If there is a fragile nature to Miami Marlins’ hopes for the 2016 season, it is embodied quite literally in the health of the team’s two biggest stars.
One, Giancarlo Stanton, possesses a towering physique that drives baseballs over walls harder and faster than anybody else in the sport.
The other, Jose Fernandez, throws fastballs so hard they all but leave a vapor trail and make catcher’s mitts smoke.
They are two players who rely on pure power, and yet there is a porcelain quality to their bodies, like thoroughbreds pounding a racetrack on legs that seem too slender for all of that weight.
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Few teams in Major League Baseball are more top-loaded with two young players as dynamic as Stanton, 26, and Fernandez, 23. A Stanton at-bat might be the most must-see minute in all of sports as outfielders can only turn and watch what in pre-technology days we would call a tape-measure home run. A start by Fernandez is served with a side dish of bravado, of infectious, fist-pumping fire.
About both, though, there is the question mostly whispered, as if it were taboo.
Can they stay healthy?
It is not unfair. It trails both men like that cloud of dirt that follows Pig-Pen in the Peanuts comic strip. It is a cloud only a long-awaited full, injury-free year by both will begin to erase.
Ask Stanton if he is “injury prone,” the phrase any pro athlete hears like nails across a blackboard.
“Well, they are all injuries,” he said recently, owning that reputation. “We need to reverse that and not even have that as an idea.”
Stanton has averaged 46 missed games because of injuries during the past four seasons. Sore knee, abdominal strain, hamstring, shoulder issues. In 2014 came the fastball high and in that shattered his face — and very nearly his career. In ’15 it was a shattered left hand that caused him to miss better than the last half of the season.
The gruesome hit-by-pitch late in the ’14 season likely cost him an NL MVP award and could have cost him much more.
“Oh, man. My face felt like I had a grapefruit underneath, up in my mouth and my lip,” he recalled the nightmare on the Dan LeBatard Show With Stugotz. I was trying to get the chunks of teeth out of my skin, and let the stitching in the hole in my face heal. When I look back at what happened, I see sections. The release [from the pitcher’s hand], then the ball is halfway there, and then I’m on the floor. My ears are ringing. I see a pool of blood on the dirt.”
I asked if there was a moment when he feared for his career or thought his face might be permanently disfigured.
“Yes. When I was waiting to see if my orbital bone [surrounding the eye] was broken,” he said. “If that broke I’d heard horror stories that your face can cave in or you can lose your eye. After that I was a little worried how I’d be in the [batter’s] box, because I knew they’d be testing me. You build a mentality of, if I’m going to be successful, I cannot have that as a thought. You cannot have that lingering at all.”
The Marlins’ faith in his full recovery was mirrored in a record $325 million contact over 13 years — stunning, period, but absolutely flabbergasting coming from the penny-pinching Marlins.
But the disabled list beckoned yet again in ’15.
Now Stanton relishes the idea of an injury-free season. Again.
“If I’m out there [injury-free], I gotta say I can go 40-plus,” Stanton said, meaning home runs. “That’s what we need.”
It is what the Marlins need, if they are to be in the playoff chase and surprise critics who see them around .500.
It also is what Stanton needs, personally.
With Tommy John surgery at the centerpiece, Fernandez was limited to 51 innings pitched in 2014 and 64 in ’15. He now is fully healthy, but there are signs the team will take no chances and will baby his arm.
Fernandez has thrown more off-speed stuff this spring in a concerted effort to rely less on the fastball to reduce wear on his arm. He also will not be the Opening Day starter on April 5 (though clearly Miami’s ace), because that team somehow concluded that would equate to extra days off throughout the long season.
The team, along with hardball agent Scott Boras, seem to have agreed Fernandez will not be a workhorse-type starter, but 28 to 30 starts would be a reasonable number constituting a healthy year at least.
How important would it be to the Marlins if Fernandez started 20 more games in 2016 than he has averaged the past two years? Consider an extra six or seven wins could be the difference between .500 and playoff contention. Now consider Jose’s career record at home is a surreal 17-0 with a 1.40 ERA.
The Marlins’ mere two playoff appearances since inaugural year 1993 — though both resulted in World Series championships — are tied for the fewest of any of the 122 MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL teams since then, and each must happen if Miami is to end that drought:
▪ Don Mattingly proving he was a great managerial hire.
▪ Dee Gordon reprising his spectacular 2015.
▪ Christian Yelich’s full bloom into stardom.
▪ Barry Bonds taking advantage of his new life as hitting instructor.
▪ Ichiro’s rebound as a utilityman as he chases 3,000 hits.
▪ A comeback season from Marcell Ozuna.
▪ Justin Bour proving the power glimpses seen last year were no fluke.
▪ Reliable starting pitching beyond Fernandez and Wei-Yin Chen.
For the Marlins, though, the two “ifs” most essential to a successful season start with the same two men and one question:
Can the thoroughbreds stay on the track to the finish line?
Can Stanton and Fernandez stay healthy?
That is the power and porcelain of one team’s fragile hopes.