Every spring, young prospects make it to their first major league spring training and impress a coaching staff who, to that point, has heard about what they can do but hasn't yet seen it person. The coaching staff becomes so enamored with this young player that, against their better judgement, they begin to make pleads with the front office to keep this player around.
Sometimes, like the Mets did in 2010 with Jenrry Mejia, the front office listens and allows the pleas of their manager to dictate their organizational plan. Other times, like last season in Washington when Davey Johnson came right out and said that he wanted Bryce Harper to begin the season in the majors, general managers do their job and keep emotional managers from making their decisions for them.
That's the thing about young arms, they just throw harder than old ones. Young pitchers are always prime candidates for this trap. They report to camp first when there isn't a whole lot else to talk about, so there are plenty of quotes about how good some young arm looked. It's easy to look great throwing bullpens to catchers and there's always some quote from a veteran catcher or pitching coach about how he's never seen a ball do the things that [insert young pitcher's name]'s ball is doing.
It's as much of a spring tradition for pitchers as PFP's and afternoon tee times.
Fernandez enters Marlins camp with the kind of arm that has the ability to generate exactly this kind of excitement, and he's entering a camp that is desperately in need of a positive story. It's a perfect storm.
Fernandez was perhaps the most dominant young pitcher in the minors last season. In 25 starts between Low and High-A, Fernandez went 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA and 10.6 K/9. He treated both the South Atlantic and Florida State Leagues like it was his own personal warm up for things to come, and appeared to barely break a sweat doing it.
I scouted Fernandez in person last May and he was as impressive as any pitcher I saw all season. The video from that start is below. It was unfortunately my only time seeing him all season, as he apparently got even stronger as the year went on.
But despite his tremendous success and polish for a 20-year-old pitcher, the Marlins would be short-sighted and foolish to keep him in the majors at the start of the spring.
As I wrote up in my report, Fernandez showed a good change-up in the bullpen but rarely had to use it in the game. He was simply too dominant with his other pitches. Fernandez worked hard on his change-up this off-season, says Joe Capozzi of The Palm Beach Post, and appears to be confidant in it, knowing he'll need it in the upper minors this season. That change-up will be the difference between Fernandez being a mid-rotation starter and fulfilling his destiny as a true ace for the Marlins.
Regardless of how good his change-up looks in the bullpen, or against spring training hitters who don't have a good scouting report on Fernandez, time needs to be spent in the upper-minors to work on developing it fully. It shouldn't take Fernandez long, but there's no reason not to send him to the minors to perfect the pitch before unleashing him on the rest of the National League.
The Marlins may be tempted to keep Fernandez around as a way to inject excitement into a team that has alienated its fan base this off-season. The Marlins have promised their fans a vision of the future, and that future centers around the development of Fernandez. It is tempting for management to want to give their fans a glimpse of that future as soon as possible, but it would be a much better baseball decision to give Fernandez the best chance of reaching his potential and giving the fans meaningful baseball to watch.
Fernandez could probably hold his own in the majors this April, and could certainly do better than most 20-year-olds would. But what's the incentive for the Marlins, other than at the ticket window, to use up a year of team-control of their best pitching prospect on a season that is destined for a last-place finish? The Marlins may only have so many seasons with Fernandez, and only a few of them will be cheap. Who knows if they'll be in position to sign him long-term once he becomes the star they believe he will become. If for no other reason than for the selfish financial ones that drive this organization in the first place, they need to keep Fernandez in the minors until at least June to ensure he will be as affordable as possible for as long as possible.
At this point, the Marlins have said that their plan is to send Fernandez to Double-A, so at least to this point, they're planning to do the right thing. Those things have a tendency to change during spring training, but hopefully for the future of the Marlins franchise, they don't give into the excitement that is sure to come from Fernandez's bullpen sessions and spring appearances and they allow him to finish his development in the minors.
A little patience will go a long way, and in the case of Fernandez, they won't have to be patient for long.