It’s hardly the situation the Miami Marlins pictured entering the 2014 season.
And yet that has been the case since May when last year’s National League Cy Young finalist underwent Tommy John surgery.
Despite his absence, the Marlins have managed to not only match their 2013 win total but also remain in the thick of the postseason chase. With 38 games remaining in the season, Miami sits 3.5 games back in the NL wild-card race with four teams ahead in the standings.
”I think it was a big blow for us when he got hurt, no doubt,” manager Mike Redmond reflected. ”I think it took a few days for that to sink in and for us to realize he’s not going to be around. We knew that was going to be a big blow to our pitching staff and ballclub. Then it becomes once that settles in — How can we get guys to step up and fill that role? Who’s going to step up and fill that role? That’s been an adventure all year.”
No one knows better than president of baseball operations Michael Hill, whose job has been to navigate the club’s course of action since that fateful start in San Diego. Fernandez had thrown up before his outing, then felt discomfort during his five innings.
At the time, neither Hill nor the rest of the organization could imagine that Fernandez would miss the rest of the season. Not when he had been injury-free, was just 21 years old and showcased a mechanically sound delivery.
All of that aside, Hill needed to manage the emotions of the circumstance and formulate a plan. Look no further than Miami’s recent string of opponents for a hard lesson in the cruelty of baseball and the need for adjustments.
All-Stars Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto are not in the Cincinnati Reds lineup. The Arizona Diamondbacks lost 2013 NL MVP finalist Paul Goldschmidt. The Colorado Rockies no longer have early MVP favorite Troy Tulowitzki’s and All-Star Carlos Gonzalez’s services.
”I just think in this game guys get hurt,” Redmond said. ”No matter who it is, after a few days you just move on because there’s nothing you can do about it. The games don’t stop. There are 162 games and then the playoffs and they don’t stop if your best player or pitcher gets hurt.
”Lot of different teams have lots of guys hurt. Nobody sits here and says, ‘Feel sorry for them because they lost their best player.’ You just keep moving on and try to fill that void and hole. That’s hard, but that’s the way you’ve got to approach it. You can’t worry about, ‘Just think where we’d be if we had this guy.’ You can talk about it but at the end of the day you’ve got what you’ve got. You always have to adjust.”
SETTING THE PLAN IN MOTION
How quickly did the wheels turn in Hill’s head? What were his initial moves on the chessboard, the calls made around the league?
Although Miami believed in its pitching depth, it was still young. The biggest challenge was refraining from bringing guys up. Hill wanted players to have time to develop rather rush to the big leagues.
So Miami signed veteran southpaw Randy Wolf, who was trying to return from a second Tommy John surgery. He last pitched in the majors in 2012. With 14 big-league seasons of experience, he could mentor the young rotation and eat up innings.
In late May, the market can be tricky because clubs aren’t yet certain how their season will unfold. Starting pitchers are both expensive and hard to come by. The demand, naturally, is high.
”You’re at the mercy of the market and what’s available at the market,” Hill said. ”You really had to be creative with how you fill those holes. As you can see we made a number of transactions in May and June. That’s trying to do our part to help this team. Red and our coaching staff and players know we’re never going to stop working the phones to help this team. That’s the goal to always try and improve the roster no matter what time of year it is and if we have an opportunity we’re going to jump at it. It happens at the end of May — you know you’re going to have to keep trying for something and you hope you catch lightning in a bottle and the piece you acquire will step up.
”If not you don’t stop trying because for every day that piece is not performing you’re giving extra time to that prospect. Ultimately that’s what we tried to do. We tried to do the best we could with that spot in the rotation. There’s been good days, not so good days. It’s just something in this position you know is part of the job.”
On the same day Wolf signed with the club and arrived in Los Angeles for the west coast swing, rookie Anthony DeSclafani had been called up to start at Dodger Stadium. He would win his debut. But after struggling in his next outing, Wolf took the spot in the rotation.
Over four starts, Wolf went 1-3 with a 6.10 ERA. He failed to finish off the sixth inning in three of the four outings.
At 35-33, the Marlins couldn’t afford wasting anymore time. Rather than letting things escalate, Hill realized the sense of urgency and made the tough decision.
Unable to go deep into games, the Marlins designated Wolf for assignment. The Marlins also freed up another 40-man spot by letting go of long reliever Kevin Slowey. In turn, they brought DeSclafani back and welcomed top prospect Andrew Heaney.
”For as good as a person (Wolf) is and the veteran influence, it just wasn’t good enough for what we were looking at,” Hill said. ”We tried it just so we could bid a little more time for Heaney and Disco and it got to a point where the Sloweys and Wolfs just weren’t giving us the opportunities we needed to win ballgames. In the midst of Jose’s injury you still had a great team that was coming together and was showing so much fight and will to succeed. It was a continual battle.
”Then we made the change and we brought Heaney and Disco, and I think we knew we were rushing them but we were hopeful that somebody would step up and seize the opportunity. Around the same time, Brad Hand had gotten hurt. We couldn’t go that direction. It was just a continual juggling of your inventory, all the while seeing if there was an opportunity to acquire what you needed outside the organization because we were approaching the trade deadline.”
When Fernandez got hurt, the club briefly mourned the loss before moving on. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and his staff got together to discuss how the injury affected them.
”After a couple of days in LA we just had a little talk, the starters and I,” Hernandez said. ”It has nothing to do with your life, so just keep doing what you’re doing.”
All-Star Henderson Alvarez answered the call and became the de facto ace. The club won his next 10 starts, solidifying his spot at the Midsummer Classic. After missing two outings with right shoulder inflammation, Alvarez returned to the mound and tossed seven innings of one-run ball on Saturday. He is 9-5 with a 2.43 ERA, fourth in the NL.
