By now you've surely heard the surprising news of the Miami Marlins' top prospect, pitcher Jose Fernandez, and his promotion to the big league roster following the injuries to pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez. It's a move that has left many around the baseball world scratching their heads but let's face it, head-scratching personnel decisions are nothing new to Miami fans, especially over the last year or so.
From all indications, the promotion of the 20-year-old Fernandez is not one made for the short-term, at least according to the front office. They insist that not only do they plan to give Fernandez a spot in the rotation during the recoveries of Eovaldi and Alvarez, but they plan to make him a permanent member of the rotation for this season.
Before we get into why the move is confusing and what kind of numbers we may be able to expect from Fernandez this season, let's first review his history and the kind of tremendous talent he brings to the table.
Even at just 20 years of age, Fernandez is an imposing figure on the mound. Listed at 6'2", 240 lbs., Fernandez combines great stuff and an undeniable swagger on the mound that has made him an absolutely dominating force up to this point in his professional career. Last season marked his first full professional season and it’s safe to say that he made the most of it. Fernandez compiled a 14-2 record and a 2.02 ERA across two stints with Greensboro and Jupiter. He struck out a whopping 158 batters in just 134 innings. Fernandez also threw one scoreless inning in the Futures Game in Kansas City, striking out Mike Olt of the Rangers and Michael Choice of the A's.
In terms of stuff, Fernandez certainly has what it takes to succeed against big league hitters. His power fastball can run up to 99 in addition to a good curveball that will be a good out pitch for him at the major league level. Fernandez's changeup is still a work in progress but apparently from the organization's perspective, the best way to develop a good major league changeup is trial by fire at the major league level.
Now let's get to the main issues concerning Fernandez's promotion. First off, as supremely confident and impressive as his stuff is, we can't forget that he still has yet to throw a pitch in a meaningful game above High-A. Until this week, Fernandez was expected to spend the entire season in Double-A Greensboro. The organization says that Fernandez will be under the same 150 to 170 inning limit that they planned to impose on him in the minor leagues, but 150 to 170 innings in Miami compared to Greensboro are an entirely different animal. Pitches thrown in the big leagues are obviously a great deal more stressful than those thrown in the minor leagues and the danger for a pitcher as young and highly-touted as Fernandez is overthrowing and risking injury.
Secondly, on a team that isn't expected to contend this season, Fernandez isn't likely to get all that much help from his teammates. What happens when Fernandez struggles? What happens when he has a bad start? Or a couple in a row? It's obviously not an exact science, but Fernandez's confidence and swagger on the mound certainly play a part of what has made him successful up to this point in his career. You don't want someone with that much talent second-guessing themselves every step of the way and moving further and further from their natural instincts. Therein lies the risk with promoting a 20-year-old prospect who has faced little to no adversity from opponents in his professional career.
Finally, there are the contractual and monetary issues. Had the Marlins waited until at least April 12 to call up Fernandez, they would have delayed his eligibility for free agency by one year. Had he stayed down for even a couple of months, it would have delayed his arbitration eligibility. It may be a "duh" statement at this point, but it seems that the Marlins are an organization that has seemingly no financial direction whatsoever. In the span of a year and a half, they've doled out huge contracts, gotten rid of said contracts, and now appear to be promoting their most prized prospect at a time that will cost them financially sooner than it has to, or should. Had Fernandez been in the position to legitimately help the club content for a pennant this season, perhaps the move would make sense. In that case, the risk of early free agency and arbitration could very well have been worth the reward. But for a team that is at the very least two years away from seriously being considered contenders, the decision is puzzling.
Now that we've gotten through all that, let's talk about what we may be able to expect from Jose Fernandez this season. Assuming he stays healthy and on the big league roster for the full season, one should expect him to get anywhere from 25 to 30 starts based on his innings limit, possible skipped starts, etc. I expect Fernandez to post an ERA anywhere from 3.50 to 4.00 and rack out anywhere from 125 to 150 strikeouts for the season*. Hell, there's a chance Fernandez will get his share of NL Rookie of the Year votes when all is said and done. If all goes perfectly, we may not be focusing as much as the curious decision to promote Fernandez as we are on his play on the field. Along with the daily beastness of one Giancarlo Stanton, the story of Jose Fernandez will be fun to watch and undoubtedly the most intriguing storyline to follow for Fish fans.
*Editor's note: For the record, Steamer projects a 3.79 ERA / 3.59 FIP, and Oliver projects a 3.42 ERA / 3.04 FIP, so Conor's projections are right on line with the computer systems. -MJ
The promotion of Jose Fernandez is a puzzling one to say the least and the simple fact is that there is a lot more that can go wrong than can go right in this kind of scenario. The 2013 Marlins are a team that likely won't be even on the brink of contention in the near future, and throwing a prospect of Fernandez's caliber into the fray has the potential to severely stunt his development. For the sake of Marlins fans everywhere, however, let's just hope that the decision winds up looking like a stroke of mad genius and not pure madness like it may appear on the surface.