The Miami Marlins caught fans offguard on Sunday when releasing their Opening Day roster. Among the roster of castoffs like Placido Polanco, Casey Kotchman, and Kevin Slowey, was a name that no one expected to see: pitcher Jose Fernandez. Fernandez was an early cut in Marlins camp, and the 2011 first-round pick was expected to start the year in AA after splitting 2012 between A-ball and high-A.
But with projected starters Henderson Alvarez and Nate Eovaldi both being placed on the disabled list with should inflammation, Fernandez got the surprising callup to serve as Miami's fifth starter behind Ricky Nolasco, Slowey, Wade LeBlanc, and Alex Sanabia. Eovaldi and Alvarez are both expected to miss a month, giving Fernandez an extended tryout in the majors over someone like Jacob Turner, who had a putrid spring for the Marlins and will start the year in the minors.
However, are the Marlins being a bit rash with Fernandez? He hasn't throw an inning above high-A, and the 20-year old only threw 55 innings last year in high-A. He was awesome over the course of his first full pro season though, striking out 158 and walking 35 in 134 innings with a miniscule 1.75 ERA. He ranked as either Miamis #1 or #2 prospect according to nearly every major outlet (with outfielder Christian Yelich occupying the other spot), and he's extremely highly touted with a potential ceiling of an ace.
Is there much of a precedent for someone like Fernandez making a monumental leap like this to the majors? Clayton Kershaw made his debut at 20, two years after the Dodgers drafted him seventh overall in the 2006 draft. But Kershaw had thrown 86 AA innings before his callup, and started his 2008 season in the minors before getting brought up to Los Angeles. Kershaw also struggled at times throughout his first three seasons in the majors before winning the NL Cy Young award in 2011 and finishing as the runner-up a year ago.
Rick Porcello is another comparison that will likely come up for Fernandez, and I'm not sure it's a perfect one. After being drafted in the first round of the 2007 draft, Porcello spent all of 2008 in high-A and did well, though he struck out fewer than half of the hitters that Fernandez did last year in nearly the same amount of innings. He's spent the rest of his career in Detroit (minus a four stint trip to AAA in 2010), and has steadily improved despite not dominating. But again, he's a completely different pitcher from Fernandez as a pitch to contact type pitcher as opposed to a guy who misses bats like Fernandez.
Madison Bumgarner jumped to the majors to stay at 20 in 2010, but he threw 107 innings in AA and 82 2/3 innings in AAA prior to his callup. These same Marlins called up Chris Volstad in 2008, but he had 22 starts in AA and was a pitch to contact guy like Porcello. Phil Hughes actually might be a good comparison, but once again, Hughes had significant AA experience when the Yankees called him up at 21, and he's struggled off and on in the majors and in stints with the minors while also dealing with injuries and an ever-changing role in the majors.
It'll be interesting to see how Fernandez performs in his debut on Sunday against the Mets. If the schedule holds, Fernandez will also make starts this month against the Phillies, Reds, Twins, and Mets again, The Marlins are giving him every opportunity to succeed, and if he's able to hold his own over his first five starts, it would probably be better for him and the team to keep him in the majors instead of rolling with a retread like Slowey or someone who really has never caught on like LeBlanc.