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Long journey to MiLBY for Fernandez

Cuban defector goes 14-1, posts 1.75 ERA in first full season
October 21, 2012
MiLBYs are the end-of-season awards that honor the best players, teams and performances of the Minor League season. For three weeks, fans chose their favorites in 11 categories, and now we're announcing the Fans' Choice winners as well as staff picks for the major awards.

The story of Jose Fernandez is one of arrival.

In April 2008, the then-15-year-old Cuban was fleeing his native country. Four-and-a-half years later, he stood in Miami's Marlins Park after trying to tell the team that he didn't want to be there because he didn't think he deserved to be there, or be there yet anyways.

But after a season -- his first full one in professional baseball -- when the right-hander put up a 14-1 record, a 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 134 innings between two levels -- the Marlins' No. 2 prospect has earned any and all accolades coming his way, including the organization's Pitcher of the Year award, the winning of which brought him to Marlins Park in the first place and now our MiLBY for best starting pitcher in the Minors.

In other words, Jose Fernandez has arrived.

Dylan Bundy, Delmarva/Frederick/Bowie

Dylan Bundy didn't allow a hit until his sixth start at Class A Delmarva, where he didn't surrender an earned run in any of his eight starts. After moving up a level, he remained highly effective for Class A Advanced Frederick, going 6-3 with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts. The 19-year-old finished the Minor League season in Double-A Bowie (3.24 ERA, three starts) before making his Major League debut for the Orioles out of the bullpen on Sept. 23. Voting results »

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After being drafted 14th overall by the Marlins in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Fernandez's story became more and more well known to those who hadn't previously studied the biographies of draft prospects closely.

His father had left their native Cuba for American shores in 2005, and he, along with his mother, had tried to make the same emigration journey but were unsuccessful on the first three attempts. The most dramatic came on an occasion when his mother fell out of their escape boat. The young teenager jumped out to save her, but the incident meant another trip back to the island under Castro's rule, where they endured imprisonment both in the home and behind bars.

He finally escaped in 2008 and settled in the Tampa Bay area. Soon, while taking the mound at the area's Alonso High School, the right-hander let loose the pitching skills -- a mid-90s fastball, plus breaking stuff -- he had honed in the Caribbean. It was there that he began to garner national attention as a potential first-round pick alongside the likes of established collegiate stars Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer and fellow high-school phenoms like Dylan Bundy and Bubba Starling.

But despite the spotlight, Fernandez's gaze never truly strode from his homeland.

"I tried four times to escape from Cuba," Fernandez told in late April. "I got caught three times -- I was in jail in Cuba, I got kicked out of school, I was placed under house arrest. It's tough over here; a lot of my family's still over there."

It was that background that caught the attention of the front office of the then-Florida Marlins in June 2011 and led the team in the heart of the most prominent Cuban population in the country to take him with its first draft pick.

"What he's gone through, it's made him a stronger person and player," said Marlins vice president of player development Marty Scott. "The adversity he's had to face, coming to a foreign country and having to learn the American way of doing things, of doing everything, is hard on anybody. I think the whole thing has made him appreciate baseball and more importantly life itself."

That being said, the teenager never let go of his own sense of style.

Scott said that at the beginning of Spring Training -- Fernandez's first in professional baseball -- he saw the team's latest first-rounder tote an orange glove. The executive told the player it may not be the best idea to use such a flashy piece of equipment that brings with it perhaps unnecessary attention.

"I told him about a stepson of mine who was going out for a basketball team but had the really fancy shorts and shoes that kind of made him stand out, but not in a good way," said Scott. "I told Jose, 'It's one of those things where you're going to have to walk the walk if you're going to talk the talk with something like that.'"

In order to make sure he understood the lesson of the fable, Fernandez made sure to ask a simple question.

"Do you mean if I'm going to have this orange glove, I'm going to have to dominate everyone else?"

When Scott readily agreed to that sentiment, the pitcher boiled down his response to three words.

"OK, I will."

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The Marlins placed Fernandez at Class A Greensboro to begin the year, and he was coming through on his bold prediction early on. The 6-foot-3 hurler struck out 10 over six innings in his debut and eventually gave up only four combined earned runs in his first three starts.

