March 31, 2013
The situation: On Sunday morning, we all woke to the news that 20-year-old Jose Fernandez would be starting the season at the major-league level. With only 11 Advanced A-ball starts under his belt, most assumed Fernandez would be slated for a full dose of Double-A in 2013, with a potential call-up late in the season if things progressed as planned. The opportunity for aggressive promotion arose because of injuries to pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, as they will start the season on the shelf and the Marlins needed an arm capable of stepping up into the major-league rotation.
Background: After several failed attempts, Fernandez was finally able to escape Cuba in 2008 and set up residency in the United States in 2009. After blowing up on the showcase circuit, Fernandez was selected 14th overall in the 2011 draft by the Marlins and signed for a $2M bonus. Despite only two brief starts at the short-season level, Fernandez began his first full season in the Sally League, where the 19-year-old absolutely shoved it, making 14 starts and striking out 99 in only 79 innings, while allowing only 51 hits. Over the summer, he was promoted to the Florida State league, where he continued his dominance, logging 11 more starts and maintaining his strong peripherals against older competition. During the all-star weekend, Fernandez was selected to pitch in the Futures Game, where the big righty stood out as one of the top arms on either roster. Coming into the 2013 season, Fernandez was ranked number one in the Marlins farm system, and number six overall in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus.
Scouting Report: Fernandez is a fearless competitor on the mound, which helps push his already plus arsenal to even greater heights. It all starts with Fernandez’s fastball, which can sit comfortably in the plus-plus velocity range with explosive life. It’s a punishing pitch, and the table-setter for a highly projectable secondary arsenal with multiple bat-missing offerings. His curveball is a hard breaker with serious depth, and it projects to play at the plus-plus level when it finds consistency. The slider is a nice complementary pitch to the curveball, as it offers a two-plane break with even more velocity, keeping hitters off-balance and unable to adjust to the plane. The changeup is behind the other offerings at present, but it has a chance to be another above-average offering with more refinement; it’s a feel pitch that improves with repetition, but he can already turn it over and achieve good action. The command component is there, as Fernandez can repeat his delivery and stay in a good pitching rhythm. The body is physically mature and very strong, but it could be considered high-maintenance going forward because of the thick lower half at such a young age.
Immediate Big-League Future: Not all 20-years-old are created equal, and reaching the big leagues at such a young age has just as much to do with emotional maturity as it does the physical skill-set. The narrative has been written, but it bears repeating: Fernandez has already faced many challenges in life, and standing on the mound facing major-league hitters pales in comparison to the realities of his past. The details of his escape attempts and subsequent successful landing in Mexico make a very compelling story, but the root of the record is what separates Fernandez from the average minor-league arm. This is about makeup and composure, the ability to face adversity and failure without folding. The verbal reports and written accounts on Fernandez’s mental fortitude are as glowing as I’ve ever heard, and it speaks to his ability to handle such an aggressive jump from the Florida State League to the majors. Fernandez has the physical maturity and the arsenal to keep his head above water and log innings at the highest level, but his mental and emotional approach to the game (and life in general) is what will allow him to fail and respond to failure like a seasoned vet, not a 20-year-old kid who is overwhelmed by the environment. If I had to pick one lower-level arm with the makeup to handle such an aggressive promotion, it would be Fernandez, and I say that without hesitation. He’s going to struggle at times, but he’s not going to fold. —Jason Parks
Fantasy Outlook: The fact that Fernandez was not even remotely talked about as a fantasy option heading into this year should tell you all you need to know about how much of a surprise this move is. In fact, he wasn't even drafted as a reserve in the Tout Wars NL-only league. Over the last 25 years, there have only been two pitchers to throw 100 innings in a season at the age of 20 with no experience above A-ball: Rick Porcello and Jeremy Bonderman. Both were top-25 prospects at the time. So even though Fernandez is a very, very exciting prospect, expectations should be tempered for fantasy, especially considering that the Marlins could be a very bad team. The best that you can hope for in this case is a single-digit win total, an ERA just under 4.00, a WHIP around 1.25, and 130 strikeouts (if he gets his full 150-170-inning fill). Despite his front-line stuff and his huge makeup, there's just not a great track record of pitchers making a meaningful impact in their age-20 seasons.
If you're in a keeper or dynasty league, Fernandez becomes a must add. As far as redrafts, in mixed leagues with fewer than 16 teams, he becomes a guy to monitor—and in anything deeper than that, he becomes a good flier. In NL-only leagues, I'd reach into the high single-digits for FAAB bidding. —Bret Sayre
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProfessorParks