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Meet Jose Fermin

I am sure you wondered about the out of nowhere Cardinals pickup.

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange via Imagn Content Services, LLC

I have been a skeptic that the Cardinals would add Delvin Perez to the 40 man roster, something they need to do in order for him to remain in the Cardinals organization. He has been in the minor leagues for seven seasons now, and because of that, he is eligible for minor league free agency. The same applied to Moises Gomez, but his addition to the 40 man roster gave him an MLB contract and he was no longer eligible for free agency. And with Wednesday’s news, I think my instincts were correct.

Okay I am speculating, but my best guess is that they intended for Delvin Perez to provide middle infield depth next year, but he did... not play very well in AAA. He didn’t play very well in AA either. Last year, he had an 80 wRC+ as a 22-year-old in AA (thanks to a .344 BABIP). This year, he repeated AA, and had a 68 wRC+, got promoted anyway, then had a 72 wRC+ in AAA. Things did not go as the Cardinals hoped. So they pivoted and found his replacement: Jose Fermin.

Fermin was a member of the Cleveland Guardians’ organization. He was signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in July of 2015. Just 15-years-old, he was the 28th ranked international free agent by Baseball America at the time of signing. He was 5’11, 165 pounds and expected to stick at shortstop. He signed for $500,000 and was Cleveland’s top international signing so while he wasn’t exactly a headline grabber, he wasn’t a complete shot in the dark either.

Late July was fairly close to the end of the 2015 season and he was 16, so he didn’t make his professional debut until next season at 17-years-old. He played fairly well for his age, though he had some contact issues. Not in terms of making contact, but it terms of contact finding holes. He batted .224/.303/.362 for a 96 wRC+. Good walk rate, good K rate, enough power, but a .271 BABIP. But he also only played in 16 games, getting shut down from a knee injury after a home plate collision.

They somewhat aggressively promoted him to the states, sending him to the Arizona League, a rookie level league comparable to the Gulf Coast League at the time. He did not play well. He played like someone trying to survive. He didn’t strike out much, with a 10.7 K%, but he walked just 2.7% of the time. His BABIP problems continued with a .250 BABIP. In all, his season ended with a 68 wRC+.

At this point, he was not really on the prospect radar. I searched for mentions of his name on the Guardinan’s SB Nation blog, Covering the Corner, and while he was mentioned a couple times in 2016 and 2017 and later in 2019, he seems absent from any writer’s pen during the 2018 season. Not only was he not on the national prospect radar, he wasn’t even mentioned by the fans.

He changed that with his 2018 season. He was sent to a league that doesn’t exist now, a short season A ball league. His bat came alive at the age of 19. He rarely struck out, with just an 8.4 K% and better yet, he coupled it with more walks than strikeouts, with a 12.7% BB%. His power wasn’t quite as impressive with a .104 ISO, but his BABIP finally rose to .301. He had a 134 wRC+ and he finally got a mention as a player to look out for on Covering the Corner at the beginning of the next season.

He sort of repeated a similar season the next year at a higher level. He walked more than he struck out - barely in this case - had even less power (.087 ISO) and saw his BABIP rise to .311, but less walks led to a 123 wRC+. Despite just having finished his most recent season in Low A, Fermin had already spent five seasons in the minor leagues and was exposed to the Rule 5 draft for the first time. Nearing the age of 21 with his highest level at Low A, he was not in much danger of being selected. Fangraphs listed him as the 26th best prospect in the system, saying this:

Fermin had the eighth-lowest swinging strike rate in the minors last year, a measly 4%. He has a minimalistic swing and excellent hand-eye coordination, which have enabled him to run about an 8.5% strikeout rate the last two seasons. He’s also a capable defensive shortstop. Players like this often outperform eyeball-only evaluations and, heuristically, a hitter like this with almost elite bat-to-ball skills who also plays a premium position typically ends up in a higher FV tier than this. But in Fermin’s case, I think he lacks the power on contact to be an everyday player. I realize those can be famous last words when it comes to a profile like this one, but in this case I think the power is limiting and I have a low-variance bench infield grade on Fermin.

Then the 2020 season didn’t happen for the minor leagues and we received no new data on Fermin the prospect. Obviously, since there was no new information, Eric Longenhagen repeated his blurb although he dropped to 34th in the rankings without really doing anything himself to earn a lower ranking.

