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José Fernàndez would’ve made the 2017 Marlins a contender

With the team hovering several games under .500 for practically the entire season, it seems the late ace might have been the difference-maker.

MLB: All-Star Game
Kickin’ cleats.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

While Sonny Gray was sent to the Yankees and Yu Darvish was being traded to the Dodgers, causing celebration among those respective fan bases, a more subdued celebration in Marlins Park was occurring simultaneously. Monday would’ve been Jose Fernandez’s 25th birthday, and the Marlins quietly marked the event by allowing José’s family to tour the ballpark, with many of Fernàndez’s former teammates meeting his five-month-old daughter Penelope for the first time.

It’s hard to believe that Fernàndez never even reached the quarter century mark in his life, particularly when taking into account all that he’d accomplished already in his young career. National League Rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Star (2013 and 2016), a successful return from Tommy John surgery (and who can forget José smashing a home run in his first plate appearance in over a year). At the tail end of his final season, José was putting the finishing touches on a fantastic year that saw him accumulate 253 strikeouts in 182.1 innings pitched, holding down a 2.92 ERA/2.24 FIP with 6.1 fWAR to his name, a certifiable Cy Young candidate.

More than a year removed from the TJ surgery that cost him most of 2014 and a portion of 2015, Fernàndez was unquestionably improving. It’s not unreasonable to say that he was among the game’s great pitchers, and if he were around today, he’d likely be in that conversation yet again.

We are familiar with the cast of characters that the Marlins’ front office brought in during the off-season in an attempt to fill that gigantic void. Dan Straily. Edinson Volquez. Jeff Locke. Knowing that the starters might struggle to get to Fernàndez’s average of seven innings pitched, Junichi Tazawa and Brad Ziegler were also brought in to stretch out the pen. None of them as an individual was the pitcher that Fernàndez was, but collectively, perhaps they could make up for the loss on the field.

In the dugout, the Marlins had been talking with Martin Prado about an extension. After Fernàndez’s death, with everyone desperate for a little feel-good news, the Marlins probably felt compelled to bring back Prado. Prado had been regarded as a team leader anyway, and the Marlins felt that (in addition to his on-the-field contributions) he would serve as an important voice in the clubhouse and ease the loss of Fernàndez’s dynamic presence.

That it hasn’t quite worked is probably not surprising to everyone involved, from observer to participant, but I believe the Marlins deserve credit for trying. What else could they do?

They struggled out of the gate, reaching a season-low 13 games under .500 by May 19th. They’ve rebounded nicely since then, having one of the better records in the game from that point forward; nevertheless, the team presently sits at six games under .500, having vacillated between five and eight games under regularly since that stretch.

It’s a painful exercise, but an important one I think, to imagine having a healthy José Fernàndez in the 2017 rotation. We can’t say for certain that Edinson Volquez or Dan Straily would be here if Fernàndez were still around, but I think we can fairly bump back a number of starts from guys who wouldn’t have to had pitch if we were getting a José Day every five starts. I wont try and predict what José would’ve done, but I can demonstrate the five worst starts by pitchers who may not have pitched these games that have happened in his absence.

2017 Marlins less-than-stellar starts

Pitcher Date IP H R BB K
Pitcher Date IP H R BB K
Odrisamer Despaigne 5/6 4.2 5 8 4 4
José Ureña 5/23 5 4 6 2 3
Vance Worley 6/4 3.2 6 5 3 5
Justin Nicolino 6/19 3 7 6 1 1
Jeff Locke 7/3 2.2 11 11 4 2

Again, obviously a very imperfect breakdown. I could’ve easily (well, maybe not easily) cherry-picked a list of the six best starts that might not have happened. Some of these guys listed definitely would’ve gotten starts anyway and they probably still would’ve been pounded (albeit on different days). Tom Koehler has been bad and demoted twice. Conley has been bad, demoted once, and looks better in his first few starts back. Edinson Volquez has been hurt. Wei-Yin Chen has been hurt. Only Dan Straily and the curiously effective Jose Urena have been productive nearly all season and neither of them might have been pitching regularly or even in Miami if Fernàndez was still prowling the mound.

That being said, I think it’s fair to point out that Fernàndez would’ve undoubtedly provided some stability at the top of the rotation and had a trickle down effect on the usage of those spot-starters. Some starters we’ve seen may have never had a start at all. Not only that, but the pen usage would’ve been different as well. In that Vance Worley start, for example, the Perhaps guys would’ve been more rested, and the results might’ve changed accordingly.

If the Marlins were sitting at .500 at the trade deadline, perhaps the team doesn’t feel compelled to move David Phelps or AJ Ramos. Would José have made up the five-six win difference? I think it’s fair to say, pitching the way he was at the end, that he could’ve, and Fish fans would have a very different outlook regarding the team then they do today.

Would’ve. Might’ve. Could’ve. Hypotheticals with multiple factors involved. No one can predict the future, but it can be said with certainty that a healthy José Fernàndez would’ve made this team stronger, a possible wild card hopeful, even. It’s important that the baseball world remember that when judging the results of the 2017 Miami Marlins.