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Heaney joining Marlins a matter of when, not if

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MIAMI -- A year ago, right-hander Jose Fernandez beat the odds. He made the leap from Class A to the big leagues look easy, and went on to become the fourth National League Rookie of the Year Award winner in Marlins history.

What Fernandez was able to accomplish at such a young age and with so little professional experience was truly remarkable. The Marlins rolled the dice, and the decision paid off.

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Could management find itself in a similar situation with another young pitcher this Spring Training?

Andrew Heaney is a highly touted lefty poised to make his case once pitchers and catchers begin Spring Training on Feb. 16 at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.

"Who knows? I think it's a long shot. But if he left Spring Training making the Major League club, it wouldn't surprise me," vice president of player development Marty Scott said. "If he's not, I'm not going to be disappointed, either."

Ranked by MLB.com as the top lefty prospect -- and 29th overall -- in the game, Heaney is a lean 22-year-old who was simply dominant in 2013 for Class A Jupiter and Double-A Jacksonville, and in the Arizona Fall League.

A star at Oklahoma State and the ninth overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, Heaney has become a known commodity. In that regard, he isn't a true "sleeper" to make the club, it's just a matter of when he will make his Major League debut.

Heaney also is part of an organization that isn't reluctant to take the training wheels off its pitching prospects. Dontrelle Willis was called up at age 21 in 2003. Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez were 22 when they made their MLB debuts. Fernandez was a baby-faced 20-year-old when he reached "The Show" last April. He turned 21 in the middle of the season. So there is plenty of past history weighing in Heaney's favor as he looks to make things interesting in Spring Training.

Still, every case is different, and every player moves at his own pace.

Conventional wisdom is that Heaney will start the season in Double-A and move up to Triple-A New Orleans at some point. The earliest he would arrive in the big leagues is June.

"Let nature take its course," Scott said. "If he makes strides in 2014 like he did last year, I think minimum, he would be a September callup."

So many things factor into the equation.

With Fernandez, the timing was right, but it took shoulder ailments to Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez to give him his big league break.

The 14th overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, Fernandez actually reached the big leagues before the top pick of his class. The top choice that year was Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole, a right-hander who made his first Major League start last June 11.

Health also is a concern. Heaney missed all of Spring Training a year ago because of a strained lat. One reason he played in the Arizona Fall League was to gain more innings.

Heaney is listed as 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, and the organization will be monitoring his durability -- and innings -- at whichever level he is playing.

Ultimately, performance will decide that.

If Heaney repeats his performance of a year ago, he will give management plenty to consider. At Jupiter and Jacksonville, he combined for a 9-3 record, 1.60 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. Heaney continued to impress in the Arizona Fall League, posting a 1.95 ERA in 27 2/3 innings.

Though the numbers show Heaney is close to being big league ready, he won't be alone in camp. The immense depth of starting pitchers is the strength of the organization, and Miami has enough options that the club doesn't have to rush anyone.

Fernandez, Eovaldi and Alvarez are rotation locks. Jacob Turner and Tom Koehler are strong choices to round out the starting five. Also expected to be in the mix are Kevin Slowey, Brad Hand and Brian Flynn, all of whom have big league experience.

Heaney also will have competition from another 22-year-old, Justin Nicolino, ranked as the No. 7 lefty prospect by MLB.com.

"I think Heaney and Nicolino are similar in the fact they concentrate more on location more than they do on being a true pure power pitcher," Scott said. "They don't try to just throw it by people."

The Marlins would like to have a lefty or two in their rotation at some point. Heaney could be that fixture. It's a matter of when.

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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