Right-hander Tom Koehler has lived up to his reputation as a bulldog with 15 quality starts out of 25. His 9-9 record and 3.82 ERA show consistency from the fifth starter in the rotation out of spring training. With some tweaking of his delivery, righty Nathan Eovaldi has regained his velocity. Although he has won just once since June 28, he has gone at least six innings in seven of nine games.
The bullpen, a weakness during the first two months of the season, has been lights out with the addition of righty Bryan Morris, the renewed health of A.J. Ramos, lefty Mike Dunn’s reliability and closer Steve Cishek’s calm demeanor. Its 3.36 ERA ranks sixth in the NL and its 24 wins second.
”It’s one of those things where you can’t replace Jose and everybody knows that,” Koehler said. ”What he brings every day is something special. He’s a special talent but at the same time that doesn’t mean anybody else has to go out and do something different ’cause he’s only going to pitch once every five days.
”To say I have to pitch differently because he’s not here — that’s unfair to me, that’s unfair to everybody. If I go out there or any of our starters, just being the best version of yourself you can be. If you go out there and give everything you’ve got every fifth day just go out there and compete and give your team a chance to win the ballgame. It’s not about replacing guys it’s about being the best version you can be and helping the team to win.”
STATING A CASE
Winning nine of 10 leading up to the trade deadline altered the club’s philosophy. Previously on the fence about what direction to take, the Marlins became buyers for the first time in years.
Two games below .500 and six back in the NL East, Miami dealt top prospects Colin Moran and Jake Marisnick for righty Jarred Cosart and utility player Kiké Hernandez.
Why did Hill think it was worth sending out the future for the outside chance of winning now? What had the team shown to warrant such a stance from the front office?
”It’s probably the best clubhouse I’ve been around in my 12 years with the Marlins,” Hill said. ”You can just see it’s a selfless group of individuals. They support one another, they play for one another, they fight for one another. When you see that you know there’s something special going on and there’s a great bond. You want to do your part because that was our challenge in spring training was to be the best team. We don’t know if we have the most talent, but we wanted to be the best team.”
A league-high 13 pitchers have started a game for the Marlins. The rotation has a 4.06 ERA, third-worst in the NL. If Hill were told these statistics in May, would he be surprised the club was in the thick of the hunt on Aug. 18?
In short: no.
”We have so many quality gamers in that clubhouse from Casey McGehee to Jeff Baker to Salty to Garrett Jones. As long as you didn’t tell me something was wrong with Stanton — because we knew this team was going to be better with a healthy Giancarlo Stanton. He’s got big broad shoulders and he can carry you a long way when he’s healthy.”
A DIFFERENT MINDSET
This mentality developed over the offseason — fresh off 100 losses — when the Marlins filled areas of need at catcher, first base and third.
Saltalamacchia, Jones and McGehee have been to the postseason. They had also become dispensable to their previous clubs. As a result, the trio had seen the highs and lows of playing in the big leagues. That experience of adversity allowed the guys to adjust to losing an ace.
Since reporting to camp in Jupiter, Fla., the Marlins have developed into a tight-knit group with a blend of veteran and young players. Backup catcher Jeff Mathis passes around a ”BOSS” hat to the game’s top player. Marcell Ozuna runs through a handshake with each of his teammates and coaches.
Lighter moments have taken away some of the stress of a postseason chase.
”You’ve got a group of real high-character guys,” Koehler said. ”Even when we were struggling early on on the road there was never a loss of fight or feeling we were out of the game. Everybody was playing hard. I think everybody in here has faith that no matter who is in a certain role they can come up and they can do the job. They did a really good job this offseason of bringing in guys who have won, know what it takes to win and have enough leadership qualities to get other guys to feel that. When you mix that together special things happen.
”We still have a lot of work to do, but as long as everybody does what they’re capable of and not do too much — play hard and give everything you’ve got. At the end of the day that’s all you can ask for.”
Miami has proven time and again its resiliency, a trait it needed even before Fernandez went down. Second baseman Rafael Furcal strained his hamstring during spring training and landed on the disabled list. Set to undergo surgery this Wednesday, he played in just nine games this season. In his place, seven guys have manned second.
Even with Stanton’s MVP-caliber season, it has been the effort from the entire roster keeping it relevant. Saltalamacchia credits the belief that each player on the club can contribute. In the last week alone Marcell Ozuna recorded a walk-off hit and infielder Donovan Solano knocked a two-run homer off 2013 Cy Young finalist Adam Wainwright.
The Marlins are likely to snap a stretch of three straight seasons in the NL East cellar. Should they keep at this pace, they might finish above .500 for the first time since 2009.
Could Miami reach the postseason for the first time in 11 years without Fernandez? How much more potential could this season have had with him on the mound?
Although he doesn’t toe the rubber every fifth day, Fernandez’s absence — perhaps more his presence — is still felt.
His jersey hangs from his locker in the clubhouse. He shags in the outfield during batting practice, playfully tossing the ball in with his left hand. Fernandez visited the FOX Sports Florida telecast this past week.
It’s certainly easy to wonder, ”What if?”
”I don’t really try to look at the ‘what ifs’ because that’s when you get off focus,” Saltalamacchia said. ”I want to focus on what we have to do now. That’s something that happened, it’s over. (Rafael Furcal) got hurt, ‘It’s over. We’re going to fill the spot.’ It doesn’t mean I don’t miss those guys and we don’t need them. It just is what it is. We have to focus on the task right now and that’s going out there and winning.”