MIAMI — The Marlins failed to reach the playoffs with star pitcher Jose Fernandez. Getting there without him in 2017 and beyond becomes significantly more challenging.
The Marlins have a tall task ahead of them this offseason, when they try to upgrade a roster that is now missing not just their best pitcher but one of the best in the majors. Fernandez, who starred at Alonso High, was killed in a boating accident in Miami on Sept. 25.
"Obviously, everything changed when we got that phone call about Jose," Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said. "We know we have a challenge ahead of us."
Even if the Marlins had the money to splurge on one, there is no pitcher of Fernandez's caliber — or even close to it — in what is an underwhelming free agent market.
They could try to trade for one. But with the lack of top prospects in their minor-league system, the Marlins would almost certainly be outbid by teams that have more to give for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
All that puts the Marlins in a major bind as they look for ways to improve on a 79-82 team that failed to reach the postseason for the 13th year in a row.
"I think the fairest answer is we'll have to look at everything," Hill said. "We know it's not going to be easy. We know what the marketplace is free agent-wise, and we'll have a better feel for what the trade market is (in the coming months)."
At their season-ending news conference Wednesday, the Marlins all but conceded that the task is one without immediate answers and provided few clues on how the front office will go about finding them.
"It's impossible to sit here and wrap up the season and not talk about Jose and not talk about the reality of what it means, both on and off the field," Marlins president David Samson said.
The Marlins believe that Wei-Yin Chen, Adam Conley and Tom Koehler give them three dependable fixtures in their rotation. They could also put David Phelps in the starting mix. But the rotation would still lack a true No. 1 hurler.
What is certain is that the Marlins have no intention of tearing up the roster and starting over from scratch with another unpopular rebuild.
The signing of third baseman Martin Prado to a three-year contract extension was announced Wednesday. Prado was eligible for free agency but will instead remain under contract through 2019 for $40 million.
As expected, the Marlins also announced that the team will exercise its option and retain Ichiro Suzuki for the 2017 season. They added a team option for 2018.
"What we got from (Suzuki) this year as an extra outfielder, any team in baseball would like that," manager Don Mattingly said.
The Marlins are happy with their core players: Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Dee Gordon, Justin Bour and J.T. Realmuto. But Hill did not rule out the possibility of trading one or more of them if that's what it takes to answer their pitching needs.
"We do like the core position players that we have in place," Hill said.
Samson said the payroll would increase but did not indicate to what extent.
"We're looking at budgets right now, so there's no specific number now," Samson said.
The Marlins still believe they can contend.
"There's no replacing Jose," Samson said. "It's a matter of figuring out how to get more wins out of the team."