photo: Junior Fernandez (Frank Ramirez/The Cardinal Nation)
The Cardinal Nation’s top 50 prospect countdown moves into the top 10 with a hard-throwing right-hander whose career took off like a rocket in 2019. What will 2020 bring for Junior Fernandez? FREE article.
|2019 rank||Pos.||DOB||Ht.||Wt.||Bat||Thw||Signed||Round||R5/Opt||MLB debut|
|36||RHR||3 02 97||6-3||205||R||R||2014||IFA||3||2019|
Link to Junior Fernandez’ player page at The Cardinal Nation, with additional biography and history information.
Selected 2019 stats
TCN Scouting Grade: 5, Risk: low (click here to review scales)
Staff comments (individual rankings in parentheses)
Message board community (12): Healthy in 2019, Fernandez showed what he can do without the injury setbacks of the prior two seasons. The Message Board community selected him at #12 after his #38 finish last season.
Voters took varying approaches, including several placements high on the list. Forsch31 explained his #3 selection. “This will be a somewhat surprising placement considering he is a reliever. However, I think he is perfectly suited to be a closer and he has excelled in the position this year. I believe he should open the 2020 season as the major league closer for the Cardinals.”
Grenadier1 and stlcard25 agreed, with the latter posting, “He finally got things rolling and he could be a back end of the bullpen guy with his electric fastball and change with a developing cutter/slider.”
As one assumes from the results, more of the community do not consider Fernandez a top 10 prospect. CariocaCardinal said, “Not criticizing the votes of others but extremely surprised by the early support for Fernandez. Mostly because he seems that he will be relegated to relief and our prospect rankings (as most others) have seldom given such high rankings to relievers – even potential lock down closers. Do those voting for Fernandez anticipate him being the closer next year?”
NigelT wrote, “With his injury history, I can’t see him in the top 15”.
bicyclemike said, “I am not a prospect list-maker, as I do not follow these guys close enough to know. But I love reading the bios on here and learning about the guys coming through the system. (Fernandez) has a big-time arm and great stuff. The ideal relief pitcher prospect. He has the look of a future closer.”
ChristopherJeske might have said it best. “He’s not a typical relief prospect.” – John Baker
Derek Shore (11): Fernandez has certainly gone through his trials and tribulations over his professional career with the Cardinals.
He’s had health issues. Inconsistencies. Troubles throwing strikes. A role change.
But in 2019, it all clicked.
Finally healthy, Fernandez spent this past offseason and spring training working on finding a rhythm within his mechanics, so he could command the strike zone more consistently.
And he did.
The 22-year-old was a breakout prospect this year. He started at High-A Palm Beach and was promoted to Springfield on May 1. The Dominican spent only a month and a half with the Double-A club before another promotion – to Triple-A Memphis – from where he pitched his way to St. Louis.
What clicked for Fernandez this season may be that he was able to “pitch backward.” He had advanced as far as he could with premium velocity, but command escaped him and too often when he didn’t use one of his best pitches, a changeup.
He started working off the changeup, found the strike zone and let the fastball follow instead of lead.
“It really paid off,” Fernandez said. “I started missing bats. Less walks.”
Springfield manager Joe Kruzel was impressed with Fernandez, who found a rhythm in a multi-inning role in his time with the S-Cards.
“He has a really good plan of how he goes about it,” Kruzel said. “He has been really good at not letting the hitters be comfortable up there. He has three quality pitches that he throws at any time. He can run it up there pretty good. He also has had better control of his fastball. His slider and changeup have been the difference makers for him, throwing those two pitches for strikes.
“He is getting them for called strikes and swing-and-miss strikes. I hope whatever he found he keeps it.”
From a scouting perspective, most evaluators like Fernandez as a back-end type in the bullpen. His heater sits 96-98 mph and reaches 99 mph. Scouts say it is very straight, but he can create sink with it at times.
He combines that high-powered fastball with a changeup that flashes plus. He can throw it early and late in counts for strikes. Fernandez also has a short slider that has received mixed reviews from scouts.
