After the Marlins come to grips with the shock and grief of losing Jose Fernandez the man, they will confront the reality of something far less important but daunting: replacing Fernandez the pitcher.
Even before his stunning death, the Marlins planned to add another starting pitcher this winter. Now they will need to add two, to supplement Adam Conley, Tom Koehler and Wei-Yin Chen.
Though the Marlins clearly need a new ace, finding a legitimate one will be immensely difficult because of several factors: They’re in short supply, the Marlins face budget limitations and the free agent pitching market is weak. That high demand/lack of supply will drive up prices, making it even more difficult for Miami in free agency.
The depleted free-agent pitching market potentially has fewer than a dozen quality starters: the Dodgers’ Rich Hill (12-5, 2.05), the Pirates’ Ivan Nova (12-8, 4.17 for current team Pittsburgh and Yankees this season); the Angels’ declining Jered Weaver (12-12, 5.06), Dodgers lefty Brett Anderson (missed much of season because of back surgery), Houston’s Doug Fister (12-12, 4.42), Toronto knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (10-15, 4.46, might retire), Toronto starter/reliever Scott Feldman (7-4, 3.97), Philadelphia’s Jeremy Hellickson (12-10, 3.78) and the Mets’ Bartolo Colon (14-8, 3.42)
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There’s also Andrew Cashner, (5-11, 5.13) whose return to Miami seems unlikely because he has pitched poorly since his acquisition.
There are also several starters with mediocre results or health issues, including the Angels’ CJ Wilson (coming off shoulder injury), San Francisco’s Jake Peavy (5-9, 5.54), Colorado lefty Jorge de la Rosa (8-9, 5.51), Derrick Holland, (7-9, 4.99, presuming Texas doesn’t exercise $10 million team option), Kansas City’s Kris Medlen (1-3, 7.7, presuming Royals don’t exercise $10 million option) and Philadelphia’s Charlie Morton (team option at $9 million; missed most of season with injuries).
White Sox pitcher James Shields and the Dodgers’ Scott Kazmir have player options, but Shields (6-18, 5.82) seems unlikely to opt out.
Washington’s Gio Gonzalez and St. Louis’ Jaime Garcia have $12 million team options that figure to be exercised, as does the Cubs’ Jason Hammel ($10 million) and the Giants’ Matt Moore ($7 million). Edison Volquez and the Royals have a $10 million mutual option.
The Marlins have always liked impending Cubs free agent Aroldis Chapman, and the idea of making the ace closer a starter has been discussed in the past, but seems radical now. There’s also the Cubs’ Travis Wood, a former starter who has become a quality reliever.
There’s a decent chance the Marlins will acquire one starter by trade. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and jack-of-all trades Derek Dietrich could both be dangled for pitching. A deal involving outfielder Marcell Ozuna also cannot be ruled out if the Marlins can acquire a high-end pitcher in return.
As for young pitching in the system, the Marlins love right-hander Luis Castillo, their minor league pitcher of the year, but he’s likely a year or so away. The Marlins will continue to develop Jose Urena, Justin Nicolino and Jacob Esch but don’t believe any can be projected for a rotation spot.
“[Urena] has been a positive, but there’s room for him to be more consistent,” Don Mattingly said. “Esch is hard to read, been thrown into it out of necessity. Not necessarily ready for our rotation. Nicolino has had a lot of chances. He’s had trouble second time through the order. He pitched good out of the bullpen; that could be something [to consider].”
Before Fernandez’s death, the Marlins were resigned to the likelihood of him signing elsewhere as a free agent after 2018. They likely would have dealt him for quality young talent sometime before then.
Best case scenario: Spend the money on Nova (who has 52 strikeouts, three walks, and a 3.06 ERA in 11 starts for the Pirates), Hellickson or Hill, and then trade for a pitcher (perhaps with Hechavarria, who might leave anyway as a free agent after 2018).