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Meet Ryan Fernandez

What to make of the Cardinals’ Rule 5 selection

MiLB: JUN 22 Lehigh Valley IronPigs at Worcester Red Sox Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There were two types of people heading into the Rule 5 draft. Those that were worried and thought exposing Ian Bedell was an unnecessary risk and that he had a decent chance of being selected. And those that did not think Bedell had any shot of being selected and it barely qualified as a risk. Actually there’s a third group too, the people who don’t care about any of this and aren’t baseball nerds.

The great thing about the second group being right is that we all win. Ian Bedell stays off the 40 man for another season, which is very good news because there’s not much of a chance Bedell will be an MLB pitcher in 2024. There is a chance he could head to the bullpen in the latter half of the season, but they might want to keep him on the starter plan and not disrupt that.

In the meantime, they made a selection of their own. They drafted 25-year-old Ryan Fernandez from the Boston Red Sox with their sixth overall pick. They drafted a few players in the minor league portion of the draft as well. They lost nobody in either form of the draft, which depending on your nature, you could interpret as a negative (losing players is a sign of depth) or positive (the Cardinals were smart in knowing who to protect).

Fernandez is a fastball-slider pitcher, whose fastball is sometimes called a sinker and whose slider is sometimes called a cutter. That’s probably because they actually are four different pitches, but from the hitter’s perspective, it’s either a fast pitch or a pitch with a lot of movement. He was primarily drafted for his stuff and not his stats, though there are some stats to like.

Fernandez probably shouldn’t be here. Coming out of high school, he received no attention from colleges. His coach reached out to the hometown community college, Hillsborough Cummunity College, and he got his one and only offer to college. His saw his velocity spike while there, which led to being the 700th pick (23rd round), a pick that doesn’t exist today.

He was sent to the GCL Red Sox, made 10 appearances and seven starts, though only threw 26 innings, so his starts maxed at 3 innings, so he didn’t throw a whole lot more than someone in the bullpen would have. He struck out 31 to just 6 walks. For the 2019 season, he was sent to short season A ball, also no longer in existence. He was in the bullpen all year, with the exception of one start, and funnily enough, actually averaged more innings per appearance than during the season when he made 7 starts. His K rate fell, but he still had a 3.01 FIP and 3.05 xFIP during the season.

And the COVID happened. It’s hard to look at history and not think this affected his career. His career trajectory following 2020 basically followed as it might have with no missing season. He was clearly targeted for Low A for the 2020 season and that’s where he started the 2021 season, but a year older. There’s a difference between playing in Low A at 22 and at 23.

Fernandez wasn’t activated until late May and after a 1.50 ERA and 28.6 K%, he was promoted to High A to finish the season. He made 7 not particularly great appearances in High A as a two-inning reliever, because while his K/BB rate looked similar, his GB% fell from 50% to 31.4%.

Prior to the 2022 season, he turned his curveball into a slider, because it was more natural for him to throw it. He technically had a slider prior to 2022, but in his own words, it behaved more like a cutter than a slider. He began the 2022 season in High A as well and this time his K rate ballooned to 34.5% over 25 appearances. He was mostly a one-inning reliever for the first time, having over 2 innings per appearance in every other season. He got the call to AA and injuries limited him to just 10 appearances, but he had a 30.8 K% and 3.8 BB%, but since over a fifth of the flyballs he allowed were homers, his ERA was 4.97 and his FIP 4.44. If he allowed home runs at the average rate, his xFIP was 3.07.

His 2023 season was delayed by injury, but when he returned he improved upon his stats the previous year, with a 32.1 K% (though 9.9 BB%) with a 1.77 ERA, 2.54 FIP and 3.11 xFIP. So depending on your belief in xFIP, you might say he pitched exactly the same in both stints in AA. He was less successful in AAA, where your belief or non-belief in xFIP could determine your excitement of Fernandez. He had a 6.16 ERA, 5.24 FIP, and 4.09 xFIP.

While you can see some promising numbers in there, I don’t think that’s enough for a team to think you should be in a bullpen all season. He was technically old for his level in every season of his professional career. Maybe not short season A ball, as that was usually the destination for recently drafted college guys past the 10th round. But otherwise, he has been an age above what you want in a prospect every season.