One said it’s an average pitch on its best days and another said it has a chance to be an above-average offering depending on the consistency of his command.
His ceiling is a set-up man if everything comes together.
Expect to see Fernandez open 2020 in the bullpen for St. Louis, where he should make a name for himself.
Brian Walton (7): It is clearly my vote that propelled Fernandez into our overall 2020 top 10. It seems fitting recognition for the right-hander’s amazing comeback season. In fact, it is one of the most eye-catching years by any prospect in my years of ranking Cardinals.
In just eight calendar months, Fernandez progressed from a sore-armed high-A relief pitcher passed over in the Rule 5 draft to making his Major League debut, promoted three times in the process. He was recognized as the organization’s Pitcher of the Month for May and after the season concluded, The Cardinal Nation selected him as our system-wide Relief Pitcher of the Year for 2019.
Yet, in December 2018, Fernandez had been available for the taking in the Rule 5 draft, and the other 29 organizations all passed on him. Now, in fairness to them, Fernandez had been stuck at Palm Beach for the better part of three years, actually having debuted there in 2015, when he was a hotshot prospect starter.
The prior winter, when Fernandez was just 18 years of age, he had debuted at no. 18 on our top prospect list. Back then, he was listed at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. It was the first of three consecutive years he placed in the top 20.
A year ago, Fernandez skidded to no. 36, with my vote still most optimistic at no. 32. I had not given up on his big-league potential even after he was moved to relief and filled out to his current 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.
Beyond the shoulder injuries and related career stall, another reason he was not appealing in the 2018 Rule 5 was that his 16-game Double-A debut in 2018 did not go well.
Specifically, in his relatively new role coming out of the bullpen, he walked almost as many as he struck out (16 to 17 in just 21 innings). His 5.14 ERA was the result of wildly inconsistent results – either shutting down the opposition or giving up a crooked number, with almost nothing in between. That certainly did not scream out, “Major League-ready.”
In another reminder of his prior struggles, Fernandez was not invited to 2019 big-league spring training camp. While he moved quickly once the season got underway, one could observe that he was making up for lost time. This winter, there was no Rule 5 decision, as he was added to the 40-man roster and made his St. Louis debut in August.
One scout to whom I spoke considers Fernandez the system’s second-best pitching prospect after 2019 draftee Zack Thompson, noting Fernandez’ “live arm” is his difference-maker. As it came to pass, my personal rankings agree. Of the five pitchers I placed in my personal top 10, Fernandez came in just ahead of Genesis Cabrera, Angel Rondon and Jake Woodford.
Even so, I do not share the optimism of others that Fernandez could snare the 2020 closer job for St. Louis just based on spring training. After all, he was left off the 2019 playoff roster, suggesting the coaches must believe more work is required. Fellow rookies Cabrera and Ryan Helsley had passed him by, at least temporarily.
My guess is that a Bud Norris-like veteran signing or Carlos Martinez will initially lead the way out of the 2020 pen. Also ahead of Fernandez in the on-paper closer pecking order are 2019 standouts Giovanny Gallegos, John Gant and Andrew Miller, not to mention the open questions of how Helsley and Cabrera will be deployed come April.
In other words, the Cardinals have a lot of bullpen options, so it would not upset me in the least if Fernandez was Memphis’ closer on Opening Day. In a way, he is like a pitching Dylan Carlson – very limited Triple-A experience (just 24 1/3 innings for Junior) and likely he would benefit from a bit more seasoning.
While the Redbirds should have a loaded bullpen in 2020, Fernandez is the only one on my projected season-opening roster who is already on the 40-man. As a result, even if he goes down to Memphis, Fernandez could be first in line to rejoin the Cardinals – if he is pitching well when others falter or are injured.
For the second consecutive year, I have Fernandez’ scouting grade as “5” – an impact reliever. However, for 2020, I have improved his grade from “medium” to “low”, meaning he is close to being ready to stay in the bigs.
Our 2020 top 50 series continues
To see the entire list of top Cardinals prospects and remaining article schedule, click here. This includes the top 50 countdown and 11 in-depth, follow-up articles coming up at the rate of one article per day into January.
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