TCN 2021 St. Louis Cardinals Prospect #15 – Junior Fernandez

photo: Junior Fernandez (Frank Ramirez/The Cardinal Nation)

Junior Fernandez

Position: RHP
Born: 3/2/1997 (23)
Height: 6’3”
Weight: 205
Hits / Throws: R/R
Acquired: IFA – 2014 (Dominican Republic)
Rule 5 Eligible: On 40-Man

Click on the above photo to be taken to his player page at The Cardinal Nation, with additional biography and history information.

Link to Fernandez’ career stats

2021 individual rankings – Brian Walton #15, Matt Thompson #14

Prior top 50 rankings – 2015 not ranked, 2016 #18, 2017 #11, 2018 #17, 2019 #36, 2020 #10

Matt Thompson’s scouting report

Physical Description: Long legged with broad shoulders and small waist. Projectable body but durable build. Has frame to support additional muscle. Could even add some velo?

Mechanics: Pitches exclusively from the stretch. Comes set at the belt before long, equal/opposite arm action. Will vary his cadence as well as the leg kick and temp of his delivery to mess with hitters.

Fastball: Wouldn’t surprise me if there’s something going on health wise, as we saw a notable decrease in fastball velocity from 2019 with Fernandez. I know they switched to a new method for tracking velo, but were looking at a near three MPH drop from 96.8 to 94.1 average velocity. It’s a loud pitch though. He works it to all four quadrants of the zone. Commands the pitch well. Plus pitch assuming health. Grade: 60

Junior Fernandez (Frank Ramirez/The Cardinal Nation)

Changeup: Could be best secondary for any prospect-eligible arm in the system. True weapon. Will use against any hitter in any count. Has some arm side run as well as fade. Looks like fastball until just before the point of contact. Grade: 60.

Slider: Will use against right-handers. True two plane depth. Will catch too much of the plate at times. Doesn’t command pitch as well as others in his arsenal. Grade: 45.

Control/Command: High effort delivery and long arm action can make it difficult to throw strikes with ease, and that’s likely part of the issue here. Fernandez’ control and command is the only roadblock (besides health) to him working the late innings for the Cardinals. 45 Control 40 Command

Overall: Fernandez has battled a ton of injuries so far in his career and it wasn’t a surprise to see the Cardinals push him to the big leagues in 2019. He’s been used sparingly, but he’s proven he can miss bats but unfortunately has shown the poor command/control as well. Earning a manager’s trust can be tough when you come out of the bullpen and walk guys.

Future Value: 45
Role: High Leverage Relief
Risk: High

Brian Walton’s environmental impact report

2019 recap

Simply put, 2019 was an amazing comeback season for the then-22-year-old. In fact, it was one of the most eye-catching campaigns 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. In fairness to them, due to injuries, Fernandez’ career appeared stalled. He 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.

Junior Fernandez (Frank Ramirez/The Cardinal Nation)

While he moved quickly once the 2019 season got underway, one could observe that he was making up for lost time. Across High-A, Double-A and Triple-A, he threw 65 innings in 45 appearances, logging a 1.52 ERA. Fernandez struck out 80 and held opposing batters to a collective .185 average, but also issued 30 free passes.

That winter, there was no Rule 5 protection decision to be made, as he had already been added to the 40-man roster before making his St. Louis debut in August.

In his initial 13 games with the Cardinals, his ERA was 5.40. Fernandez registered a strong .205 batting average against, but two of those hits left the park and he walked six in 11 2/3 innings. His 16 punchouts were eye-catching, though.

2020 recap – Assignments

  • January instructional camp – no
  • St. Louis’ spring training camp – yes
  • St. Louis Summer Camp – yes
  • Springfield alternate camp – yes
  • St. Louis – yes

Due to his injuries and recoveries, Fernandez’ first St. Louis spring training invitation did not occur until 2020, after he was already on the 40-man roster – and had already made his MLB debut. That is a very unusual set of circumstances.

Though he remained in St. Louis’ spring training camp after its close date of March 12, Fernandez was one of a group of four players optioned to the minor leagues on March 26.

In six spring contests totaling five innings, Fernandez yielded two runs on four hits and three walks for a 3.60 ERA. He struck out eight batters while holding opposing batters to a collective .167 batting average.

Coming out of summer camp, Fernandez made the expanded and delayed Opening Day roster. However, he was among the initial group to test positive for COVID and was placed on the injured list on August 4. At that point, he had only thrown one scoreless inning.

On the 20th, Fernandez was cleared to begin ramping up at the Cardinals alternate site in Springfield and one week later, he was activated by St. Louis. The next day, on the 28th, he was brought in to pitch with the Cardinals already down 8-2 to Cleveland. He was bombed, charged with six runs in one inning, including two walks, two doubles and a home run, and was optioned back out the following day.

Fernandez did not receive another shot with St. Louis again for three weeks, finally recalled on September 16. He tossed a scoreless inning the next day, but was optioned out again on the 22nd, not to return in 2020. Overall, Fernandez made just three regular season appearances with that six-run outing fresh off the COVID IL tanking his numbers.

He was an alternate for the post-season, but remained inactive.

2021 outlook

2020 was not a good year for so many, and Fernandez is among the many significantly impacted. Hopefully, he is fully recovered from the after-effects of the virus and can start fresh in the spring. Based on where he is in his career, I think the lost year did not hurt Fernandez as much as some others.

As his rankings indicate over the years, we have recognized Fernandez’ potential with his first top 20 selection six years ago. He finally cracked the very bottom of the top 10 one year ago on the heels of his standout 2019, but lost his momentum in 2020.

Matt’s and my individual 2021 rankings suggest we are in general agreement about Fernandez, but there is a difference under the covers. He slots Fernandez six and seven spots ahead of fellow relievers Kodi Whitley and Seth Elledge, respectively, while I have moved Whitley two spots above Fernandez and four ahead of Elledge.

My thinking has evolved as I believe Whitley has better positioned himself to contribute in the short-term with Fernandez still carrying both substantial risk and considerable upside.

Junior Fernandez (Springfield Cardinals FANatic Photos)

I had already mentioned this in the Whitley article, but the point that follows is even more applicable for Fernandez. After not making the 2020 playoff roster, and as the team looks currently, the Cardinals seemed well-stocked with MLB-ready pitchers.

As such, there does not seem to be room for Fernandez to open 2021 with St. Louis. With Miles Mikolas, Jordan Hicks, John Gant and Carlos Martinez all slated to rejoin the active roster, relievers with options like Fernandez may need to open next season in Memphis and stand ready as big-league reinforcements when needed.

Even if he starts 2021 back in the Pacific Coast League, Fernandez will surely get another chance soon enough. And frankly, more reps honing his skills in Triple-A would not be wasted effort.

Future outlook

Matt put it very well. Fernandez has tons of talent, but major questions still remain, going on two calendar years into his MLB career. It seems rare that a player who has already reached the top still carries a “high” risk, but that is an accurate assessment, in my opinion.

How concerned should we be about the drop in velocity? The strike-throwing inconsistency? His checkered injury history?

The good news for the Cardinals is that they have ample time to continue to work with Fernandez and try to fully unlock that tremendous potential. Because of his long period of no movement due to injury, followed by rapid ascent in 2019, Fernandez still has two minor league option years remaining and two more years of MLB service time to accrue before the Cardinals are faced with any tough decisions regarding his future.

By then, it is likely hoped he will answer the above questions and solidify his permanent spot in the St. Louis bullpen, perhaps as a key seventh- or eighth-inning option.

MLB debut: 2019

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