Already, the Braves are forced to send one of their starting rotation members to the injured list, as Chase Irle reported here on Wednesday that 36-year-old lefty, Cole Hamels, had injured himself while training at home in Texas. The Braves are hopeful he will only miss the first three weeks of the 2020 regular season.
Losing a starting pitcher before the season even starts — especially one that’s expected to contribute significantly this year — is a mighty tough pill to swallow, but such a tragedy does at least open up other possibilities to discuss (even if those possibilities are not as ideal). Though, simple math tells us that with Hamels now on the shelf, the Braves will head into exhibition games next weekend with two open spots in the rotation, as Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz are the only three definite starters at this point.
Assuming GM Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t sign or trade for another starting pitcher before the season opener (remember, he did sign Mike Tomlin recently), I count four potential candidates to fill those two open spots:
- Sean Newcomb, LHP
- Felix Hernandez, RHP
- Bryse Wilson, RHP
- Kyle Wright, RHP
To me, one of the rotation spots is Newcomb’s to lose, as I believe his experience gives him the upper hand. The “other” rotation spot…? Why not a six-time All-Star and former Cy Young, “King” Felix Hernandez?
Hernandez has been around a while, as he’ll turn 34-years-old just two weeks after Opening Day. Yet it’s not his age that illustrates just how long he has been at it in the majors. It’s not outlandish for a pitcher Hernandez’s age to succeed in the big leagues (just look at Hamels), but it’s the miles on his arm that keeps folks skeptical about his chances.
Over a span of 15 seasons, Hernandez has tallied 2,729.2 innings in the majors (plus another 300+ in the minors), while averaging 182 frames per year since signing with the Mariners at the young age of 17. People have always judged a starting pitcher’s durability by how many times he’s able to reach the 200-inning mark, well Hernandez has reached that total in over half of his years as a big-league pitcher, passing 200 innings in eight-straight seasons from 2008-15 (he led the American League in innings in 2010).
Granted, that was then. Hernandez is no longer in his 20s, and his swift decline has been widely reported and analyzed for the last 3-4 years. But what if the Braves could help him find another gear in 2020? Is that even a realistic expectation?
Perhaps it is…
In his early 20s, Hernandez topped out at 98 mph with his fastball, while still reaching the mid-90s as recent as 2014; however, those days are over. Last season, Hernandez’s average fastball came in at just 90.4 mph — an 8.1 mph decline since his first year with Seattle in 2007.
If you’ve been paying attention lately, then you’re plenty aware of the impact velocity has on pitching these days. Projected upside, future value, and projections altogether are built off of one thing when it comes to aspiring major league pitchers — how fast the guy can throw. But there have been numerous “tossers” or “junkballers” that have succeeded, and perhaps with the right pitch-mix, Hernandez could be yet another one.
Speaking of pitch-mix, despite laboring through the worst season of his career in 2019 (-0.1 WAR / 6.40 ERA), Hernandez’s shorten campaign featured the AL’s seventh-best curveball, according to FanGraphs’ Pitch Value (among starting pitchers with at least 70 IP). Sure, Hernandez allowed batters to hit .289 last year overall, and he was only able to post a measly 17.5% K rate, but that curveball still has something left.
Hernandez perhaps was forced to lean on his breaking ball too much last season (his usage with the pitch jumped 12% from 2018), but the King held opponents to just a .220 AVG while striking out 23.9% of all batters with the pitch. It’s quite impressive that Hernandez was so successful with an offering like that, considering his fastball has fallen off so badly (curveballs usually work better when thrown off fastballs). Just imagine if the Braves could help Hernandez with his heater… even just a little bit.
Before Hamels’ injury, it was probably an understatement to say that Hernandez’s chances of earning a spot in the Braves’ rotation were slim, but with another opening, you can’t help but wonder if it’s possible.
Hernandez has made over $220 million during his baseball career and could’ve easily hung up his cleats after such a rough 2019. Given there’s no guarantee he even makes the major league team this spring (he’s signed to a minor league deal), this most definitely isn’t about the money.
No, this is about an accomplished pitcher still pursuing a chance to compete in the postseason, as well as continue his goal of one day solidifying a spot in the Hall of Fame. If you ask me, those accolades are far more important than adding to an already healthy bank account, so expect Hernandez’s best effort in spring training.