This is the third installment in this offseason’s Helium series, (the first of which, that also has details on my rough selection guidelines, can be found here, and the second can be found here). Without further preamble, let’s get started.
A farm system that produced not-quite-All-Star Will Smith, and currently boasts MLB Pipeline‘s No. 8 overall prospect Diego Cartaya, as well as the 2022 MiLB leader in wRC+ (min 100 PAs) in Dalton Rushing, has another backstop on the rise — a 2019 IFA signee out of Barquisimeto, Venezuela who just turned 20 years old, Fernandez.
If the city of Barquisimeto sounds familiar, it’s with good reason — it’s a bit of a baseball Mecca that, despite having a population of just 881,000, has been the birthplace of an impressive 35 current and former major league baseball players, including old friend Cesar Izturis. Additionally, the local Venezuelan Winter League team, Los Cardenales de Lara, has had a number of notable former Dodgers don their unis at one point or another: the aforementioned Izturis, along with Shawn Green, Joc Pederson, Giovanni Carrara, and Brandon Morrow. In Barquisimeto, baseball is most definitely a thing.
So, let’s dig into what makes Fernandez, who is also the newest member of Los Cardenales (more on that later), so promising.
First off, the bat. This is as a 19-year-old catcher that’s listed at 5’9″, 185 pounds, and although he was a little more then two years younger than average for the California League, he posted a strikeout rate of 13.0% and a walk rate of 10.9%, both of which are exceptional. The list of prospects who struck out that infrequently and walked that often, is incredibly short. Of the 404 qualified batters from the full season, state-side affiliates who were 25 or younger, Fernandez was one of just seven members of that club, and he’s the only catcher.
Knowing the difference between a ball and a strike, and putting the bat on the ball, that’s one set of things, but it doesn’t matter a tremendous amount unless you’re able to do damage as well, and Fernandez most definitely did that. After scuffling out of the gate with Rancho in 2022, once the calendar flipped to June, the kid caught fire, slashing .333/422/.502 the rest of the way, with a wRC+ of 141.
It’s rare for a catcher so young to tap into his pull-side pop, but plus-pitch recognition, bat to ball, and with the bat speed to get to heaters, it all adds up to an impressive offensive package.
And now, the defense, and this is what may set Fernandez apart in the coming years. Major League Baseball is adopting two rule changes that were implemented at the minor league level last season that will put some heat on pitchers and catchers; the pitch clock, giving base stealers a clearer window of when they will be taking off, and the bases will be increasing in size from 15″ square to 18″ square, slightly shortening the distance between bases, but also giving the runners a bit more room to operate. According to Baseball America, that led to a roughly 25% increase in stolen base attempts across all of minor league baseball.
The following graph portrays the run value of stolen base attempts just from Triple-A (please feel free to ignore the speculation about the automated balls and strike system, since that won’t be implemented in the near term):
Yeeeeaaaaah, if there’s value in it, teams will do it, so hold onto your butts.
Now, back to Yeiner, because the kid’s got quick feet, a smooth transfer, and an absolute hose:
It’s difficult to get clean looks at pop times on the various minor league streams, and the video above is obviously just four that I came across (after a fair amount of searching), plus the timing isn’t as precise as, say, Statcast, but the four above average out to 1.82 seconds. The official number on how quick of a gunslinger Fernandez actually is remains to be seen, but, I am most definitely not the only one who took notice:
So, how do times like that stack up at the big league level?
Based on the above times, Fernandez is currently registering at a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, with an 80 being 1.74 seconds and the league average landing at 2 seconds (per both BA and Baseball Savant). For a blue-tinged frame of reference, Will Smith‘s average pop time is 1.93 seconds, putting him at a 60. I don’t know that the Dodgers have had a 70-grade catch and throw guy in my lifetime, so this is, to me at least, both novel and exciting. And, suffice it to say, if MLB sees the sort of increase in stolen base attempts that MiLB saw, this part of his game could be incredibly valuable.
