Could Junior Fernandez be the Cardinals’ future closer?

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Junior Fernandez #44 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws in the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on August 14, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Junior Fernandez #44 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws in the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on August 14, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /
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If Alex Reyes shifts to the rotation in 2022, could Junior Fernandez be his replacement in the ninth inning going forward?

Alex Reyes has emerged as a dominant closer for the St. Louis Cardinals, but the question still remains where he will be long-term. Do they keep him in the ninth inning or shift him to the top-end of the rotation, the place they have envisioned him since he joined the organization?

This is something that president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and manager Mike Shildt will have to figure out following the 2021 season. But if they shift Reyes to the rotation, MLB.com believes that they have an internal option who could more than hold his own in the ninth inning: right-handed pitcher Junior Fernandez.

“Among those currently in the system, Fernández has perhaps the best stuff to fill the role if necessary. The right-hander’s velocity was down in 2020 but was back up to touching 97 with the sinker this spring. He also leans on a changeup that earns above-average grades.”

Fernandez, 24, is currently with Triple-A Memphis after separate stints in the majors the last two seasons. He has struggled in those stretches, posting a 7.98 ERA and 18/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14.2 innings pitched, but has put up a much more reasonable 3.58 ERA in seven minor-league seasons.

With the Cardinals needing as much pitching depth as possible to get through the season, and reliever Jordan Hicks being on the injured list, it’s possible that Fernandez sees time in the majors, perhaps some time soon. He would not see high leverage positions, of course, but could be a valuable piece to pitch the middle innings should a starter not pitch deep into games.

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Long term, however, Fernandez could see time in high leverage situations, especially if Reyes is shifted to the rotation in 2022, leaving him or any other pitcher with big shoes to fill.

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