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This prospect may be dark horse for Cards' 'pen

@Sportsgal25
February 27, 2020

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- The Cardinals’ bullpen was its strongest entity in 2019, something Junior Fernandez witnessed firsthand through a pair of late-season callups. As the No. 9 prospect in St. Louis’ system, per MLB Pipeline, Fernandez knows he has something to add to the mix, and he’s doing his

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- The Cardinals’ bullpen was its strongest entity in 2019, something Junior Fernandez witnessed firsthand through a pair of late-season callups.

As the No. 9 prospect in St. Louis’ system, per MLB Pipeline, Fernandez knows he has something to add to the mix, and he’s doing his best during his first big league camp to show anyone who’s willing. The right-hander sat down the Braves in order during a one-inning appearance in a 3-1 loss to Atlanta on Thursday -- his second outing of the spring.

“Every time I get an opportunity to pitch, I just try to focus right before the game,” Fernandez said. “I’m just locked in. I’m just trying to throw all my pitches as I work on what I need to work on, and I work hard. It pays off.”

According to St. Louis manager Mike Shildt, that work could pay off “sooner rather than later” in the way of a Major League promotion. Shildt didn’t rule out an immediate role for this specific talented prospect, saying, “They’re all still in camp competing for a spot.” But with such a versatile, battle-tested bullpen returning and a large number of hopefuls on the outside looking in this spring, Fernandez is considered a long shot to break camp with the Cardinals.

He’s still determined to force some tough decisions on Shildt come late March. Touted by experts as having one of the best fastballs in St. Louis’ system, Fernandez broke onto the scene in 2014 as an international free agent with a triple-digit cannon. He transitioned to the bullpen in ’18 and rocketed through the Minor Leagues, most recently posting a 1.52 ERA in 45 games across three levels in '19.

Despite the numbers Fernandez put up in 13 Major League appearances last season -- 0-1 record, 5.40 ERA -- the Cardinals came away impressed with his work. He also struggled with control and command while he found his feet in an imposing Major League bullpen, walking six batters in 11 2/3 innings against 16 strikeouts.

On Thursday, the man on the mound brought confidence in tow. Fernandez rang up the first two Braves he faced; one swinging, the other not. Only once he had coaxed Braden Shewmake into a dribbler to shortstop that Edmundo Sosa delivered to first base to end the spotless inning did Fernandez show any emotion, emphatically pounding pitching hand to glove as he jogged to the dugout.

“I don’t really think about [the roster decisions], because I don’t want to have that kind of stuff in my mind,” Fernandez said. “I just try to be ready any time I get the opportunity to pitch. I just need to stay healthy and go out there and compete.”

One arm he’ll battle with for Major League callups is fellow prospect Kodi Whitley, another right-hander who followed Fernandez in Thursday’s game by walking one, allowing one hit and striking out two in a scoreless ninth.

Whitley, St. Louis' No. 14 prospect, also rocketed through three Minors levels last season. The 6-foot-4 hurler dominated hitters with his fastball and offspeed pitches alike last season, striking out 78 against 19 walks for a 1.07 WHIP. He made enough of an impact in the Arizona Fall League to make his first big league camp as a non-roster invitee.

His 2019 numbers didn’t earn him a late-season callup, but much like Fernandez, a strong spring could make Whitley an option in the Cards’ ‘pen before the All-Star break.

Shildt finds the duo equally impressive, and he pointed toward off-the-field makeup as one of the best impressions thus far.

And of course, results like Thursday’s never hurt, either.

“They’ve both had a favorable impact on me,” the manager said. “They both have very aggressive, assertive actions. They both go about their work really well. They’re very, very intentional about their work, their preparation, their attention to detail and making sure that they can compete in all facets of the game.

“They’re doing exactly what we’d like them to do.”

Dawn Klemish is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Tampa. Follow her on Twitter @Sportsgal25.