Fangraphs, who rated him the 27th best prospect in the Red Sox system, rates his fastball a 50 and slider a 70, with 55 command and 60 potential command. One average pitch and one knockout pitch with above average command plays in an MLB bullpen. Eric Longenhagen raved about the pick:

Fernandez is a single-inning relief prospect with some of the best stuff of anyone available in this year’s Rule 5 draft. His four-seamer sits 94-96 mph and touches 97. To call his cutter a secondary would be misleading, as it surpassed his fastball usage at Triple-A, accounting for 48% of the pitches he threw at that level and inducing a 47% chase rate. His use of his gyroscopic slider dipped in 2023, but when he did throw it, it earned him a combined 63% whiffs (73% at Triple-A), and that kind of bat-missing ability is, ironically, nothing to shake a stick at. His strike-throwing ability makes him very likely to stick on St. Louis’ roster and contribute in a middle-inning capacity. This was the first relief-only pitcher to come off the board in the draft, and is the one we feel most confident will have a good 2024.

As you might expect from fastball/slider pitcher, Fernandez has trouble with the opposite hand, but not much trouble against right-handed batters, which I would largely expect to continue in the big leagues.

I know the whole tweet isn’t posting and some of you can’t access the site without an account, so I’ll share a couple relevant paragraphs.

To righties, he’s heavy slider/sinker. Slider is slutter territory with gyro, more drop than average cutter, that’s why I’m calling it a slider. 90 mph around 5” lift, 2” glove-side. 45% swing-miss is super strong. xwOBA below .320

To lefties, we’re getting a very similar mix but cutter isn’t playing as well and fastball contact quality deteriorates even more. Kind of surprised there’s no CH here given lefty issues and the fact that he doesn’t appear to be a heavy supinator (aka, big breaking balls or cutting his four-seam).

In a profile of him upon his promotion to AAA, Fernandez shares that he didn’t expect it to make it this far. “Even after my first year of pro ball, after that 2019 season in Lowell, I thought, ‘Damn, these guys are so good. What can I do to separate myself?’ And it seemed like something that was so far in the distance that I wouldn’t be able to reach.” And now he’s targeted for the big leagues.

Minor League Portion

JohnFrank Salazar, 20-years-old

Signed out of Venezuela late in the 2019 season, Salazar has played his last two seasons splitting time between the complex league and A ball. So he will be 20 and already has 53 games of experience at the A ball level. While he wasn’t good in his initial stint, last year he had a 95 wRC+.

He takes versatility to a new level, if you’re wondering why the Cards are interested. Sox Prospects says that he was on the road to converting to catcher, and appeared in four games and 35 innings there last season in the complex league. Whether that’s in the Cardinals’ plans or not, I don’t know. Also interesting information there is that he was referred to as El Capitan for his leadership. His is so far away and I think he’s eligible for minor league free agency in just two years, but he seems to have more promise than you’d expect for a minor league pickup?

Miguel Villarroel, 21-years-old

Now this guy, this is what I would expect from a minor league Rule 5 guy. Another guy signed out of Venezuela in 2019, the best you can say about him is that he hit an unexpected roadblock in 2023. He was not particularly impressive, prospect-wise, in the DSL in 2021, but had a 158 wRC+ in the complex leagues and a 129 wRC+ in Low A in 38 games. He then followed that up with a 71 wRC+ in 280 PAs in Low A.

It is worth pointing out his great Low A performance came with no power at all and a .383 BABIP. Maybe in a bid for power, Villaroel’s approach turned awful, leading to his poor line. In 2022, he had a 11.4 BB% and 14.8 K%. Last season, he had a 4.3 BB% and 20 K%. And his ISO rose from just .069 to .100. Whatever the case, his complete lack of power is going to be an issue. He’ll be 22 and presumably repeating Low A.

Benito Garcia, RHP

Garcia was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2018, so unless I’m mistaken, this is a one year guy. (He could always sign a minor league extension, or if his stock really takes a rise, get added to the 40 man). Garcia’s progress was sloooooow. He was signed in June of 2018, and didn’t make it past the rookie level until he was 22 in the middle of 2022.

He posted elite numbers in his first trip to Low A and even saw time at High A. His numbers in 2023 are confusing. He repeated Low A, was pretty bad honestly, but got promoted to High A and had a 1.18 ERA/3.02 FIP with a 23.9 K% and 2.8 BB%, so pretty damn good and even saw time in AA, where he pitched seven pretty great innings. I guess the confusing thing is why he was bad in Low A. Anyway, he’ll be 24 next season and should probably be in AA. Pretty good pickup.

Pretty successful Rule 5 draft.