The Cuban right-hander, who at the age of 21 has become one of MLB's best pitchers, had an MRI in Los Angeles on Monday that revealed a strain in his throwing elbow. The injury is believed to be serious enough that Fernandez will undergo season-ending elbow surgery, according to a report from Juan C. Rodriguez of the Sun Sentinel that was later confirmed by ESPN.
That Fernandez is set to be the latest MLB pitcher to go under the knife is an ominous development for a Miami team that has been one of baseball's biggest surprises so far in 2014.
Sure, with their subpar expectations and lack of experience, the Marlins might not be built to last in the NL East anyhow. Yet consider that Miami holds the division's best run differential at +15 and has had one of the NL's most potent offenses behind strong hitting from veterans Giancarlo Stanton and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and youngsters Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna.
Fernandez, meanwhile, was the unquestioned ace of a young staff that, much like the Marlins themselves, has been exceeding expectations this season. With the Nationals struggling through a bevy of injuries and the Braves unable to break away from the rest of NL East just yet, Miami looked a decent bet to hang around well into the summer.
Now the Marlins' outlook is far less rosy, as their young rotation will have to carry the load without the staff's leader, something they will be hard-pressed to manage even if the likes of Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez have impressed up until now.
Alvarez is a solid, dependable option, but is more of a mid-rotation starter than a pitcher who can carry his team into playoff contention. Meanwhile, the Marlins have to expect regression from Tom Koehler, whose lack of a prospect track record or prior major league success makes his 1.99 ERA unlikely to hold up. The same can be said for Eovaldi's 2.86 ERA, although he has shown the type of stuff and ability that could make him a formidable pair with Fernandez at the top of Miami's rotation in the years ahead.
The biggest problem, however, is that none of these pitchers are Fernandez, and even if they continue pitching well, the Marlins have no way of replacing their young ace's production. The club's best prospect, left-hander Andrew Heaney, is quite polished for a 22-year-old arm and should come up to provide Miami with some rotation help later this summer. Expecting Heaney, who still hasn't pitched above Double-A, or anyone else to replace Fernandez is unrealistic, of course.
As such, Fernandez's injury, especially if it is long term, leaves Miami in an uncertain place. The Marlins will surely have a harder time capitalizing on the goodwill from their surprise start, and their outlook for 2015, when Fernandez could still be rehabbing, has only grown more muddled. The trade winds are already starting to swirl around Giancarlo Stanton, and that's with the team in relative contention. No Fernandez or Stanton is a grim thought, even if Miami's young talent is starting to show results at the major league level.
Most of all, Fernandez's injury is a reminder that the Marlins' efforts to rebuild after stripping the roster bare last winter are not guaranteed to succeed. Despite being easy to criticize, they have done a good job of adding young talent to the big league roster and have more hyped prospects on the way. Whether that talent leads to major league success (even after Miami has earned two World Series titles through similar rebuilds) is far more uncertain.
The potential for injury, for stalled development and unexpected setbacks are always there. The Marlins, despite being famed for prospect development, are as vulnerable to this harsh reality as anyone else. With Fernandez now out for the unforeseeable future, that fact has only grown more apparent.