Sunday was a busy day for the Miami Marlins.
Seemingly out of nowhere, two of the team’s starting pitchers, Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, were both placed on the disabled list with respective shoulder injuries.
As a result of the roster moves, top prospect Jose Fernandez will now begin the 2013 season in the team’s starting rotation.
While many believed that the 20-year-old would reach the major leagues by the end of the year, nobody, and I mean nobody, expected the right-hander to arrive this early.
Despite having played only one full season in the minor leagues, and not a game above the High-A level, the Marlins decided to promote Fernandez over others with major league experience, such as Jacob Turner. Equally surprising is the organization’s plan to keep him around for the entire season. However, he’ll still be limited to 150-170 innings.
Recently ranked as Prospect Pipeline’s eighth-ranked prospect headed into the 2013 season, Fernandez has all the makings of a future ace.
In his full-season debut in 2012, the then-19-year-old emerged as one of the more dominant starting pitchers in the minor leagues. Opening the year at Low-A Greensboro, Fernandez registered a 1.59 ERA with 99/18 K/BB in 79 innings. His overwhelming success led to a midseason promotion to High-A Jupiter in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. Despite facing more advanced hitters, the hard-throwing right-hander continued to thrive, as he registered a 1.96 ERA with 59/17 K/BB over 55 innings.
Overall, Fernandez posted a staggering 1.75 ERA with 158/35 K/BB in 134 innings across both levels.
At 6’3”, 215 pounds, he’s already physically mature and built for eating innings. Meanwhile, Fernandez’s combination of pure stuff and pitchability have made him one of the more projectable pitching prospects in the game.
The right-hander’s fastball sits consistently in the 92-97 mph range, and he’ll run it up to 98-99 mph on occasion. Beyond the plus velocity, he throws the pitch on a downhill plane with late sink and run to the arm side, making it difficult for opposing hitters to barrel it with consistency. His success with establishing the pitch early in starts, not to mention his knack for spotting it at the knees throughout the strike zone, led to his very impressive 6.0 H/9 rate and two home runs allowed last season.
Fernandez’s secondary arsenal is highlighted by a power curveball with excellent depth and sharp bite. As he continues to improve his command of the pitch, there’s reason to believe that it will grade as a plus-plus offering at maturity. He also mixes in a plus slider that, like the curveball, is thrown with velocity.
However, unlike the curve, his slider features a more tilt and two-plane break, and nicely complements his two primary pitches.
Rounding out the 20-year-old’s mature arsenal is a changeup that noticeably lags behind his other offerings in terms of development. However, he’s still comfortable mixing the pitch with consistency, as he already possesses a feel for the release point and generates late fading action.
Yet, it’s Fernandez’s makeup and general fearlessness on the mound that has the Marlins convinced he will be able to not only make a swift adjustment in the major leagues, but also maintain his current rate of development. After several failed attempts, he finally was able to defect from Cuba as a teenager in 2009.
As Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus recently noted, “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.”
In recent memory, there have been several big-name starting pitchers that have made the jump to the major leagues following a short stay in the minors.
Selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft, Clayton Kershaw made his big league debut in 2008 at the ripe age of 20. However, the future Cy Young Award-winner still had more experience than Fernandez, logging 86 innings in Double-A prior to his promotion.
Madison Bumgarner also enjoyed a rapid ascent to the major leagues, receiving a highly anticipated promotion as a 20-year-old in 2010. Still, relative to Fernandez, the Giants southpaw had 107 innings at Double-A and 82.2 innings of Triple-A experience at the time of his call-up.
In terms of pitchers who have bypassed the high minors, as Fernandez is set to do, Rick Porcello is the first to come to mind. Selected by the Tigers in the first round of the 2007 draft, the right-hander spent the entire 2008 season in High-A, though his numbers were uninspiring compared to those of Fernandez. Porcello made the jump into the Tigers rotation in 2009, and turned in the best season of his young career with a 3.96 ERA in 170.2 innings spanning 31 starts.
Over the offseason, I actually compared Fernandez’s potential rise to the majors to that of Bumgarner’s in 2009-10. While they are very different in terms of pitcher type and arsenal, both players ooze confidence on the mound and exhibit emotional maturity that transcends their age and (lack of) experience. And for that reason, it’s not entirely surprising that the Marlins believe Fernandez can handle the nearly unprecedented jump from High-A to the major leagues.
While the right-hander will inevitably struggle at times over the course of the season, his arsenal and makeup give him a chance to make an immediate impact at the highest level.
Fans won’t have to wait long to get their first glimpse of Fernandez, as the hard-throwing 20-year-old is set to make his first major league start (and major league debut, obviously) on Sunday against the New York Mets at Citi Field.
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