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Marlins set for spring training with Jose on their minds


It's back to Jupiter and back to baseball for the Miami Marlins this week, and there's a question more vital to players than when or if the team might be sold.

How does this group successfully move on from '16 without the energy, the talent and the unmatched clubhouse presence of No. 16?

Jose Fernandez, the magnetic Marlins pitcher who wore that uniform, was killed along with two other men in a Sept. 25 boating accident off Miami Beach. That left Miami with six games to play in the regular season, emotionally spent and charged with working out the first waves of grief and shock in the spotlight of their high-profile profession.

Dee Gordon hit a leadoff home run for Miami, his only long ball of the season, in the first game back after Jose's death. That was part of a home victory over the New York Mets that turned into a tribute to Fernandez's fighting spirit.

What really was needed, however, was time to process it all. The offseason served that purpose, at least in part, as explained by Marlins' all-time home run leader Giancarlo Stanton during a spring-training kickoff media session in Miami.

"Everyone is asking if this was the hardest offseason, but actually it was one of the most refreshing and peaceful," Stanton said. "If all you guys could imagine one of your best friends dying and then every move from the moment you wake up is on camera and every reaction is what you see on TV, what do you feel?

"You don't get a chance to mourn. Even at the funeral, there were cameras everywhere. I understand that's what has to happen, but for us it was very peaceful to get away from that and start the healing process."

The Marlins will wear a uniform patch on their left chest this season with the number 16.

"For someone like him, I don't think there's any way to overdo it," Marlins closer A.J. Ramos said.

"As soon as I got in the locker room this offseason, I went by his locker and said 'What's up, Nino?' Every time I go by I say hello, like he's still there. Still in the house.

"It's a little bit of motivation to play like he did. He played like he was in Little League. That's something we take for granted. Now, of course, there's a business part of it and you have to uphold that, but at the same time, it's a game. That's the way he played. He went out and had as much fun as possible. We can learn from that. When you're more loose and playing the game how it is supposed to be played, you're able to perform with more success."

Ramos is an example of Marlins who already are playing very well but want more than another third-place finish in the NL East. He saved a career-high 40 games last season, fourth-best in the National League.

Manager Don Mattingly will have to find new strategies in getting to Ramos, however. Miami added three new candidates for the starting rotation over the offseason -- Dan Straily, Edinson Volquez and Jeff Locke. They combined to win 33 games last season with their previous teams but none is an obvious ace. The bullpen will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and that may start in the fourth or fifth inning on many nights.

Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa, both added from the Boston Red Sox, join an already deep group that should be capable of building that bridge. Ziegler, a submarine pitcher, is 37.

File that under the age of not worrying or talking so much about age with the Marlins any more.

Sure, Jose was amazing, twice an All-Star before his 24th birthday, but the average age of the team's regular starting lineup is 27.5.

"I'm excited," said Gordon, who is 28 and eager to return to his All-Star ways after ruining last season with an 80-game suspension for use of performance-enhancing drugs.

"Guys are older now. Guys aren't 23 or 24. They're coming into the prime of their careers, so a lot of us really know ourselves now. We're going to be all right."

Mattingly, 79-82 in his first Marlins season, can be counted upon to make the most of what he's got. Miami needs to take the next step. It's been eight years since the franchise last had a winning record, and 14 since the last playoff appearance.

It's the same old mission, in other words, but with a new chemistry. No more counting on Fernandez, 16-8 last year, to get the regular season started on a strong note, or to bring an instant spark to Tuesday's opening workout for pitchers and catchers.

"That's another step we'll take," Stanton said. "We know his smile won't be there. The energy he brings won't be there. It's another thing we'll have to go through together."

They'll do it with Jose always on their minds, and his number stitched into the fabric right above their hearts.


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