For Rule 5 pick Fernandez, when Cards call, 'Call of Duty' must wait

March 9th, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. -- Back in his native Tampa last December, was playing “Call of Duty” when he saw that his agent was calling. So he asked his buddies for a courtesy time out -- something that is usually a no-no.

As it turns out, taking that call instead of continuing to play “Call of Duty” proved to be a life-changing moment for the 25-year-old Fernandez -- one he never saw coming considering his relatively flat trajectory as a Minor League pitching prospect prior to that day.

Fernandez, a hard-throwing right-hander who had previously pitched only 30 innings at the Triple-A level in six Minor League seasons, said he sat in shock when his representative informed him that the Cardinals had claimed him in the Rule 5 Draft. Fernandez was eligible for the Rule 5 Draft because he had never made the Red Sox 40-man roster in seven years. Also, because of the MLB rules surrounding the Rule 5 Draft, it meant that the Cardinals would have to keep the reliever on the MLB roster all season to keep him in their organization.

“Huh?” Fernandez recalled responding in shock, not even realizing that he was MLB material after posting a 6.16 ERA in 26 games with Triple-A Worcester in 2023.

“It was awesome, and really there were no words for it,” said Fernandez, a 23rd-round pick by the Red Sox in the 2018 MLB Draft. “The fact that people believe in you -- you don’t even know they were looking at you like that and then all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Wow, these guys think I can be in the big leagues all year?’ It was an awesome feeling.”

Seeking more swing-and-miss in a bullpen that badly lagged in that category in a dismal 2023, the Cardinals poached Fernandez after Boston left him exposed. Some of their intel undoubtedly came from advisor Chaim Bloom, who worked previously as the baseball boss in Boston.

While spending the first couple of weeks getting to know more about Fernandez this spring, the Cardinals have been pleased with the right-hander’s effectiveness. In the Cards’ 9-3 loss to the Mets on Saturday, Fernandez worked another scoreless inning -- his fourth such outing in five appearances.

Manager Oliver Marmol affirmed that for Fernandez to make the Opening Day roster and stay with the Cards throughout the season, he has to be able to help the squad.

“We’re continuing to lay eyes on him, and getting him out there is going to be important,” Marmol said. “Obviously, we understand that he needs to make it or we have to send him back. … [Helping the team] is the only way he’ll be on the roster.”

That’s heady stuff for Fernandez, who has always been something of a late bloomer when it came to his baseball development. He was a scrawny 160 pounds when he graduated from high school in Tampa, but he added 15 pounds when he got serious about his conditioning during his sophomore season at Tampa’s Hillsborough County Community College. That added strength also had others noticing for the first time.

“When I got up to 175 [pounds] and was throwing 96 [mph], that’s when the scouts started showing up and I was like, ‘Oh crap, this is getting serious,’” Fernandez joked. “That’s the first time I thought that I might be able to take this to the next level.

“I’ve always been a late bloomer, even when I was little or in high school. I was always growing later than everyone or getting better later. So, I haven’t been too worried about [my baseball career] because I know I’m going to get there in time.”

The late bloomer status certainly applied to his baseball career: Fernandez didn't make it past High-A until 2022, his sixth year as a professional. After pitching well during a rehab assignment at Single-A Salem, then in 14 outings at Double-A Portland in 2023, Fernandez finally got his Triple-A promotion. It didn’t go particularly well, as he allowed seven home runs and was saddled with that ugly 6.16 ERA in Triple-A.

But what caught the eye of the Cardinals was Fernandez's 35 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings at Triple-A, plus his 67 whiffs over 54 1/3 innings across all three levels last season.

Fernandez has no recollection how that “Call of Duty '' campaign turned out the day he was claimed by the Cardinals, but he does remember the unbridled joy he felt knowing that an MLB organization believed in his future.

“When I asked my friends to stop the game, I told them that my agent was calling and they were like, 'OK, big leaguer,'” Fernandez said. “I don’t remember much after that other than being so happy.”