Tony Cingrani vs. Jose Fernandez: Top prospect showdown

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

It's a match-up between arms of the future on Thursday when the Reds and Marlins face off

There aren't a whole lot of reasons to watch the Marlins this season, and that's a statement that can be applied to fans of the team as well as followers of baseball as a whole. However, on Thursday night at 7:05 eastern, everyone can get a look at what is maybe the only reason not shaped like Giancarlo Stanton to tune in to Marlins games, when 20-year-old pitching phenom Jose Fernandez takes the mound. As a bonus, we'll get to see him face off against the Reds' Tony Cingrani, a top prospect replacing the injured Johnny Cueto.

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Fernandez will be making his third start of the season. He's dazzled in his first 11 frames, striking out 13 batters, allowed just two walks, and scattered five hits to limit opponents to a single run. Drafted 14th overall in 2011, he has more plus pitches than he does years as a professional, and until debuting in the majors this April had never pitched above High-A. Yeah, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were both impressive last year, but neither of them made a jump to the bigs like that.

It's easy to understand how Fernandez could calmly enter the big-league scene, though: baseball is nothing compared to what he's already been through. According to Baseball America's post-2012 write-up of Fernandez, he escaped Cuba when he was 15 years old, on his fourth attempt: his failed tries resulted in the end of his schooling, the end of his baseball playing, and even jail time. During the speedboat trip that finally brought them to U.S. shores, Fernandez had to dive in after his mother, who had gone overboard, and swam back to the boat with her holding on tight. That's a whole lot to go through before you even finish high school, which, by the way, Fernandez did once he was in Florida.

Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports

Fernandez is ahead of his years in a variety of ways. Despite being all of 20, he's already 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, and scouts believe he has not only the build of Roger Clemens, but his attitude on the mound as well. He has the stuff to back up that demeanor, with an explosive mid-to-high 90s four-seam fastball, a low-90s two-seamer for ground balls, a slider, and a change-up. As he can already command all of these pitches, it's no wonder the Marlins rushed to bring him to the majors, even though they will be terrible as his service- time clock ticks away.

All of the above is why Baseball America rated him the fifth-best prospect in all of baseball heading into 2013, behind only Dylan Bundy of the Baltimore Orioles. There's an argument to be made, and one that will get stronger with more starts like his first two, that five wasn't quite high enough.

While Tony Cingrani doesn't have quite the attention of Fernandez, he's certainly still worthy of notice. He came in at 82 on the same prospect list, while MLB.com listed him at 66. He's 23, making him an old man in comparison to Fernandez, but young next to just about everyone else in the bigs. He's struck out just under 12 batters per nine in his minor-league career, punched out 26 in his first 14 frames at Triple-A to begin 2013, and already has nine whiffs to his credit in five big-league innings accumulated in three September relief appearances.

Like Fernandez, Cingrani was drafted back in 2011. He was awful as a junior, posting an 8.57 ERA with Rice back in 2010 over 22 innings, but his delivery was modified in order to fix a timing issue heading into his senior year, and the results were so drastic that he became a third-round selection: he threw 57 innings, mostly in relief, and posted a 1.74 ERA with 66 strikeouts against 10 walks. That level of success has not left him upon turning pro, even with the move to full-time starter, as Cingrani's 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.62 minor-league ERA show.

His stuff would never be confused with that of Fernandez, as he's a deception guy with low-90s velocity on his heater. He's leaned heavily on that pitch, despite the unimpressive radar reading, likely in part due to his history as a reliever at college combined with his limited development time in the minors. He's added a curve for this year, though, and if he can make his change-up work for him more now that it's his third pitch rather than his second, there could be some room to beat out his prospect ranking with improved results.

At best, he's probably a mid-rotation guy -- not that there's anything wrong with it. The eye-popping numbers he's put up in the minors and in relief aren't necessarily indicative of what you should expect, and is why he's on the back-end of the top 100 instead of alongside Fernandez, but that doesn't mean he can't put on a good show now that he's been pressed into action. Remember that when you're trying to figure out which game to watch tonight, as these two youngsters will give you a glimpse into the future rotations of two clubs.

Plus, it's a good way to fill your Marlins' quota for the year.

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