NEW YORK — Almost five years ago to the day from when he stepped foot on U.S. soil for the first time, after dodging bullets and diving into the choppy sea to rescue his mother during their daring escape from Cuba, the Marlins’ best young pitching prospect in years will make his major-league debut at Citi Field on Sunday.
Though he is only 20, making him the youngest starting pitcher in Marlins history, Jose Fernandez says he is neither scared nor nervous — not after what he’s had to endure.
“I’ve been in jail. I’ve been shot at. I’ve been in the water,” Fernandez said of his path to the big leagues. “I’m not scared to face David Wright. What can he do?”
Not since Josh Beckett’s debut in 2001 has the arrival of any Marlins pitcher to the major-league scene come with so much anticipation. Fernandez, who was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2011 out of Tampa’s Alonso High School, is ranked by Baseball America as the No. 5 overall prospect.
Jeffrey Loria informed the young hurler he was being promoted to the majors in a surprise phone call, something the owner of the Marlins said he had done only once before, when Giancarlo Stanton was called up the first time.
Fernandez’s rapid response when Loria broke the news: “Oh my God.”
The thickset right-hander figured he’d be starting the season at Double A Jacksonville. That was the plan, anyhow. After all, Fernandez hadn’t pitched above Single A. But when two members of the starting rotation landed on the disabled list at the end spring training, the Marlins figured, “why not?”
“The consensus was this kid’s ready to handle it here, he’s ready to pitch here,” said Larry Beinfest, the Marlins’ president of baseball operations. “We think he’s ready to do it. It was not a decision that was made like, ‘Hey, let’s bring Jose up because he’s really good.’ We spent a lot of time around the kid. It just seems like he’s ready to do this. This is where he should be.”
It’s where Fernandez has always longed to be, ever since he was a young boy in Cuba, waking up in the predawn hours just to go outside and throw loose rocks that he found on the street. Or use a machete to hack off a tree limb that he used as a makeshift bat.
Fernandez was jailed after failing on one of several attempts to flee Cuba. When he finally managed to defect successfully, it was only after he escaped gunfire and jumped into the Gulf of Mexico to rescue his mother after their boat capsized. They crossed the border from Mexico, stepping foot in Texas, on April 5, 2008. He was 15.
It was around this time two years ago that he was preparing for his high school prom.
Now he’s preparing to face big-league hitters.
When he got a call through to his grandmother in Cuba on Friday to tell her what was going on, Fernandez said her response was: “No, you can’t do that. You’re too young. They’re grown men. You’re playing against guys who are parents. I still see you like you were 9, or you were 8.”
Fernandez is, in fact, a relative lightweight in terms of experience.
Only three pitchers since 1970 — Dwight Gooden, Jeremy Bonderman and Rick Porcello — made the jump from Single A to the majors and pitched at least 100 innings as rookies.
In an effort to preserve his young arm, the Marlins intend to limit Fernandez’s innings this season to no more than 170. As long as the holds his own, they intend to keep him on the big-league roster, even though it means he could reach free agency a year sooner (2018) than if they would have waited and brought him up from the minors later this season.
“So what?” Loria said. “We’ll deal with it. He’s unique.”
Manager Mike Redmond said he will tell Fernandez to be himself, to “stick to your strengths, don’t try to be somebody that you’re not.” But Redmond is keenly aware that it will be a special day for Fernandez.
“So many guys have gotten here differently,” Redmond said. “Some guys were high draft picks. Some guys were low draft picks. Some guys spent many years in the minor leagues. Some guys only spent a couple.
“Fernandez, his path is different. Everybody has a different appreciation when they hit that field, and I know how special [Sunday] will mean for him when he walks on that field. I can’t even imagine the emotions that he’s going to feel. I’m sure he’ll have a ton of stuff going through his mind.”
Said Fernandez: “People say, ‘Are you nervous? Are you scared?’ No, I’m not scared. I’m not scared to do anything. The only thing I was scared of was getting in that boat, and getting shot at, and jumping in the water. After that, I’m not scared about anything else.”