The Blue Jays bullpen, at times dominant in 2022, at others maddeningly inconsistent and unproductive, could be getting the one thing it needs next season.
Julian Fernández throws hard. Really hard, topping out at 103 mph last season in the minors. The Blue Jays signed the 27-year-old right-hander to a minor league deal on Thursday, according to Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet, in the hopes he can harness that power to become a productive weapon out of the bullpen.
Fernández's only major league experience came in 2021 when he appeared in six games for the Colorado Rockies. He threw 99 fastballs in those outings, 55 of which were clocked at least 99 mph. He hit as high as 102.8 mph, reaching triple digits 24 times.
He’s a prototypical power pitcher, something the Blue Jays didn’t have a lot of last season. The Blue Jays ranked 25th in the league in the number of pitches thrown at least 99 mph; they only had one recorded pitch reach 100 mph. Instead, they relied on a mix of spin artists, pitchers who top out in the mid-to-low-90s and don’t miss a ton of bats. It’s a strategy that doesn’t always work well in today’s game.
Of the top-five clubs in swinging-strike percentage last season, all five made the postseason, led by the World Series champion Houston Astros. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, ranked 23rd. Their relievers were 16th in strikeouts per nine innings and in the middle of the pack in ERA.
That is the glaring hole in the roster that Fernández is being brought in to try to fix. He has one weakness: he can be wild. Fernández made 58 appearances for Triple-A Albuquerque in 2022 and walked 32 batters in just 57 innings while striking out 10.3 per nine innings. He pitched in the Dominican League this winter, lowering his BB/9 to 3.4 with a 2.81 ERA in 15 appearances.
Fernández, who has been bouncing around the minors since he was 17 in 2013, still has plenty of untapped potential. He went four years without pitching in professional baseball, a combination of Tommy John surgery and the pandemic canceling the entire 2020 minor league season.
It’s a move made with little risk by the Blue Jays to see just how far Fernández's powerful right arm can take him. The club signed him to a minor league deal, so he won’t use up a spot on the 40-man roster. He’ll have plenty to prove in Spring Training before earning a spot in the big-league bullpen.
But, with an arm like that, it’s a deal that’s well worth the look the Blue Jays will give him.