Things went okay in 2021. Probably frustratingly okay from the Guardian’s perspective. He did well enough to not give up on, not well enough to want to dedicate a 40-man roster spot for him. He had a 97 wRC+ on the basis of not striking out. His walks fell to 6.8% which made him less interesting, although he did manage his highest ISO since the DSL with a .125 ISO. But he had just a .276 BABIP. He was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft and fell off Fangraphs list, but did get an honorable mention:

Fermin doesn’t swing and miss but lacks passable big league physicality and is a better fit at second base than shortstop

Given the Guardians’ use of him the prior season, they seemed to agree. He played 28 games at 2B, 40 games at 3B, and just 13 games at SS in the 2021 season. In fact, he didn’t play at shortstop at all in the 2022 season. Part of that is because... they didn’t play him much at all. He lost his starting gig. Tyler Freeman, a top 100 prospect, and Gabriel Arias, the #16 prospect in their system, started 78 games between them at SS. Freeman ended the year in the majors and Arias took the shuttle a couple times. Fermin, despite never appearing on an injured list all year, received just 330 PAs.

Part of that was his play. He had an 84 wRC+, although it is entirely due to BABIP. Not sure what to think of that for a player in the minors. He had a 12.7 BB% and 13.9 K%, so his making contact skills and plate discipline are fine. But the .235 BABIP suggests his quality of contact is not fine. I’m not sure if this is an easier fix than a guy who strikes out too much, but it kind of feels like it is? Or maybe in order to have better quality of contact, you strike out more, which makes him the same hitter in a different way.

I’ll finish with what the Guardians Baseball Insider says about Fermin. They said it prior to the 2021 season, but it doesn’t seem like anything changed enough to need it to be updated.

The only real lacking part of Fermin’s game is his power. While he has been able to rack up some doubles and triples and his seven homers in 2021 were a career high, he doesn’t offer much in the way of power. It’s possible he could develop into a little more but he’s mostly a line drive, gap and singles hitter. He’s mostly got just an average arm that would be better suited for second and short, but it can handle third.

Fermin is a high energy, versatile player well liked by his teammates and is bi-lingural. All of those traits go a long way for a players makeup, especially in a utility type and maybe even a future potential coach.

Fermin was once a base stealer as well, stealing 17 bases in 2018 and 28 bases in 2019 - without getting caught much at either, but he stole just 4 bases to 4 caught stealing for AA in 2021 and last year he stole 9 bases to 4 caught stealing. Of course, that’s more like 15 stolen bases if he gets a normal amount of plate appearances, so lurking there somewhere is a guy who can potentially steal bases.

And while the dude is not going to be posting Edmundo Sosa HBP numbers, he does have that element to his game. In his last three stops, he has a combined 30 HBPs in his last 1,122 plate appearances. His plate appearance totals make that look less notable than it is - that’s 16 HBPs per 600 PAs. Unlike Sosa, Fermin walks a ton too - even in his 84 wRC+ season, he had a .336 OBP.

Here’s where things get interesting. Hat tip to Teddy Rugby for pointing this out. But Fermin was a well above average hitter by DRC+. DRC+ is deserved runs created, and its purpose is in its name - trying to figure out what a hitter deserved based on his plate appearances. He had a 112 DRC+. I don’t want to get you too excited though: he had a 114 DRC+ in AA. He may very well break the stat. But his 127 DRC+ was pretty similar to his 123 wRC+ in Low A.

So that’s what the Cardinals are gambling on. That his expected results are better than his actual results. And it’s pretty easy to talk yourself into a guy who has good expected stats but a low BABIP. Fix the BABIP, he’s a good hitter. I am discouraged that the Guardians completely gave up on him as a shortstop, I won’t lie. That’s not a great sign.

I have to think the Cardinals think he can stand at shortstop as a guy off the bench, or this move doesn’t make as much sense though. Plus, the Cardinals seem more willing to take some risks at SS. They played Paul DeJong there and that paid off beautifully. Less so with Yairo Munoz. If they were willing to go with Munoz at SS, I have to think they are willing to use Fermin at short if necessary. He just doesn’t seem like a good bench piece if he can’t play SS at all. Plus, I really think the Guardians just viewed him as depth and not a part of their future, since they are kind of stacked with middle infield options.

Seems like a low risk move. Essentially hoping Fermin can become Greg Garcia. And Garcia for his career was worth 3.4 fWAR in 1,303, or 1.6 fWAR per 600 PAs. You can avoid signing bad veterans if you can produce bench guys like Garcia. Hopefully Fermin can become one of those guys.