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International Free Agent Profile: Jose Fernandez

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The Cuban second baseman has recently defected from the Island. Would he be a player the Mets should target upon his free agency eligibility?

Jose Fernandez
Jose Fernandez
Koji Watanabe

Born April 27, 1988, in Santa Clara, Cuba, Jose Miguel Fernandez Diaz is the All-Star second baseman of Los Cocodrilos, the hard-luck Serie Nacional team representing Mantanzas, the Island's northern province. According to a Cuban media report, Fernandez went missing on Sunday, October 12, along with teammate and cousin Lazaro Hernandez. After an off day on Saturday, the second baseman failed to report back to the team, forcing Matanzas manager Victor Mesa to play without his star infielder. On Wednesday, October 15, Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reported that Fernandez had defected from the island nation.

The middle infielder began his baseball career during the 47th Serie Nacional (2007-2008). As a rookie, he posted a respectable .693 OPS—a number he would eclipse every subsequent year. He improved in his next two seasons, hitting .319/.372/.379 in the 48th Serie Nacional and .346/.391/.469 in the 49th Serie Nacional, before taking a step backward and hitting only .279/.340/.370 in 87 games in the 50th Serie Nacional.

From that point on, the middle infielder became one of the premier players in Cuba. Playing in a career-high 100 games in the 51st Serie Nacional (2011-2012), Fernandez hit .312/.434/.437, posting an .871 OPS, another career high. The left-hander did not look back from that point on, posting an OPS over .900 over the next two years.

In addition to such a high level of success against his fellow countrymen, Fernandez has demonstrated the ability to play at a high level in international competitions. He was named a member of the Cuban delegation for the 2013 World Baseball Classic and did not disappoint, hitting .524/.545/.667 in 21 at-bats over six games. His batting average was seventh best in the tournament, but was second to only Hirokazu Ibata (.556) among players with 15 or more at-bats. In the first round, Fernandez went 5-for-8, going 0-for-1 with a walk against Team Brazil, 3-for-4 against Team China, and 2-for-3 against Samurai Japan. In the second round, the Cuban second baseman went 6-for-13, going 2-for-4 against the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 2-for-4 against Taiwan, and 2-for-5 in Cuba's final game, once again against Kingdom of the Netherlands. The one knock against his rather impressive WBC performance is that, by and large, the majority of his hits came against lesser pitchers. He only faced a single "solid" KBO/NPB/MLB pitcher, hitting a single and a double off of then Rakuten ace Masahiro Tanaka.

The man from Matanzas, whose whereabouts are currently unknown, must now establish permanent residency in a new country, and must petition the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control for an unblocking license. Once obtained, the second baseman can officially be granted MLB free agent status and can be signed by an MLB team. The process can take anywhere from a few months to upward of a year, depending on how thorough an investigation the Office of Foreign Assets Control is inclined to conduct. Assuming all of his paperwork is in order and the investigation is performed in a timely manner, Fernandez could sign with an MLB team around spring training. Because of his age, baseball skill, and the fact that he would not be missing any significant amount of playing time during the transition, the middle infielder could immediately be plugged into an MLB lineup for the 2015 season.

Year Age G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2010-2011 (50th SNdB) 22 87 360 .279 .340 .370 4 26 16 2/2
2011-2012 (51st SNdB) 23 100 311 .312 .434 .437 7 63 15 1/2
2012-2013 (52nd SNdB) 24 99 342 .348 .449 .480 8 54 22 0/1
2013-2014 (53rd SNdB) 25 94 280 .321 .469 .443 6 70 13 3/6
2014-2015 (54th SNdB) 26 15 65 .315 .415 .426 1 8 1 1/0
(Source: http://www.beisbolencuba.com)

According to Baseball America's Ben Badler, Jose Fernandez was the third-best player in Cuba, behind only Industriales third baseman Yulieski Gourriel and Granma outfielder Alfredo Despaigne. While he does not have as much raw power as either player—or as much as many other recent Cuban defectors who are now or will soon be playing in the United States—Fernandez's ability to get on base is second to none, thanks to a very developed ability to interpret the strike zone and to recognize pitches. He is very patient at the plate, laying off pitches outside the zone and working deep counts to give himself the advantage over the pitcher.

Fernandez has a short, level stroke that produces very high contact rates; but because of the particulars of his set-up and swing, he loses a lot of power. According to Baseball America, "He sets up with his hands low, but he's able to keep his hands back to adjust to breaking balls and stay inside good fastballs up and in. When he swings, his back foot slides out from behind him and he loses his balance, only re-gaining his footing by landing with his back foot on the other side of home plate." Though his swing does not produce the power that would turn him into a superstar, his ability to hit and his eye at the plate make him an on-base machine, and a very valuable player.

Defensively, Fernandez is a passable fielder at second base, but would be considered a below-average middle infielder. The majority of the time, he makes the routine plays with no problems; but because of his lack of range, a slow initial reaction speed, and a fringy arm, he can't be counted on for too much else. He has experience playing third base as well, but because of the same issues that limit his ability at second base, his defensive abilities don't exactly play up at third, either.

Fernandez seems poised to make a large sum of money once declared an official free agent. Though he is older, his age will seemingly work in his favor, as he is in the prime of his career and is talented enough to immediately be inserted in an MLB lineup. Current Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo was in a similar situation and signed a six-year, $72.5 million dollar contract this past August. Though Castillo is a more dynamic player overall, with more secondary skills to give him value if his hitting ability does not come through against MLB pitchers, the man from Matanzas should be due for a similar payday.