It would be a bummer if José Ureña went out like this. After enduring year after year of Marlins mediocrity, the franchise turned a corner in 2020...but the veteran right-hander barely contributed and wasn’t even available to pitch during the MLB postseason.
Per multiple reports, the Marlins were open to trading Ureña during the 2019-20 offseason. Craig Mish linked him to the Blue Jays during the winter meetings, and the Twins also seemed to be a feasible landing spot at the time. But both American League teams ultimately opted to address their starting rotation concerns through other moves instead. Ureña stayed put.
For what it’s worth, Ureña performed great in his 2020 spring training appearances. He logged 17 innings in five starts, allowing only two earned runs (1.06 ERA).
There were observable changes from the get-go. Ureña had simplified his delivery—pitching out of the stretch at all times—and added more vertical drop to his slider.
José Ureña was pitching out of the stretch for the Marlins this season even with nobody on base. Comparing his old delivery (left) vs. his new delivery (right)... pic.twitter.com/lvl83yHJBL— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) October 31, 2020
Though notable, these factors weren’t enough to merit a third straight Opening Day start for Ureña. That assignment went to Sandy Alcantara as announced midway through the Grapefruit League schedule. The Marlins stuck with their decision after MLB’s months-long COVID-19 shutdown.
Ureña was lined up to make his regular season debut on July 26, in the finale of the Marlins’ opening series against the Phillies. However, mere hours before the scheduled first pitch, he was scratched. Several prominent position players were also conspicuously absent from the lineup that day. Soon afterwards, the baseball world learned why: they had tested positive for the virus as part of an outbreak that soon ravaged the club’s roster.
After spending more than one month on the injured list, Ureña made his return on Sept. 7, thrown into the fire on the road against the stacked Braves lineup. He struggled with his control—throwing only 46 of 83 pitches (55.4%) for strikes—and even hit archnemesis Ronald Acuña Jr. with a pitch. But all things considered, the results were passable (5.0 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 2 K).
Ureña started on regular rest for the Fish through the end of September. The high point was Sept. 17 when the Marlins hosted a depleted Red Sox team. The recently turned 29-year-old carried a shutout into the sixth inning. That was the only game this season in which he racked up more than three strikeouts.
Ureña’s low point was, obviously, this:
Suffering a serious injury on a comebacker to the mound—in this case, a fractured forearm—is always bad luck. But this must’ve been especially painful for Ureña because of the context. The Marlins had already clinched an MLB postseason berth entering Sept. 27 with no path towards gaining home-field advantage. There was nothing to play for that day. This would have been Ureña’s final inning of work regardless in a tune-up for his long-awaited first taste of October baseball. They made room for him on the postseason taxi squad so he could partially participate in the experience, but that doesn’t provide nearly the same closure as competing on the biggest stage.
- Left-handed batters tormented Ureña in 2020 (.406/.457/.781, 1 K in 35 PA). Microscopic sample size, of course.
- He made a couple intriguing pitch mix adjustments, throwing his four-seam fastball 18.9% of the time after abandoning it the previous two seasons, and setting a new personal high in slider usage (32.3%).
- Ureña increased his first-pitch strike rate to a career-best 61.5% and bumped up his swinging strike rate to 11.4%. Alas, he wasn’t able to get Ks out of that.
The Marlins have given Ureña ample opportunities to “put it all together.” However, despite his arm talent and work ethic, he hasn’t maintained a league-average strikeout rate for any significant stretch of time since arriving in the majors.
Since his prospect days, we have equated Ureña’s fastball—its plus velocity and movement—with high upside. But there comes a point where it’s no longer rational to expect that ceiling to be reached.
The Marlins have completely overhauled their pitching staff since new ownership took over three-plus years ago. Ureña is the only one who was on the 40-man roster both now and then. I don’t like his chances of sticking around much longer. Due approximately $4 million in 2021 during his final year of arbitration eligibility, he’s likely to be non-tendered. As long as those funds are allocated towards signing another veteran starter (particularly one with a recent track record of durability), it’s justifiable.