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A Pair of Bullpen “Sleepers”

Kodi Whitley and Junior Fernandez could burst onto the scene in 2020

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The bullpen can see an astonishing amount of turnover from year to year. This is due to the nature of relief pitching. Relievers can be very volatile, going from dominant to pedestrian in just a single a single season sometimes. Take, for example, Blake Treinen who posted a 0.78 ERA and 1.82 FIP in 2018 before finished last season with a 4.91 ERA and 5.14 FIP. Another example is Edwin Diaz who tallied a 1.96 ERA and 1.61 FIP in 2018 before struggling to the tune of a 5.59 ERA and 4.51 FIP in 2019. There are very few relievers who can maintain their place among the MLB’s best bullpen pieces on a year-to-year basis. Due to this fickle nature, as well as injuries, AAA pitchers are often just one injury away from getting a shot in the bigs. With this in mind, there are a pair of young minor league relievers who could thrive with the Cardinals if they get their shot this season — Kodi Whitley and Junior Fernandez.

Most of the VEB community is familiar with Kodi Whitley. Despite being selected in just the 27th round of the 2017 MLB draft, Whitley has rapidly ascended the ranks of the organization. His highest ERA in a single season is 2.51 at the Cardinals A-affiliate in Peoria where he spent the entire season. However, he made his move last year as he began in A-Advanced Palm Beach and finished in AAA Memphis. The right-hander was very good in AA Springfield, compiling a 1.83 ERA and 3.17 FIP in just under 40 innings. Much of his success came from his ability to generate swings and misses and now hand out free passes as he posted a 10.53 K/9 and 2.97 BB/9 at the level. However, he was truly dominant at Memphis. He finished the year with a lower ERA (1.52) and FIP (2.02) despite the juiced ball environment of the Pacific Coast League. He also maintained his strikeout rate (10.27 K/9) while walking hitters at a low rate of just 1.52 BB/9.

However, since Ben Clemens already wrote a great article profiling the Whitley earlier in the offseason, I will highlight Junior Fernandez, a 22-year-old (23 in March) who made his MLB debut in 2019.

Fernandez has the profile of a power arm with a fastball that averages near 97 mph and tops out over 99 mph. However, he is not just a fastball pitcher. He also a throws a slider 26.6% of the time and a changeup 31.7% of the time. As his career progresses it is possible that he becomes more of a two pitch pitcher; however, his changeup is his second best pitch according to most scouting reports, so he might want to continue throwing his slider as well in order to have a breaking pitch in his arsenal.

The former international free agent has been in the Cardinals system since 2014. It took him so long to ascend the ranks because he was initially used as a starter and struggled with injuries. He moved to the bullpen full time in 2018 and that is what began his breakout. This is likely the reason that he has maintained his ability to throw three pitches up to this point.

Fernandez was electric last season in the minor leagues. He struck out opposing hitters at a 30.1% rate in 65 innings while also posting a 52.4% groundball rate. His ability to miss bats and keep the ball on the ground is a strong combination that might help him overcome a lackluster 11.3% BB%. In total, the right hander posted a 1.54 ERA at A-Advanced Palm Beach, a 1.55 ERA at AA Springfield and a 1.48 ERA at AAA Memphis.

Interestingly, when he received a late season promotion, his profile stayed the same, but his ERA rose to 5.40. His xFIP (3.72) suggests that he was not actually that bad and he did not allow a run in 10 of his 13 MLB appearances. His problem was that he got stung by the long ball. He allowed two home runs in his brief MLB cameo, as well as four earned runs in his second to last outing of the year. It is difficult to analyze such a small sample size (11 23 IP), however, it is encouraging that his strikeout rate (29.6%) and groundball rate (50.0%) stayed near his minor league levels.

With his high velocity, if his changeup can be as good in 2020 as it was in a small 2019 sample, then he will be well set up for success. He threw the pitch 69 times last season and allow just one hit while generating 55.2% whiff rate. This could be a true plus pitch that would play well off of his high velocity fastball and allow him to establish himself as a solid relief option next season.

There is plenty of potential for him to play a significant role in the bullpen next season. Brett Cecil’s spot on the roster is likely not guaranteed, especially if he struggles to perform. Also, Carlos Martinez has struggled to stay healthy at times and it is difficult to depend on Alex Reyes to stay healthy as well. If he is given the chance to contribute, the Cardinals could have an electric, high velocity bullpen with players such as Jordan Hicks, Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Alex Reyes, and Carlos Martinez (if they can all stay healthy).

A strong fastball and changeup combo, as well as a developing slider could give Fernandez all the pieces that he needs to be successful. If he can improve his control in order to limit his walks then he could have a breakout season at the MLB level in 2020.