The Miami Marlins want to be a playoff contender in 2016, and that may depend in large part upon the right shoulder and elbow of Jose Fernandez. The team's ace has had a long time to recover from Tommy John surgery that ended his 2014 season sadly short. Last year, his arm ran into trouble again and necessitated some time off. Now the Fish face a contentious relationship with Fernandez and his agent Scott Boras, a short-lived tenure of at most three more seasons before Fernandez hits the market, and questions about his health and the innings he should be pitching in 2016. What are the answers to all of that?
Starting Rotation Depth Chart
1. Jose Fernandez
2. Wei-Yin Chen
3. Tom Koehler
4. Jarred Cosart
5T. Adam Conley
5T. Edwin Jackson
5T. David Phelps
8. Brad Hand
Minor League Depth: Justin Nicolino, Jose Urena, Kendry Flores, Jarlin Garcia
The multitude of names listed above does not imply that the Marlins have great pitching depth. The team is shallow on effective starters, having had to pursue free agent Wei-Yin Chen to even build a decent top two starters at the front of the rotation. This makes the health and effectiveness of Fernandez even more important than it has been before. Last season, under a barrage of injuries and trades, the Marlins suffered through some bad innings from bad pitchers, so keeping the mostly replacement-level producers off to the sidelines would be a wise call for Miami.
Fernandez's stuff is unquestionable, as the numbers clearly point out. Last season, he pitched almost as well as he ever did before the injury, posting a 2.92 ERA along with a 2.24 FIP. The fastball velocity remained ever-present, as he threw his fastball on average at 96.7 mph in terms of exit velocity from hand. His changeup was better than it was before and was being used much more often, yielding decent results. The Defector curveball was back in action, and while it was not the called strike machine it was in 2013, Fernandez's approach with the pitch changed slightly. He attacked with the pitch strictly as an out-pitch to get hitters to whiff, using it more as a slider-type offering with its downward movement. As a result, the pitch got whiffs of 43 percent of swings to compensate.
There is almost no doubt that Fernandez will continue to dominate hitters while he is pitching on the mound. Recent similar talents like Matt Harvey mostly picked up where they left off in terms of effectiveness after Tommy John surgery; Harvey posted a solid four-win season according to most outlets and retained his fastball velocity in 2015, about a year and a half after undergoing the surgery. Fernandez did have to work about a year and change after his surgery, but with all markers pointing well, performance probably is not the concern.
Source: Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
Of course, Fernandez spent time off in 2015 with a biceps strain, and therein lies the concern. Much like Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, and other aces undergoing Tommy John surgery, the question of Fernandez's health will linger until he endures a full campaign. Miami is already trying to settle on an innings limit for Fernandez, which is likely to be close to 180 innings. This already leaves a small limitation on his work, not to mention the potential "playoff implications" should the Marlins surprisingly contend. Of course, injuries themselves could further limit Fernandez. His 2013 season was a healthy one, but it also came with stricter guidelines on his workload, including about half a year in which he rarely ever went into the seventh inning of work. Prior to that, Fernandez had never pitched up to 172 innings in a professional season.
So far, the news is good on his right arm, and there is no obvious reason to suspect an injury, but the risk is obviously there. It leaves Fernandez in an interesting position for the Marlins in 2016.
PECOTA is utilizing data that shows a lighter projection with more regression to the mean for Fernandez, which is understandable. In contract, ZIPS and Steamer are using what were essentially close approximations of Fernandez's career strikeout and walk numbers and predicting a few more home runs to fly. In short, the first two systems are trusting Fernandez a little more than PECOTA. Combined with BP's DRA statistic, which showed Fernandez to be pitching at a level equivalent to a 3.20 ERA in 2015, and the BP system is less optimistic.
Still, the numbers are there, each within about half a run of the other in terms of expected ERA. The trouble is figuring out the number of innings expected. Fans on FanGraphs are projecting 174 innings pitched. That would best his 2013 mark and would be a career high for the Marlins starter, and it would probably assume that he misses no starts and just gets less mileage per start. My suspicion is that he will miss starts due to some injury that keeps him out for a period of time that paints Miami as more cautious with Fernandez. My personal thought was closer to 165 innings, or about ten fewer than the Fans are guessing.
If Fernandez threw 165 innings and had the average expectation of a 2.85 ERA, how would such a projection translate into wins? At 165 innings, I have a projection of 4.5 wins for Fernandez, which would be a spectacularly effective season. With the run environment potentially increasing from where it recently has been, such an ERA would still be very good for a Marlins team without a lot of starters behind Fernandez. Someone will eventually have to fill in the remaining 40 innings of Fernandez's missed time, but a 4.5-win start is a huge boost to the club. At the expected 180 innings, Fernandez would be able to reach about five wins. Like Giancarlo Stanton, a decently healthy Fernandez puts the Marlins ahead early thanks to the power of star talent. Keeping him healthy will be the big conundrum.