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Viva El Birdos Cardinals 2018 Prospect Rankings: #22 Junior Fernandez

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He’s 20 and he’s got a live arm.

2017 St. Louis Cardinals Photo Day

Editor’s Note: A.E. Schafer aka the red baron has once again compiled a rather impressive list of Cardinals prospects doing a write-up on 40 individual prospects. As a convenience to our readers, he releases the list in a couple big chunks so everyone can read about all of the prospects at once. While that is a convenience to all of us who eagerly await the arrival of prospect lists, it might not be as convenient if you are looking for a player’s particular scouting report. So, as a further convenience, we are putting the individual scouting reports in separate posts to make individual players easier to find. You can find the full lists on our 2018 prospect page here. —CE

#22: Junior Fernandez, RHP

6’1”, 180 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 2 March 1997; Signed 2014 (Dominican Republic)

Level(s) in 2017: Palm Beach (High A)

Notable Numbers: 90.1 IP, 3.69 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 15.1% K, 10% BB

So, what’s so great about this guy?

A year ago at this time, Junior Fernandez and Sandy Alcantara were in very similar positions within the Cardinal system. Both had tremendous raw stuff, both had struggled to harness said stuff, and both were seen as big upside plays for a system sorely lacking in high-ceiling talent. Alcantara was a year older than Fernandez, and pitching roughly half a level ahead of the younger man. Which pitcher one preferred was a matter of taste priorities. I preferred Fernandez by a hair, as I liked his delivery better, and believed Fernandez’s changeup was the best offspeed pitch either one could boast. Given relatively similar velocity, that one plus-plus offspeed pitch was largely a deciding factor for me.

Well, we know what happened with Alcantara. He moved up to Double A Springfield, pitched fairly well, not dominating but showing steady improvement, and was tapped to skip over Memphis entirely for a spot in the major league bullpen. He struck out a ton of hitters in the big leagues, and walked a ton of hitters in the big leagues. Even with shaky control, though, the steps forward Alcantara had taken over the course of the season were easy to see in St. Louis. His command of both his offspeed pitches was surprisingly good, and while the fastball still mostly went wherever it wanted, the movement and velocity was drool-inducing.

And then we have Fernandez.

Junior Fernandez...did not have a good season in 2017. He had finished the 2016 season in Palm Beach at just 19 years old, and returned there to begin the year. From the beginning, his stuff never really looked as dynamic as it had the previous season. He was solid early on, but even then was struggling to miss bats. As the season wore on, his velocity became less predictable, and he ultimately ended the season on the DL with a sore arm. (Biceps is what I’ve heard.) All in all, a campaign Fernandez would just as soon forget, I would imagine.

The injury is certainly concerning, but even more worrisome is the continuing lack of swings and misses in Fernandez’s profile, which is difficult to square with a repertoire of the sort he possesses. At his best, he’ll work at 95-97 with his fastball and pair it with a changeup that will flash plus-plus potential at times, though he’s prone to mistakes over the middle of the plate with the change, rather than missing out of the zone. No pitcher with high-90s heat and a 65+ offspeed pitch should strike out as few hitters as Fernandez, but that’s where we are with him. The fastball has some armside run, but comes in on a fairly flat plane, and for whatever reason just seems easy to time up. The changeup has great deception and movement at its best, but Fernandez is more control than command at this point, and the changeup just isn’t always located where he wants it. He throws a slider as well, but it’s a definite third pitch, and not much more than a show offering as of yet.

It’s important to remember Fernandez won’t turn 21 until March, and could easily pitch all of 2018 at Double A. Even so, it’s hard to classify his ‘17 season as anything but a disappointment, and the combination of injury and limited repertoire could push him to relief work sooner than later. It would seem a shame to move a pitcher this young, with this intriguing a repertoire, to the bullpen already, but the simplified world of relieving could be just what the doctor ordered for Fernandez.

If he’s good, it will look like: The right-handed power changeup artist is a somewhat unusual demographic, but there are pitchers who fit the ball all the same. Given Fernandez’s 34 arm slot, upper-90s velocity, and the sheer filth of his change when it’s really working for him, a profile like that of Fernando Rodney doesn’t seem to be all that far-fetched if he were to move to relief. Regardless of his role, job one is to simply prove he’s healthy in 2018 and that his velocity is back up where it was previously, rather than down in the low-90s as it was around the time he was shut down with the arm injury.