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Transaction Analysis 8/22: Cards option Fernandez, recall Leone

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals announced this afternoon that they have optioned RHP Junior Fernandez to AAA Memphis prior to tonight’s game with the Colorado Rockies and have recalled RHP Dominic Leone from the same club.

I wrote about the meteoric rise of Fernandez through the minor leagues here when the Cards added him to the 40-man roster to take the place of Adalberto Mejia. In 5 games and 5 IP, Fernandez faced 23 batters, gave up 4 hits, walked 3 and struck out 7. He was charged with 2 earned runs in his major league debut against the Pirates on August 11th (the Lane Thomas grand slam game) when Tyler Webb gave up a base hit with runners on 2nd and 3rd, runners which Fernandez had put on base.

Last night in the rain-shortened game against the Brewers, Fernandez’s control was way off, as he walked 2 batters in 2 innings, hit another man, and of the 41 pitches he threw, only 19 were for strikes. He also committed a throwing error when he threw the ball away on an attempted pickoff play at first base. Fernandez especially had a hard time getting his changeup over, the pitch that he has been using to set up his other pitches. He does deserve credit, however, for getting himself out of a self-created bases loaded jam in the bottom of the 6th, when he struck out Ryan Braun on a nasty 3-2 slider. Surprisingly coming back out for the next inning, he retired the Brewers in order on 11 pitches with a strikeout.

Despite Fernandez’s control problems last night, this is likely not so much of a demotion as it is getting a fresh arm for the Cards’ bullpen. By going down to Memphis today, he will be eligible to be recalled on September 1st, the day that rosters expand, and it’s likely that we’ll either see him then or on September 3rd, the day after Memphis’s season ends.

Dominic Leone was a candidate for the spot Fernandez ended up taking back on August 6th. Leone got rocked in a few different stints with the Cardinals this year, leaving fastballs over the middle of the plate, and it seemed like the opposition capitalized on every mistake. His walk rate had been the highest it had been in years in the major leagues, but his main problem was the long ball, with 7 HR allowed in just 29 IP. He might have been a bit unlucky with a preposterous 21.2% HR/FB rate, but even so, more hits than innings pitched is not what any club has in mind for one of its bullpen members.

His strikeout percentage of 27.2% always did play very well, and he has increased that percentage in Memphis in his 23 games and 31.2 IP total this year to 32.3%. His 10.8% BB% is almost identical to his walk rate in 28 games with the Cards, but he has cut down on the hits allowed and the home runs. It’s unclear if he has been a totally different pitcher, as his BABIP allowed drops from .315 to .246 when you compare his numbers with the Cardinals and Memphis, respectively, but in his last 2 appearances combined over 2.2 IP, he faced 10 batters, walked none and struck out 6. Since he was optioned to Memphis on July 21st, he has been outstanding in 10 games, striking out 23 out of 47 batters in 12.1 IP with only 2 walks, and only 1 ER allowed on a homer.

The only other healthy pitchers on the Cards’ 40-man roster are Genesis Cabrera and Daniel Ponce de Leon. Not only do the Cards’ seem to prefer to keep both stretched out as starters, but Leone will be available to pitch in relief tonight, as his last appearance was on August 20th for 1.2 IP. Even if Shildt doesn’t use Leone tonight, he will theoretically be available tonight. Cabrera and Ponce de Leon had 6-inning starter outings on August 19th and August 20th, respectively, so neither would be realistically available for long relief for another day or two at least. Both pitchers will probably have 2 more starts for Memphis before their season ends, and there’s a strong chance we will see both young hurlers up with the big club when rosters expand.

Leone is in an interesting position right now. He has impressed at times when his cutter has been strong, but at other times he has looked poor out on the mound, unable to handle even low-leverage situations. Most of last season was lost to injury. Leone was a Super Two before the 2018 season, and he will be one of only two arbitration cases the Cardinals will have to grapple with in the off-season. Now that he has burned his last option year, he has the rest of this season to convince the Cardinals he should not be a non-tender candidate.

BULLPEN AVAILABLE FOR TONIGHT

Brebbia (R), Gallegos (R), Gant (R), Helsley (R), Leone (R), C. Martinez (R), Miller (L), Webb (L)