The Miami Marlins know that 2015 will begin without ace Jose Fernandez but they do not know who will be in his place.
There are options outside and inside the organization and it will ultimately be one of the biggest questions during Spring Training. Miami could seek to sign a free agent starting pitcher for the top of the rotation. A name like James Shields could even be looked at but his price may end up being too high.
Replacing Fernandez is easier said than done as the Marlins learned in 2014 when they lost the 22-year old in May due to Tommy John surgery. The Marlins signed veterans such as Randy Wolf and promoted prospects like Anthony DeSclafani. In the end though, Miami struggled to find a consistent arm that could give it a chance to win every five days.
Even without their ace, the Marlins stayed in contention until mid-September. It's possible that with Fernandez in the mix, the Marlins may still be playing ball. The scenario will be a bit flip-flopped in 2015, where the goal will be to stay hovering around contention long enough that Fernandez can put the team over the top in the second half.
Until his return which could take place around the All-Star break, the Marlins will be tested with a young rotation. Barring injuries or trades, Jarred Cosart, Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi are all locks to be in the rotation to begin the year. After a great first full season, Tom Koehler should find himself there as well. This means that fifth spot could come down to names like DeSclafani, Andrew Heaney and maybe even Justin Nicolino.
Heaney is the most prized prospect in the system for the Marlins but he had difficulty in his first tour of the big leagues. Heaney is still young and very talented and will surely be given every opportunity to make the team in February. If he can have a solid time in Jupiter, it may even be his rotation spot to lose. Heaney gives the Marlins something they lack, a left-handed option in the rotation. That is a situation that has plagued the Marlins, and it takes going back to Dontrelle Willis to find the last consistent lefty starter for the franchise.
If Heaney can't get the spot or more than one spot ends up open, DeSclafani will likely get a good extended look as well. Even though the prospect struggled in 2014, he still showed some promise. Beyond talent, DeSclafani showed poise on the mound and did not appear intimidated by the big league level. He had a solid year in AAA with New Orleans and could also be a middle-relief option for Miami.
Nicolino is an intriguing name to keep an eye on and was also the Minor-League Pitcher of the Year for the Marlins this past year. His strikeout numbers do not open eyes but his ability to get outs and consistently keep runs off the board do. Nicolino who was acquired with DeSclafani back in 2012 from Toronto is likely going to be in AAA to begin 2015. It's possible though he could break camp with Miami if he excels in Jupiter and outplays his competition.
Whoever lands the job as the fifth starter in Miami for the first half of the year will be doing more than just keeping Fernandez's seat warm on the bench. It'll be their productivity that decides how impactful Fernandez's return ultimately is. If the Marlins can stay within striking distance the first three months, adding Fernandez could be similar to making a blockbuster trade in July.
Manager Mike Redmond and his staff will be faced with a lot of questions and decisions this February and March. One of the biggest will be naming the fifth starter and it could end up being a name that nobody is even considering at this time.