Miami Marlins

After battling for a roster spot, this pitcher is vying to be the Opening Day starter

Miami Marlins first full workout

Miami Marlins owners Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman watch batting practice with manager Don Mattingly.
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Miami Marlins owners Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman watch batting practice with manager Don Mattingly.

When you watch Jose Urena go about his business, the calm demeanor hardly changes.

There’s a quiet calm to the 26-year-old Marlins’ right-handed pitcher on the mound or in the clubhouse regardless of the situation.

It was there when he pitched in spring training with no guarantee he’d make the Marlins’ roster.

And it’s still there now that a spot in the Marlins’ rotation is virtually assured only a year later.

But even after Urena’s remarkable one-year turnaround, there’s no time for complacency.

“I feel good to have this opportunity, of course, but when you’re a fighter, you’re never satisfied,” Urena said. “You always have to expect more from yourself and that’s the only way you’ll make it further in anything you want to accomplish.”

Urena was out of minor-league options at this time last year.

His first two seasons in the majors were spent bouncing back and forth from the minors with no clearly defined role and little pitching success.

In 48 appearances (21 starts) over those seasons, Urena was 5-14 with a 5.76 ERA in 145 1/3 innings.

Urena tripled that win total in his first full season as a starter a year ago, going 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 169 2/3 innings (28 starts and 34 appearances overall).

Urena was a victory short of becoming only the second 15-game winner in a season for the Marlins in the past nine years (Jose Fernandez in 2016).

Even after earning his way on to the Marlins’ roster after the spring, Urena was seldom used over the first month of the season. He appeared in six games out of the bullpen and often as a long reliever in mop-up duty, and gave up four runs in 15 1/3 innings.

Urena notched his team-leading 13th win as the Marlins ended a five-game losing streak.

Urena was moved into the rotation out of necessity on May 7.

After losing two of his first three decisions, Urena won 13 of his next 16, solidifying his spot in the rotation for the remainder of the season.

Marlins manager Don Mattingly has said that three spots are open entering this spring training. But Urena is among the two Mattingly has named as starters, along with Dan Straily. Mattingly has not named an Opening Day starter, but Urena and Straily figure to be the most likely candidates.

Marlins pitching coach Juan Nieves said having a defined role has made all the difference for Urena.

“I don’t think young players are affected by [changing roles] because they’re excited to be in the big leagues,” Nieves said. “I think it jeopardizes routine. ‘When do I lift? How’s my recovery? Can I get into a routine and keep my strength, maintenance?’

“All these things are important nowadays to become a starter or to become an elite reliever. You have to understand your body and be able to have a routine that fits you. That to me is the biggest challenge of anyone who has been back and forth, back and forth.”

Nieves said Urena is establishing more of an identity as a pitcher and developing more of an arsenal instead of simply relying on being a hard thrower. His average four-seam fastball last year, according to Statcast, was 95.8 mph — above the 93.21 major league average. But his ability to mix speeds on his change-up better as well as location of his breaking ball contributed to his success in 2017.

“For me, throwing strikes with his fastball, knowing when he can elevate,” Mattingly said when asked what areas he thought Urena could improve this season. “It’s the continued development of his breaking ball.

“We know he has power stuff. But breaking ball really is the separator that really started to take off and move him forward last year. So I think the continued development of that breaking ball is going to be important for him.”

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