One of the more unlikely stories of the LA Angels’ 2018 season began tonight in Minnesota. José Fernández, along with Nolan Fontana, was called up to the Angels in the wake of the injuries to Shohei Ohtani, Andrelton Simmons, and Kaleb Cowart, made his major league debut in Minnesota. In his first at-bat, the lefty-swinging first baseman collected his first big league hit, lining a sharp single into right-center off of Twins starter Lance Lynn.
Fernández’s road to the major leagues with the LA Angels is a lot longer than most: he’s a 30-year-old utility man who didn’t even get a chance to play minor league ball until two years ago. From 2007 to 2015, Jose Miguel Fernández Diaz was a star in the Cuban National League, hitting .319/.403/.423 in 7-plus seasons, including a high of .355/.456/.492. Over his last two full seasons, he was feared enough to earn 34 intentional walks, most in the Cuban Nation League over that stretch. He was also a member of Cuba’s national team, hitting .524 in the 2013 World Baseball Classic and impressed American scouts enough that Baseball America tabbed him as the third best prospect in Cuba.
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However, in late autumn of the 2014-15 season (Cuban baseball seasons don’t start until the fall, and go through winter into spring), Fernández was caught trying to defect, and was banned from playing baseball. He managed to finally get off the island in December of 2015, and after dealing with illness and rust, was able to start working out in the Dominican Winter League.
It wasn’t until January of 2017 that the Los Angeles Dodgers finally signed him to a minor league contract. Two years removed from full-season baseball, the Dodgers got a much heavier, slower version of Fernández. He impressed with a .306/.367/.496 slash line, hitting for more power than expected, but he was never a speed merchant, and the impact of age and weight on his defense at second base was apparent — always a sure-handed pivot man in Cuba, Fernández made eight errors in 90 games. The Dodgers had started moving him around to first, third, and left field with an eye on turning him into a utility player, but before he could get comfortable, Fernandez suffered an injury to his hand at the end of July, and that ended his season. In November, for unstated reasons, cut him.
The Angels picked Fernández up in early January and sent him to AAA Salt Lake, where he’s done nothing but hit. He’s put up a .345/.412/.562 line, including a blistering .365/.434/.647 line against right-handed pitching. Almost as impressive is how well Fernández has adjusted defensively to his new roles: before he was called up on Friday morning, he had split nearly equal time at first, second, and third base, and has made just one error all season.
The shifting injury situation plays in Fernández’s favor. With Ohtani’s lefty bat unavailable now for who knows how long, Albert Pujols will move back to DH. Zack Cozart to short until Simmons is back, which means we’ll be seeing a lot more of Luis Valbuena at third base, and that means first base is open for a while. The thin air in Salt Lake may have boosted his production line, but a decade of baseball tells us that Fernández can make consistent hard contact, hit for a solid average, and that he’ll lay off Ball 4. Depending on what happens with Ohtani, José Fernández may end up playing a much larger role in the Angels’ 2018 season than anyone expected.