As for what the young Venezuelan is up to lately, incredibly he debuted for his hometown Los Cardenales on Dec. 9 after the eight catchers ahead of him on the depth chart were not available. Ninth on the depth chart, and taking the reins … good gravy. During his initial five-game run, Fernandez slashed .364/.417/.455, with a walk and a strikeout, and he did indeed nail an attempted basestealer. You’ve likely heard that you don’t gotta get ready if you stay ready, but this is taking it to another level.
In addition to his prowess while donning the tools of ignorance, Fernandez has spent a bit of time at second base as well, where he got to show off his athleticism a bit:
Given Fernandez’s size, though he’s just 19, it’s possible that the power potential is close to maxed out, though a catcher with 10-15 homer pop to the pull side, on-base skills, and his defensive chops, that’s a tremendous get anyway.
As for the current rankings, MLB Pipeline has Fernandez 20th in the system, Baseball America has him 26th, and FanGraphs has him ranked 40th, with a composite prospect grade of 40 among them. Depending on how his power plays when he eventually ascends to High A Great Lakes, a bump to 45 (at minimum) should be in the offing, as a future as a catcher/second baseman with the bat to make him a rarity in both utility and productivity. If the same 10-15 homer power shows up in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Midwest League, it would be hard not to slap a 50 future grade on him then and there.
Of all the helium picks, the left-handed Valdez is far and away the the least-known, but I liked what I saw, and I’m going with my gut.
One of the things you do when you’re a baseball dork is play around with the various stat databases, trying to stumble across anything that might be noteworthy. In the case of Valdez, the absurdity that stood out was the walks, or rather, the lack of them.
Valdez issued his first walk on July 19th, 2021. He issued his second walk on Aug. 1, 2022. A year and change between free passes.
As they were the young southpaw’s age-17 and age-18 seasons (he turned 19 in July), he mostly participated in short-season ball, so the walk-less outing streak was only eight. Nevertheless, the time between walks was enough of an impetus to do a bit more digging.
Born in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico, Valdez was listed at 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, when he was participating in the showcase circuit in 2019, in an effort to get noticed, with his last appearance coming at an October edition of the New Balance Future Stars Series, held at Fenway Park, in Boston:
A 16-year-old beanpole showing an effective three-pitch mix, topping out at 89 MPH, and getting the better of some talented young hitters proved to be an enticing-enough package for the Dodgers, who had him put pen to paper a less than a month later.
Flashing forward to the 2022 season, and the profile is that of projectable high school senior who would have received significant interest come draft time — 6’2″, 160 pounds with a fastball out of a lower release point sitting 90-92, a curve with RPMs in the 2,800-2,900 range that has whiff-inducing tilt, and a changeup that he’ll throw to both lefties and righties.
Valdez is also showing plus command and pitchability, executing sequences that are beyond his years:
Changeup in the zone away gets a whiff, expanding the changeup off and getting another whiff, backdoor curve that just misses, and an elevated heater for the K that played right off the prior bender. All that, with plus video game numbers to boot, and this came from the youngest pitcher to log an inning with any of the Dodgers’ full season affiliates.
So, what’s next? Mass. Mass equals gas, and Valdez has room to add quite a bit. If they can pack on another 20 to 30 pounds across the next couple of seasons, it’s easy to envision a fastball ticking up into the mid-90s, and out of that lower release point, picking up even more bat-missing induced vertical break.
The young hurler is likely return to Rancho to kick off the 2022 season, a campaign during which the challenge will be to maintain whatever physical gains he has (hopefully) made during the current offseason. This might be a bit of an early helium pick, as Valdez doesn’t even have a scouting report at any of the prospect outlets, but much like the hitters with Valdez’s Bugs Bunny changeup, I wanted to get out in front of this one.
So that’s all of them, six picks for the 2022 season whom I think will be on the rise. There will be one upcoming article in this vein, highlighting a handful of prospects who are farther away than those featured here, but are showing too much talent to ignore. Call them FOMO picks, for lack of a better term, because I’ll be kicking myself if I bite my tongue and the prospect world catches on before I’ve written up my diatribe.
Enjoy your Thursday, folks.