MIAMI (AP) — For the Miami Marlins, the magical phrase that marks the beginning of baseball is tinged with sadness this season.
Pitchers and catchers report Tuesday, but not all of them. The absence of charismatic ace Jose Fernandez will cast a shadow over the sun-splashed fields of spring training.
“We spent a lot of time this offseason trying to measure the size of that long and dark shadow,” team president David Samson said.
Camp will also open amid uncertainty about the future of the franchise. Owner Jeffrey Loria has a preliminary agreement to sell the team to a New York businessman, but the deal could fall through because the final purchase price hasn’t been determined, a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations said.
It has been 4 months since Fernandez and two companions died in a boat crash. His teammates mourned publicly with heart-wrenching grace during a funereal final week of games in 2016.
Now, in baseball’s season of rebirth and renewal, the tragedy leaves a lump in the throat yet again. The Marlins are still wrestling with how best to honor Fernandez going forward, Samson said.
“We never really had a chance to finish grieving together as a group,” he said. “We want to be sensitive to the loss, but also recognize the show goes on. Walking that fine line is what we’re talking about right now, and the difficulty of that. We’ll never forget Jose, but we’ll have games to play. We have a good team, and we want to take the next step.”
The next step would be the playoff appearance Fernandez so craved and never achieved. Perhaps the best tribute to him would be to end the franchise’s 13-season postseason drought, longest in the National League.
The Marlins believe they can do it, which is why the perennially frugal franchise increased its payroll during the offseason.
Some things to know before camp opens Tuesday:
Replacing Fernandez will be team effort that will include several newcomers. The Marlins added starters Dan Straily and Edinson Volquez, relievers Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa, and left-hander Jeff Locke, who can start or relieve. A deeper bullpen anchored by All-Star closer A.J. Ramos will give second-year manager Don Mattingly lots of flexibility. The everyday lineup returns intact, but gone are infielder Chris Johnson, catcher Jeff Mathis, both reserves, and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn. They were part of a team that faded late to finish 79-82 last year, the Marlins’ seventh consecutive losing season.
For the first time, Samson addressed toxicology reports indicating Fernandez had cocaine and alcohol in his system when his boat crashed. It’s not clear whether he was driving, and the investigation is ongoing. “Jose’s legacy as a man and as a player cannot and will not be tarnished by any report,” Samson said. “Are there lessons to be learned? Things we can do better as an organization to communicate better with the players? Maybe. … The lesson we can take with us is his passion on the field, and controlling the passion off the field.”
The lineup will again be anchored by $325 million slugger Giancarlo Stanton. Also back is 43-year-old reserve outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who will build on his career total of 3,030 hits. To keep the group together, Loria approved a payroll increase by one-third to about $100 million. “It has to do with windows,” Samson said. “Every team has a window, and windows open and close. We think our window is still open even though we went through that tragedy and lost our ace. … We think we’re on the improving side, so we wanted to add instead of subtract.”
The bullpen should ease the workload on a rotation that is expected to include Straily, Volquez, Wei-Yin Chen, Tom Koehler and Adam Conley. The group comes with plenty of question marks and little backup, and there’s no obvious No. 1 starter.
There was offseason talk that for the first time, Loria, 76, is open to selling the team he has owned since 2002. “It’s like owning a house — you don’t want to move,” Samson said. “But you run a business. If someone comes along, you listen. That’s just how it goes.”