Miami Marlins

Marlins’ Opening Day starter is nearing long-awaited return with new role on the horizon

Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Urena (62) pitches during the second inning of an interleague Major League Baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Marlins Park in Miami, Wednesday, May 15, 2019.
Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Urena (62) pitches during the second inning of an interleague Major League Baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Marlins Park in Miami, Wednesday, May 15, 2019. dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Jose Urena’s long wait is nearly over.

The right-handed pitcher, who started on Opening Day for the Miami Marlins back in April, has spent nearly three months on the injured list trying to recover from a herniated disc in his lower back, just trying to get back to pitching in MLB by the end of the season. The Marlins haven’t set an official return date for the starting pitcher, but it could potentially come before the end of their three-game series with the Washington Nationals, which begins Friday at 7:05 p.m.

Rosters expand to 40 players Sunday — the same day Miami closes out its three-game series in Washington — and Urena is one of two injured Marlins potentially in line to return. Urena and infielder Miguel Rojas both have lockers inside the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park and will spend a few days working out with the team before a final decision is made on whether to activate them as early as Sunday.

“They’re both kind of back to full activity, obviously traveled and then we get them a couple days to work out, and make sure they’re still good,” Don Mattingly said, “and then obviously the date’s coming up to be able to activity.”

Rojas’ return should be smooth. He was one of the Marlins’ best players before he landed on the IL on Aug. 6 and he should return to his regular spot at shortstop once he’s healthy. Even if Miami (48-85) wants to keep giving Jon Berti some playing time at shortstop, Rojas is versatile enough to play any of the four infield spots.

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Urena’s role is is more challenging for the Marlins to manage. The plan now is for the righty to pitch out of the bullpen for the first time since 2017 and get chances to work as Miami’s closer.

With an average fastball sitting at 95.6 mph and a career average of 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings, Urena theoretically has the tools to turn into a good closer.

“I’m pretty excited,” Urena said. “The recovery is going well, so we keep the same plan to get better every day. That’s what we’re looking for.”

The top priority is just to get Urena through September healthy and ready to dive headfirst into his offseason program. Urena last pitched in the Majors in June and was in the midst of his worst season since 2016 before he went on the IL. Ideally, September will spring the righty to rebound in 2020, maybe in a new role.

Urena has quickly slid down a potential long-term depth chart Miami, though. About half a dozen young pitchers other than Urena have pitched well enough to earn at least consideration for a rotation spot next season and there are even more promising prospects on the way in the next few years. Urena’s time as an ace is over and his time as a starter might be, too. His future with the Marlins might hinge on how well he can acquaint himself to a bullpen role.

Mattingly is optimistic.

“Obviously, we’re going to see him coming out of the bullpen just to keep his innings down and to be able to get him back on the field,” the manager said. “How he reacts to that will be interesting, too, because we feel like kind of the role we plan on using him in is something that kind of fits his personality and his mentality, so I think that could be interesting to see.”

Whether Urena’s first look as a closer comes against Washington (74-58) on Sunday or has to wait until later in the month, the role change is one of the biggest evaluation points Miami has to focus on in the final month of a lost season.

The Marlins are excited to see what comes of it. Urena is ready to tackle the challenge.

“I’m going to try to do my job,” Urena said. “I feel good.”

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