Marlins righty Jose Fernandez is one of our top prospects in the minors, but he isn't there anymore. This weekend, Miami put the 20-year-old in their rotation with his highest previous experience being 55 innings in High Class-A in 2012. Fernandez also may not be able to pitch the length of a big league season with only 145 innings under his belt in 2012 and his spot in the rotation coming after Nate Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez were put on the DL. That said, it's common for such pitchers to be shut down late in the season to limit their innings and Fernandez could be so good early to force his way into the rotation.
While some analysts feel it's too early to start Fernandez's service clock with what may be a last-place team, scouts know he's so advanced he'll be able to hold his own right away. Fernandez is amazingly advanced for his age and his powerful personal story as a Cuban immigrant may increase interest in a club whose attendance in a new stadium is waning as they'ce stripped the team.
Fernandez's debut is set for April 7th against the Mets in New York. I saw him twice last season in High-A and have a report and video below. The first game shown in the video is the second outing, where he improved his delivery, command and consistency a good bit in the two week interim.
I'll be grading Fernandez's ability using the 20-80 scouting scale, where 50 is major league average, 55 is above average and 45 is below average. 60 is called plus and qualifies as a swing-and-miss pitch in the big leagues and 80 is truly elite. Only a few 80 offspeed pitches exist in the big leagues, while 80 fastballs are common with relievers but very rare with starters, meaning the pitch sits in the mid 90's or more. The "/" separates present and future grades, key in evaluating prospects' tools.
The lack of projected growth that's customary for pitching prospects is due to Fernandez's lack of physical projection. There's also an eventual move every power starter makes as they age: gearing down the fastball for movement and command, along with pitchers tending to naturally lose velocity as they age. Fernandez regularly hit 98 and sat 93-97 in my two looks, but he was efforting and throwing a pretty straight fastball with average command. Fernandez doesn't have a ton of plane or life on his fastball and that could cause problems early in the big leagues. He may never be the type to throw a well-commanded sinker and pitching to contact, but there is a happy medium that can be struck, particularly when troubles come early in his rookie year.
Fernandez's curveball isn't the traditional 12-to-6 hammer many prospects throw, but it was the most impressive breaking pitch I've seen in the minor leagues in a while. The velocity will range from 79-85 and the tilt will vary around three-quarters but his feel for the pitch is incredible. Fernandez can throw the pitch for a strike to any part of the zone to any kind of hitter in any count. The pitch has cross-plate, late bite with depth and power. He often throws a 55 or 60 breaking ball, flashing a 65, but his command of the pitch is above average now, when compared to current big league starters.
Fernandez didn't throw many of these in my two looks at him and in the first game, his delivery made it almost impossible to get the proper action on the pitch. It was better in the second game at 85-87 mph but his changeups in warmups were most instructive, showing that when he was gearing down his delivery, he could throw an above average change of pace with sink, fade and deception. If he replicates this condition in games exactly, it will tip the pitch, another reason why gearing down his approach just a notch could really benefit him in the short and long term.
Fernandez has a maxed-out 6'2, 240-pound fame that he'll need to monitor, but that alone shouldn't cause him any problems. His compact stockiness is a positive to holding up under a big league workload and keeping his body in sync throughout his delivery, both common problems young starters have in the big leagues.
Fernandez has a clean arm action and feel for his delivery. His delivery isn't perfect but he knows what to do to make it work for him right now as he fine-tunes it. He does have some risk to his delivery, at times in 2012 cutting himself off with an indirect angle to the plate that created some recoil in his finish. I include video from both outings since the early part of the video (the later start chronologically) shows adjustments he made to his delivery in the few weeks in between these starts. Fernandez started taking a more direct angle to the plate, had less effort in his delivery and thus had more command, especially late in the game when he tired.
There are still some issues to monitor, as Fernandez is a young power arm that at times will try to throw the ball through the catcher, so the finesse and command necessary to consistently get big league hitters out may come and go this season. His arm can be late and drag at times, causing command and injury issues, but that also was addressed in between my two viewings, so it should become less of an issue over time. The potential is here for above average command but I think it may take a couple years before Fernandez can consistently get there. Fernandez's aggressiveness, intensity and ability to make adjustments to his delivery and his approach are rare abilities in a pitcher this young and are no doubt reasons the Marlins felt comfortable bringing him up at this point in his career.
Fernandez's powerful personal story as a Cuban immigrant should play well in Miami while his electric stuff and preternatural feel should make him a delight to watch for baseball fans nationally, regardless of his early performance. For comparison's sake, Fernandez isn't Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg has better plane and the best raw stuff in the big leagues, with three pitches 70 or better and many scouts give him multiple 80's.
One reason Fernandez may be so advanced is that, due to his Cuban upbringing, teams can't investigate his age. Many believe he may be a few years older. At this point, that doesn't change anything other than moving up his timetable to reach his ceiling.
There's a chance we're looking at a #1 starter here and Fernandez could reach his frontline ceiling as soon as next season. That combined with the city and his heritage could launch something as special as Fernando-mania. Not bad for the 14th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
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