Chuck Hernandez knew the instant he saw the Tampa high school senior pitch a couple of years ago that the kid wasn’t going to college. Jose Fernandez was just too good.
It was 2011 and Fernandez had signed a letter of intent to play at the University of South Florida. But the draft was coming up and Hernandez, a veteran pitching coach for the Rays and Tigers, could tell college wasn’t happening, that USF was probably just a backup plan.
“I went and saw him pitch one inning, a high school game during his senior year,” Hernandez recalled. “I left after one inning and told [the USF] coach, ‘You’re not getting that guy. He ain’t going to no college.’ ”
And Fernandez didn’t. The Marlins took him with the 14th overall pick.
Hernandez, the new pitching coach for the Marlins, was telling the story Tuesday after the hottest pitching prospect in the team’s farm system — one of the top prospects in all of baseball — worked off a bullpen mound to sharpen up for the spring.
Fernandez, a 20-year-old right-hander, looks like he could be good one, perhaps the best homegrown pitching talent the Marlins have produced since Josh Beckett more than a decade ago.
MLB.com ranks Fernandez as the seventh-best prospect in baseball. ESPN’s Keith Law has him listed at 13th overall, seventh among pitchers.
“There’s no denying that God blessed him with some good ammunition,” Hernandez said of Fernandez, who defected from Cuba in a speedboat and barely survived the ordeal. “He’s a hard-working kid and he’s been through a lot before he ever stepped foot in this country.”
Asked whom Fernandez reminded him of, Hernandez hesitated. Pressed, he finally conceded that Tigers ace Justin Verlander came to mind.
“Some of the things that make him tick remind me a lot of Verlander, just the way they go about their business, what their focuses are on, what they aspire to do,” said Hernandez, who was Verlander’s pitching coach in Detroit from 2006 to ’08. “But one’s there and done it and the other one’s working his way towards it.”
For Fernandez, most believe it’s only a matter of time.
“I don’t want to go crazy thinking about where I’m going to be, what I’m going to do and where I’m going to go,” Fernandez said. “I just want to go out there every fifth day, pitch, and help my team win. I don’t have any other goals.”
Fernandez is expected to start the season at Double A Jacksonville, but, assuming he continues to dominate minor-league hitters the way he has the past two years, he could receive his big-league promotion in late summer.
Fernandez carries a supreme confidence that reminds some of Beckett back when he was an up-and-comer for the Marlins.
“I want to be the best,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. I don’t want to be second best. I want to be the best.”
But Fernandez isn’t resting on his laurels. He worked out three times a day during the offseason near his Tampa home with former Cuban national pitching coach Orlando Chinea.
“I don’t see it like, ‘All right, I’m better than everybody because I’m No.7 [prospect] or whatever,” Fernandez said. “I’m just one of the guys competing for a spot here.”
As a humble reminder of that, Fernandez has been assigned one of the temporary lockers — with a handful of other minor leaguers — out in the middle of the Marlins’ crowded clubhouse.
Those players are typically among the first cuts.
Fernandez will try to forestall that decision for as long as he can.
“I think my stuff is there,” he said. “I’m ready. I’m ready to pitch.”
A handful of Marlins on the 40-man roster are out of options, meaning they can’t be assigned to the minors without first clearing waivers. The ones most worthy of attention are outfielders Gorkys Hernandez and Justin Ruggiano, along with left-handed pitchers Wade LeBlanc and Mike Dunn. It’s a factor worth noting not only as roster decisions are being made during spring training, but also after the season starts. … Catcher Craig Tatum, a 29-year-old nonroster invitee, informed the Marlins he was retiring. The spring roster now stands at 73 players. … It has been weeks since the Marlins heard from former Dolphins quarterback Pat White, an indication he might not accept their invitation to minor-league camp, which starts soon.