Name: Alfredo Fernandez
DOB: September 15, 1984
When the Padres signed the hard-throwing right-hander as a 17-year-old, three days past his birthday, they knew it would take some time for everything to come together. Now 22, things are looking up for the Venezuelan.
Fernandez spent his first two years in the system as a starter for Idaho Falls with mixed results after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2001.
The right-hander had a hard time staying in the strike zone but was moved up to the Northwest League and the Eugene Emeralds in 2004, where he also started – posting a 5.64 ERA over those four years.
It wasn't until 2005 that he migrated to a relief role and began to flourish. Still in the Northwest League for much of the season, Fernandez pitched in 36 games and posted a 2.43 ERA. He even saved seven games before getting hammered in seven of his next eight outings and being removed from the role.
The problems he had before moving to relief were mostly related to overthrowing and trying to hit 100 MPH with his fastball. He would hit 97 but sacrificed control as a result.
Over the last two years, Fernandez has cleaned up and grasped the concept that he does not have to dial it up every time he throws. The results have been obvious.
"Alfredo, and this was my first year with him, I was told as long as he keeps his elbow down and not up in his stretch he will be fine," 2006 Fort Wayne pitching coach Tom Bradley explained. "His control – he was in the zone and didn't walk too many hitters. He came in and was durable, pitching in a lot of ball games. I think he has a bright future."
The 2005 season was a banner year – while he was still in short-season ball, his walk totals dipped and he was no longer working from behind in the count, setting up hitters and getting results.
This year, he took his game to a new level.
With the Low-A Fort Wayne Wizards, the right-hander pitched in 52 games out of the pen in 2006, boasting a 2.89 ERA in 65.1 innings. His walks were limited, his pitches more refined and it came across in each of his outings.
In three separate months he held the opposition to a batting average less than .200.
The biggest differences – the once elusive first pitch strike, using his secondary pitches, and toning down his stuff to allow for better control. The result was consistency and a share of Co-MVP honors among Wizard pitchers, as voted on by the team.
First-pitch strikes have allowed Fernandez to setup the hitters and work in the enviable position ahead in the count. He doesn't have to be as fine and can focus on making his pitches work, tossing balls out of the zone when necessary.
Fernandez has always had an above-average fastball but would use it all the time, failing to throw his secondary pitches. Hitters could sit on it and wait for one to come over the middle of the plate to belt it. He has improved his slider tenfold since those days and it has become a go-to pitch that records outs, mostly to the opposite field as hitters swing late and top it to second or short.
"I think you see that with guys who start to harness their command," Padres' director of international scouting Randy Smith said of Fernandez' drop in velocity. "Their velocity might back down for a year as they learn to repeat those mechanics but hopefully as he becomes more and more comfortable that velocity jumps back up to the mid-90's range on a regular basis. I think everyone is pleased with his progress."
He had a tendency to overthrow his fastball as well. While he would gain an extra tick or two he would sacrifice control. This season, he focused on moving it in and out, keeping it in the 92-94 MPH range with the occasional 95 MPH heater sprinkled in.
As he becomes accustomed to continually throwing strikes, the 96-97 MPH heater could reappear but it is not necessary.
"He just has to command his fastball a little bit better down and stay on his slider," Bradley said. "He has the makings of a very good slider. He had a consistent year from start to finish and dint really have any games where he was wild, being erratic and walking guys. He was very consistent. He pitched very well. I think he will do well next year."
He is still learning how to put hitters away and a third offering that is softer would be ideal – since he has the hard blazer and nickel. His changeup is only used sporadically and perfecting it could make him a force.
"Alfredo had a real nice year and made a lot of progress in his control and his slider," 2006 Fort Wayne manager Randy Ready said.
"High ceiling, long-range type," Padres' minor league field coordinator Bill Bryk said. "He made a lot of progress in (Fort Wayne) with his breaking ball."
The one thing the Padres are afraid of is his mentality. Despite having closer-type stuff, Fernandez has struggled in that role and has performed better in less stressful situations – the bridge to the closer.
ETA: With a $500K investment in the righty, the Padres are glad they are finally beginning to see the returns. He will move up to Lake Elsinore and the California League this year with a challenge of keeping the ball down in the zone. If he can do that, Fernandez could be on the fast track, especially given his 40-man roster status and Rule 5 Draft eligibility.