NEW YORK -- In April of 2012, I traveled to South Jersey to catch a low Class A game between the Lakewood BlueClaws and the Greensboro Grasshoppers. On the bump for Greensboro was 19-year-old Cuban flamethrower Jose Fernandez. On Sunday, Fernandez made his major league debut at Citi Field against the Mets. Miami's top prospect, Fernandez impressed with an upper-90s fastball and a filthy breaking ball en route to a five-inning, eight-strikeout performance.
"No, I wasn't surprised," Marlins skipper Mike Redmond said. "He's got a great fastball. For a 20-year-old kid he's got some great secondary pitches. ... I think that was obviously a huge test for him and a great first outing."
Fernandez's promotion to the major leagues was the object of much derision when the Marlins released their Opening Day roster. The Marlins are undeniably in rebuilding mode; they've traded away most of their major league talent since things went sour in 2012. Furthermore, Fernandez wasn't exactly knocking on the door. Last season was his first full season as a professional baseball player, and a midseason promotion brought him only to high-A. Why rush a prospect -- and begin his service time clock towards free agency -- when the team isn't in a position to win now?
Miami seems to feel that Fernandez is legitimately ready for an assignment to the majors, and on Sunday the 2011 first-round pick passed his first test.
There's an old adage that the jump from Class A to Double-A is the second most difficult leap for a player to make, behind only Triple-A to the majors, which really puts Fernandez’s debut in perspective. Early in the game, Fernandez pounded the strike zone and retired the first 10 hitters, striking out five of them. He hadn't thrown more than 66 pitches in a game in spring training, and he began to tire as his outing went on. The Mets got to Fernandez with a hit in the fourth inning, then got on the board in the fifth. The right-hander was done after that, having thrown 80 pitches.
"My job is to give the team a chance to win. We didn't win this time, next time we will," Fernandez said. Before Sunday's game, plenty of people spoke about the rookie's confidence and maturity on the mound. Fernandez said he felt a little nervous as he warmed up in the bullpen, but that nerves weren't an issue when he got on the mound. "He's got pretty good mound presence," catcher Rob Brantly said.
No one guessed that Fernandez would have made this team out of spring training, but Brantly was prepared for his arrival. "I caught him as much as I could," he said. "Any time he had a bullpen I'd work my way over there to make sure I could get familiar with him, just in case." The extra preparation worked in favor for the Marlins, as Brantly and Fernandez looked comfortable together.
Fernandez didn’t get the win as the Mets rallied with two runs in the bottom of the ninth, but he did set a franchise record with eight strikeouts in a major league debut. It's not clear what's going to happen with Fernandez as this season unfolds. He's set the bar high for himself, but expectations aren't through the roof just yet. When asked whether he thought he would be in the big leagues for the rest of the season, he said, "I expect to have a next start."
There’s no shortage of uncertainty in Miami, but we know that Jose Fernandez will attempt to pick up where he left off next time out.
Hudson Belinsky is a writer at Halos Daily and also contributes to Baseball Prospectus.