It’s never fair. Tommy John, wrist, shoulder or knee surgery for any player, any athlete, isn’t fair, but Jose Fernandez’s elbow operation took air out of the game every fifth day, out of a franchise desperately needing to establish an identity, one that can hold the attention of one of the sport’s greatest young stars.
Any more that it seemed fair when the Rays lost Alex Cobb and Matt Moore, with Jeremy Hellickson already disabled, in a year in which on April Fool’s Day they seemingly were the consensus pick to win the American League East and reach 90 wins for the sixth time in seven seasons. A year that takes David Price within a calendar year of free agency, a year in which a franchise that has been run as well as any needs to bring fans across to its island and not have to search for some place that cares, be it Montreal or Indianapolis.
The oft-asked question “can baseball succeed in Florida?” has to be answered, sometime. The Marlins have the best home record in the game, they had legitimate draws in Giancarlo Stanton and Fernandez, a glitzy new ballpark, yet when the news broke that Fernandez needed Tommy John Surgery they were 25th in attendance; the only year they have been higher than 25th in the last five seasons was 2012, when they opened the park and spent the winter shopping at Neiman-Marcus and were 18th with 27,400 a game.
Last season, of course, they’d pawned their purchases—actually making very sage trades—and dropped back to 29th at 19,007, better only than, yes, the Rays. In the previous six seasons, Tampa Bay fans had a pennant, legitimate stars like Evan Longoria, an astute baseball business model with one of sport’s most creative managers (Joe Maddon) and in the five seasons leading into 2014 finished better than 28th in attendance only once, 22nd in 2010.
So, now what?
The week didn’t start well, when Ben Zobrist hurt his thumb sliding headfirst into a base, and worsened Thursday when Grant Balfour inherited a ninth inning, 5-2 lead and promptly walked the first two hitters. In the end, Brad Boxberger gave up a three run bomb to Mike Trout, the Rays lost 6-5, fell to 4 ½ games behind the Orioles and sunk to the third worst run differential in the league after Houston and Texas. But Andrew Friedman isn’t going to give up. Cobb is throwing a minor league game Saturday. He expects Hellickson back in mid-to-late June, and Maddon thinks Hellickson’s operation will allow him to throw better than he did at any time last year.
Then look around the East. The only team with a positive run differential is Toronto, which is grasping for starting pitching. The Orioles have Matt Wieters disabled and are going with a closer-for-the-day routine after essentially releasing Jim Johnson. The Red Sox are offensively challenged. The Yankees have all kinds of physical and aging issues, although they have fought through most everything.
So, unless they fall 10-12 games out by the All-Star Break, the Rays are going to hold onto David Price and try to stay in the race. Privately, they consider Cobb the leader of the pitching staff, and if the other A.L. East teams continue to struggle with pitching injuries, they figure maybe they’ll get noticed. And if they’re still averaging 19,107 in September, then it may be time to look at Montreal or New Haven, San Antonio or Indianapolis. Or merge with the Marlins and play in Yeehaw Junction, because for the first time in years, the farm system is running dry; they had three first rounders in 2010 and ten of the first 60 picks in 2011 and, to be honest, have very little to show for them.
The Marlins, on the other hand, have an organization loaded with pitching. Anthony DeSclafani stepped in for Fernandez and pitched very well against the Dodgers in his debut. He could be very good. So could lefthander Andrew Heaney, who will likely be in the rotation in the second half. And Justin Nicolino. And on and on.
Dan Jennings did a masterful job finding veterans to help their young players. Christian Yelich is going to be very good, so is Jake Marisnick and Colin Moran, and bringing in Reed Johnson and Casey McGehee and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have helped those kids. Adeiny Hechavarria has made huge strides as a prize defensive shortstop, led and influenced by Rafael Furcal.
But with the air let out by the Fernandez injury, one wonders how the crowds will be in August and September, and if they are sparse, will Giancarlo Stanton grow weary (and wary), reject any extension attempt and force their hand to trade him two years away from free agency. At the age of 24, Stanton is second in the National League in WAR, first in homers, first in ceiling and first in the hearts of the banker in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Chicago. If the Marlins do trade Stanton and have to wait most of next year for Fernandez’s return, they could have a hard time averaging 20,000 a night.
So what happens between May 16 and the end of the season is extremely important to the future of baseball in the state of Florida, a state whose baseball kingdom may be too big for two Tommy John Surgeries, even spread between two cities.