TAMPA — Jose Fernandez’s fight to freedom fell just short — just 10 miles away from the Miami shoreline — in January 2008, when he and his family were caught by the Coast Guard on their second attempt to escape Cuba.
Now the Alonso High School senior pitcher and Cuban defector’s path to the major leagues can end in Little Havana.
The Marlins made the hard-throwing right-hander Hillsborough County’s highest baseball draft pick in 14 years Monday when they selected him with the 14th overall pick in this year’s MLB first-year player draft.
Even though the Marlins, who will open a new outdoor ballpark in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood in 2012, didn’t openly show much interest in Fernandez late, it quickly became the perfect fit for both sides.
“I can’t be more lucky than that,” Fernandez said. “Down there, there’s a lot of Spanish (speaking) people, and they’re going to love me because I work hard. I get mad when I go out there. I try to do my best and I’m a hard worker. I know they’re going to get me fast there.”
Fernandez, an 18-year-old who landed at Alonso after his fourth try escaping Cuba was successful by going through Mexico three years ago, won two Class 6A state titles in three seasons with the Ravens. With his 6-foot-3, 225-pound workhorse frame, he dominated high school hitters with his 98-mph fastball and an array of dancing breaking balls.
He has signed to play college ball at USF, but he is currently looking at a slotted signing bonus of $1.6 million.
Marlins player personnel executive Jim Fleming said Fernandez’s background played a key role in the club’s decision to draft him.
“You weigh it a lot,” Fleming said. “Going through the minor leagues, there’s a lot of adversity that the normal kid hasn’t had any experience with. This kid has faced a lot worse things than anything he’ll face going through our system.”
Fernandez is the county’s highest selection since 1997, when the Mets selected Jesuit pitcher Geoff Goetz with the sixth overall pick.
Fernandez also is the first non-supplemental first-round pick from Hillsborough County since current Twins centerfielder Denard Span was taken 20th overall out of Tampa Catholic in 2002.
Fernandez, who was named the Florida Gatorade Player of the Year, was 13-1 this season with a 1.35 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 93 innings. He also had nine complete-game wins, including four shutouts. At the plate, he hit .404 with nine homers and 35 RBIs, all team highs. Fernandez held opposing hitters to a .155 batting average.
Nearly every major-league club contacted Fernandez’s advisers on draft day, but the Marlins weren’t one of them. The Angels (17th), Red Sox (19th) and Cardinals (22nd) called during the first round, but none had their shot at Fernandez.
Fernandez and his advisers — along with his immediate family and Alonso coach Landy Faedo — crowded into a back room in his west Tampa home watching the draft on TV. They watched as other names were called. Fernandez emerged sporadically, shrugging his shoulders to the other family, teammates and media that gathered. Then the Marlins called his name with the 14th pick — to everyone’s surprise.
“I asked my guys, ‘Hey, do we have a chance here,’ ” Fernandez said. “They said, ‘Bro, no chance.’ ”
“From what I hear (the Marlins) hadn’t contacted him in four days,” Faedo said. “It was getting hot in there and the Marlins came up and I said that would be a great place for him. We were sitting there and you just heard ‘Jose’ and I jumped out of my seat. There was just a big smile on his face. You could tell it was a huge load off his back.”
Rich Arena, one of Fernandez’s advisers, said being selected by the Marlins was one of the best scenarios. Fernandez is going to an organization with a rich farm system that has proved its ability to groom young arms like Josh Beckett and Josh Johnson. Since 1999, when Florida picked Beckett No. 2 overall, the Marlins have used their first-round pick on a high school pitcher eight times.
“You always want to be with an organization that is going to develop,” Arena said. “We feel that he’s close to the big leagues and that there’s a chance he can get there pretty quick.”
Fernandez’s personal pitching coach, Orlando Chinea — who has worked with major-leaguers Livan and Orlando Hernandez and Rolando Arrojo — agrees.
“He has a good foundation,” Chinea said. “I think in two years he can pitch in the major leagues.”
Right in time for the Cuban kid to find a new home in Little Havana.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Tampa Bay area high school first-round draft picks since 1997
Geoff Goetz, P, Jesuit (6th, Mets)
Jason Romano, 3B, Hillsborough (39th, Rangers)*
T.J. Tucker, P, River Ridge (47th, Expos)*
Boof Bonser, P, Gibbs (21st, Giants)
Derek Thompson, P, Land O’ Lakes (37th, Indians)*
Casey Kotchman, 1B, Seminole (13th, Angels)
Bryan Bass, SS, Seminole (31st, Orioles)*
Denard Span, OF, Tampa Catholic (20th, Twins)
Ryan Harvey, OF, Dunedin (6th, Cubs)
Lastings Milledge, OF, Lakewood Ranch/Northside Christian (12th, Mets)
Steve Evarts, P, Robinson (43rd, Braves)*
Michael Burgess, OF, Hillsborough (49th, Nationals)*
*-- Supplemental pick