Fernandez's 2014 season was shaping up to be an elite, Cy Young-level campaign before the elbow injury. Luckily for Miami, despite the question of how or when it happened and how it was subsequently handled, it appears as though Fernandez and the Marlins are in excellent terms and there is no bad blood between them. From all accounts, the Fish have been fully supportive of Fernandez's recovery, and he himself was seen quite often in the clubhouse and in the broadcast booth more than a few times. The relationship between the two sides appears to be intact.

Photo by Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports

Projection
fERNANDEZ, 2015 IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
ZiPS 113 9.2 3.4 2.87 3.13 2.1
Steamer 132 10.5 2.8 2.87 2.77 3.1
PECOTA 67 10.1 2.6 2.49 2.48 1.6

All three systems are expecting a good bounce back from Fernandez, with most putting him at a level akin to his 2013 Rookie of the Year season. PECOTA is expecting the biggest return to prominence, while ZiPS has him as a bit lower than the average expectation. The important thing to note is that there does not appear to be the expectation of a big drop-off after the elbow injury, which is in line with the idea that we have seen plenty of successful Tommy John recoveries. Fernandez says he is feeling great, and the projection systems have not seen anything to suggest otherwise, though obviously none of us are privy to Fernandez's recovery process.

The average ERA when looking at those six ERA and FIP figures is at 2.77, which is the figure we will use to calculate our expected wins. The only question now is determining just how many innings we can expect of Fernandez. Given his recent injury, the suspicion is that the Marlins will approach Fernandez's counts more carefully. If we use their handling of him from 2013 as a guideline as to how they might pitch him this year, you will note that he threw about 6.2 innings per start that season, starting early on with five- and six-inning starts before ramping him up later on. If we figure an early July return just before the break, then we would expect 17 starts from Fernandez on average without any skips. That would result in 105 1/3 innings pitched in 2015.

In 105 1/3 innings, the average expectation for Fernandez would be that of a 2.9-win player. That means that in a little more than half a season of play, Fernandez may still contribute something like three wins to the club, which has a chance to be more than any pitcher on the Marlins can do in a full season! The Fish should be very happy to get this kind of a performance with such little playing time, but the key will be getting Fernandez healthy by the time he returns. If he is less than 100 percent capacity when he starts throwing at big leaguers, the Marlins could be in for a rough transition. If things go smoothly, however, Fernandez could play a huge role in the Marlins' chances at a playoff spot.