Why Jose Fernandez is another cautionary tale for rebuilding Cubs

Why Jose Fernandez is another cautionary tale for rebuilding Cubs
May 14, 2014, 1:45 am
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ST. LOUIS – Chris Bosio caught highlights from Friday night’s Marlins-Padres game and immediately noticed something about Jose Fernandez.

Looking at the TV, the Cubs pitching coach could see the Marlins ace didn’t quite have the stuff that made him the National League’s Rookie of the Year and a budding star in Little Havana. Jedd Gyorko homered twice off Fernandez at Petco Park, setting off warning sirens for another young pitcher reportedly headed toward Tommy John surgery.

“I’m like: ‘God damn, that kid doesn’t seem right,’” Bosio recalled while sitting in Busch Stadium’s visiting dugout. “His arm slot was slower. His pitches were flat. And he wasn’t throwing his breaking ball as much. It’s usually a tell.”

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It’s not a death sentence. Adam Wainwright – who has become a billboard for Tommy John surgery – handcuffed the Cubs on Tuesday night in a game the Cardinals would wind up winning 4-3 in 12 innings. Wainwright missed the 2011 season, signed an extension worth almost $100 million last spring and then won 19 games while accounting for 241-plus innings.

But Major League Baseball is still in crisis mode with all the Tommy John cases that have stretched from Arizona (Patrick Corbin) to Oakland (Jarrod Parker) to Atlanta (Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy) to Pittsburgh (Jameson Taillon) to Tampa Bay (Matt Moore), reportedly more than 30 already this year.

It reinforces why Jeff Samardzija’s workload became such a huge story and Pitch-Count-Gate dominated Cubs-Sox week. It underlines why Cubs executives held their breath when elite pitching prospect C.J. Edwards went for an MRI last month. It informs what the Cubs might do with their No. 4 overall pick.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Bosio said. “To me, there will never be one clear-cut way to do it. If a guy’s going to blow out, he’s going to blow out. There are no crystal balls, and there never will be.”

Looking under the hood

Bosio sees the game from many different angles. He threw more than 1,700 innings in the big leagues. He worked as Lou Piniella’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay and an advance scout for the Brewers. He took on special assignments for Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick in the Seattle system. He helped run baseball academies in California and Wisconsin, tutoring everyone from eight-year-old kids to high-school athletes to professional pitchers.

Bosio is a big dude with an old-school philosophy. He wants pitchers with guts. But he also speaks the same language as Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod.

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Bosio charts everything, even throws off flat ground in spring training. Frame by frame, he breaks down video. He inhales all the data while putting together game plans.

“I hate to use the word ‘I,’” Bosio said. “I hate to always go ‘Well, in my career…’ But I never had elbow or shoulder issues, because I was taught to have really good, clean mechanics.

“On a daily basis, (bullpen coach Lester Strode) and I are constantly talking about timing, the breaking of the hands, getting out over the front foot, finding that release point. That’s where the good mechanics really come in. I know we are one of those organizations that really look hard at mechanics. It’s not out of character for Jason McLeod or Theo or Jed to say: ‘Hey, take a look at this guy.’”

Last year, Bosio analyzed college power pitchers Mark Appel, Jonathan Gray and Sean Manaea before the Cubs selected power hitter Kris Bryant with the No. 2 overall pick. That pitcher vs. hitter debate is going on right now as the Cubs weigh the inherent risks that come with next month’s No. 4 overall pick, where they won’t be drafting East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman, who’s supposed to get elbow-reconstruction surgery this week. 

“What do you look for?” Bosio said. “Guys that are 6-3, long, but strong, broad-shouldered so they can take the workload.

“We didn’t have pitching coaches on my A-ball team. We had a manager and we had a trainer. Our bullpens consisted of batting practice. That’s how it was in the early 80s.

“Now, you got a pitching coach. You got a bullpen coach. In some organizations, like ours, now we got a pitching coordinator and an assistant pitching coordinator to keep tabs, to constantly stay on these guys’ mechanics.

“It’s the right direction. It’s the philosophies of the organization that start with our scouts. Jason McLeod and I have talked mechanics a lot (and) I know that organizationally we are all on the same page on what we’re looking for.”

‘It’s (bleeping) insane’

This isn’t the end for Fernandez, who defected from Cuba, played high-school ball in Tampa, Fla., and got drafted 14th overall in the 2011 draft, five spots after the Cubs grabbed shortstop Javier Baez.

“It’s just amazing how far they’ve come,” Bosio said. “I think seven out of 10 guys that had the surgery are coming back and they’re throwing harder. They’re more efficient than what they were. They get even stronger.” 

That’s why the Cubs felt comfortable asking for Arodys Vizcaino in the 2012 Paul Maholm trade with the Braves, even though the top prospect would miss two seasons because of Tommy John complications. It’s how they might have found a closer in Rule 5 pick-up Hector Rondon, who had the surgery in 2010 and needed another elbow procedure some 16 months later. 

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Bosio remembered leaving Tampa Bay to handle a family situation at home and helping out the local Division III baseball program at Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He saw Jordan Zimmermann pitching for Wisconsin-Stevens Point and recalled telling a Brewers scout after a one-hit, 16-strikeout playoff game: “Holy (bleep)! This guy’s (bleeping) unbelievable.”

The Nationals selected Zimmermann in the second round of the 2007 draft and broke him into their big-league rotation two years later. Tommy John surgery ended Zimmermann’s rookie season and the recovery process helped make him a different pitcher. 

Zimmermann has made 90 starts across the last three seasons and won 19 games last year, becoming an All-Star and getting Cy Young votes.

“Jordan Zimmermann went from a guy (who’d) throw all four pitches to both sides of the plate, right or lefty,” Bosio said. “Now he’s turning into this 95-96 mph blower. I’m not saying he’s not a pitcher. He’s still got his bullets if he wanted to do it. But he knows that he can get guys out with his fastball and be a lot more pitch-efficient.

“I saw Zimmermann throw a (ton) of pitches with a lot of spin and the next thing I know he’s coming back – what? – 14 months after Tommy John. And he’s throwing, on average, three miles an hour harder than he ever did. It’s (bleeping) insane.”