Where (and who) in the World is Jose Fernandez and do the Cubs Want to Find Him?
No, not that Jose Fernandez. The other Jose Fernandez. For all we know, he could be travelling around helping Carmen Sandiego put the “miss” in misdemeanor by stealing the rings from lemur. But it’s more likely that he’s sitting back, tasting freedom, and maybe a few cervezas, as he awaits clearance from the Office of Foreign Asset Control.
If you’d like to know more about the history of Cuban defectors in American baseball, please take a moment to read my earlier post about Yasmany Tomas. In it, I finish up with the ongoing courtship of the soon-to-be MLB slugger after leading off with Barbaro Garbey’s arrival on the Mariel Boatlift floatilla. No mention, however, of Magilla Gorilla or the Thrilla in Manila.
The Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez has been in the US of A since 2008, but it’s his namesake to whom I am referring now. On Tuesday, Baseball America’s Ben Badler reported that the second baseman for Matanzas in Cuba’s Serie Nacional went missing after playing in a game on Friday. Both Fernandez and his cousin, catcher Lazaro Herrera, were absent from games on Sunday and Monday.
At the time, the Cuban government, typically a font of non-propagandic information, had not released any word on the whereabouts of the two athletes. However, John Morosi of Fox Sports reported on Twitter that Fernandez had indeed defected. Just last month, Badler had ranked Fernandez as the third-best player still in Cuba (which is maybe sort of a dubious distinction), just behind Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne.
Despaigne is actually a very interesting case, as he’s currently playing in Japan for the Chiba Lotte Marines with the blessing of the Cuban government. He also played for the Campeche Pirates in the Mexican League last year and this season (though he’s been banned for using a false Dominican passport) after winning back-to-back Serie Nacional MVP’s in 2008-09 and 09-10, adding a third in 11-12 after Jose Abreu snuck in there and stole the award in between.
The 28-year-old is basically a legend in Cuba, having set the league record of 36 home runs during that latter MVP campaign. That popularity, combined with the continued hemorrhaging of talent to America, is probably what has allowed Despaigne the freedom to play abroad. The fact that he’s not defected already probably means he never will.
But I’m not here to talk about someone who isn’t on his way to our shores, so let’s get this train back on the track. Jose Fernandez drew the attention of scouts back at the World Baseball Classic, though for distinctly different reasons than his recently-defected compatriots. Where Yoesnis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Tomas, and more have been sought-after for their prodigious power, Fernandez is coveted for his on-base skills.
Badler touts the 26-year-old’s pitch recognition and plate coverage, citing his .482 OBP and the fact that he struck out only 10 times in 314 plate appearances (you hear that, Javier Baez?!). Given his age and experience, most believe he can step right into a Major League lineup.
Here’s more from Badler on Fernandez’s skills:
Fernandez’s best skills are his outstanding plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills. Fernandez is a patient hitter who rarely chases, works deep counts and lays off borderline pitches. He has a short, flat swing with few holes, good hand-eye coordination and bat control, which is why he’s a high-contact hitter against lefties and righties with a high OBP. His swing does have some quirks though. He sets up with his hands low, but he’s able to keep his hands back to adjust to breaking balls and stay inside good fastballs up and in. When he swings, his back foot slides out from behind him and he loses his balance, only re-gaining his footing by landing with his back foot on the other side of home plate. That could be why Fernandez doesn’t make as much hard contact as some scouts would like to see, rolling over for a lot of groundballs instead. Fernandez’s groundball tendencies don’t match his speed, which is below-average at best. He has below-average power, with possibly 8-12 home runs per year against major league pitching.
Fernandez spent time at second and third base last season, with 80 percent of his innings coming at second. He’s not a natural fielder, with the range for third base and the fringy arm for second. He’s an adequate defender at second who fields the routine play, but his lack of range and first-step quickness makes him a below-average fielder for the position. He has a thick lower half and doesn’t have the agility or ideal footwork for the middle of the infield, but he’s good enough to hang there as an offensive-oriented second baseman.
When Fernandez does emerge back into the public eye, expect the market for his services to be somewhat lower than those for fellow Cubans Tomas and Rusney Castillo. The contract should still be a handsome one though, as Fernandez’s age and experience exempt him from international spending limits.
No real rumors on what teams will be in on the 5-10, 185 lb middle infielder, though it could be months before he’s declared eligible. It took about three and a half months for the OFAC (I like to pronounce it like “Oh, Fac) to clear Tomas, so we could possibly be looking at the first of February before this guy is made available to MLB teams.
But when that does happen, is there a chance the Cubs could be in on him? I can’t pretend to know what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are thinking, but I’m going to make some educated guesses just the same. Let’s see…a light-hitting middle infielder with questionable defense, poor footwork, and below-average speed. But that OBP though…
The Cubs’ glut of young infielders has been well documented, as has the likelihood that one of them will have to be moved. However, the team is in no hurry to jettison any member of the prime trio at this point, understanding the need to field the best team possible beyond just 2015.
That said, the only scenario in which I could envision them being in on Fernandez is one in which Javier Baez is no longer in the picture for one reason or another. With Baez projected to start at second and Kris Bryant sure to debut in May at third, there’d be no room for the Cuban. If, however, second base was open, we’d be singing a different tune.
It’d certainly be a shock to see the organization give up on Baez, but might they be willing to trade the limitless ceiling for the potential of a huge jump in OBP? It wouldn’t be a sexy move and the fanbase wouldn’t take it well, but Fernandez could provide the on-base skills the Cubs sorely lack. Did I mention that he’s also a lefty?
Okay, that’s borderline trolling. If this was the 2015 postseason and Baez had suffered through a disappointing campaign, this would be a very real possibility. But don’t expect the Cubs to pay much attention when MLB does declare Fernandez a free agent.