Then on April 24, he tossed six innings of hitless ball and led the Grasshoppers to the first no-hitter of the Minor League season. However, it wasn't the first no-no in his baseball career -- he had participated in four of them at Alonso High School including a perfect game -- and it was perhaps for that reason that the rookie was already handling the feat like a seasoned veteran.

"My life has been pretty rough, and I just think about trying to get my goals," he told right after the no-hitter. "It helps to go out there and work hard every day and throw strikes. I love winning -- that's what I play this sport for. I like to win, I love my teammates and I love the game."

But as is the case in the life of a pitcher, some fifth days are better than others.

Scott said he went to see the organization's prized pitcher in Greensboro on May 16 for a start against Kannapolis, and the early results were slightly discouraging.

"He walked the first two batters he saw on eight pitches," Scott remembered. "It was obvious he didn't have his best stuff. But he got out of the inning after giving up just a run, pitched OK the rest of the way and got a no-decision. [The Grasshoppers won, 10-8, in 11 innings.]

"Afterwards I went up to him and asked him about the outing and he told me, 'I learned something about myself and my pitching, and now I know what to do to improve.' He could have been angry or upset, but he seemed to handle it in stride. I think that said something about his attitude and the kind of kid he's been for us."

Fernandez didn't allow another run for a month, a time spanning five starts and 24 innings.

He was called up to Class A Advanced Jupiter in late June, after going 7-0 with a 1.59 ERA during his time in Greensboro but faced struggles once again. Between June 28 and July 4, he allowed four and three earned runs both against St. Lucie -- the first time he had surrendered more than three tallies in consecutive starts in 2012.

The right-hander seemed to figure out the issues over his next two outings, giving up just three combined runs while striking out 11 over 10 innings. But if there was any doubt at that point about his ability to assimilate to the new level, it was soon erased.

Fernandez went 6-0 over a seven-start stretch to finish the season, giving up only two earned runs over that time. Despite never pitching into the sixth inning by order of the team, he struck out eight on three occasions and never allowed more than four hits.

He finished 7-1 with a 1.96 ERA in Jupiter and 14-1 with a 1.75 on the season, seventh- and second-best in the Minors respectively. He also ranked in the top 15 for strikeouts (158, 13th), WHIP (0.93, first) and opponents batting average (.191, fourth).

"Hitting the 90s consistently with his fastball, that helps," said Scott. "He knows he's going to have better control of his breaking ball as it goes along, but that's certainly a solid pitch as well. The more I saw him pitch, I noticed he wasn't using his changeup because he didn't need it, but I don't think that's a pitch that's going to get away from him either. It's exciting."

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At year's end, Miami invited Fernandez to Marlins Park to be honored alongside 2010 first-round pick Christian Yelich as the organization's Player and Pitcher of the Year award winners.

But the problem was Fernandez didn't want to go, telling reporters, "I didn't want to come, but I had to. That wasn't my plan. I wanted to come when it was my time to come [to the Majors]. ... I'm happy to be here, it's just a little thing I had."

Scott told a slightly different story, saying that although there was some reluctance on the pitcher's part, it melted away once he got the excitement of meeting some of the club's Major League players in their own house.

Still, there were a few moments that made the Marlins executive remember precisely with whom he was dealing.

"We're a pretty young club, so instead of hanging pictures of a long history, we have pictures up of the game's greats like Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams," Scott said. "I'm asking [Fernandez] who these people are, and he couldn't tell me any of them.

"We got back down to the field, and there was a big picture of Babe Ruth there. 'You have to know who that is, Jose,' I told him. 'Of course,' he said. 'That's Baby Ruth.'"

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The future plans for Fernandez are still up in the air. While some believe the native Cuban might deserve a shot at Major League camp during Spring Training, Scott would argue that such a move would only be worth face value and not do much to aid the pitcher's growth if he's only going to be sent down anyways.

Either way, the Marlins know precisely what they have in front of them, waiting for his scheduled arrival.

"He's a special person," Scott said. "He eats, breathes, lives baseball. You know, being a Cuban defector, his background is a story in itself, but he's a special guy who works on everything he does and just wants to be something great here in the game of baseball."

Sam Dykstra is a contributor to