Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Par for the Course

We all knew it was going to happen at some point. Under-budget and facing the prospect of a starting rotation devoid of experienced veterans, the Twins were going to go out and overpay for a free agent pitcher with a proven ability to eat innings. The Twins dabbled earlier in the offseason, signing guys like Randy Keisler and Zach Day to basically risk-free minor-league contracts, but yesterday the team made its "big splash," handing Livan Hernandez a one-year contract worth $5 million (plus incentives).

The Cuban-born Hernandez, who will (allegedly) turn 33 a week from today, is an 11-year major-league veteran who has spent his entire career in the National League, spending time with four different organizations. He is the definition of a workhorse, having thrown 200-plus innings in nine of those seasons (and 199 2/3 in one of the others). He led the National League in innings pitched for three consecutive years from 2003-05, and has finished in the top ten in that category seven times. He ranks 15th among active pitchers in total innings.

Unfortunately, along with being durable, Hernandez is also quite hittable and homer-prone, and not particularly dominant. There was a time when he posted some pretty good numbers to go along with those impressive innings totals -- during those 2003, 2004 and 2005 seasons where he led the NL in innings, Hernandez also kept his ERA under 4 and managed to strike out a reasonable number of hitters. Those days are in the past, however, and recent trends do not paint a pretty picture:

Year: ERA, K/9IP, WHIP
2004: 3.60, 6.56, 1.24
2005: 3.98, 5.37, 1.43
2006: 4.84, 5.06, 1.50
2007: 4.93, 3.96, 1.59

Obviously, these numbers are disconcerting. It stands to reason that, despite his (allegedly) relatively young age, Hernandez is already wearing down due to the high workload he has faced annually throughout his career. Now, with Hernandez another year older and switching to a better offensive league, there's every reason to believe that his numbers this season could slide into Ramon Ortiz territory.

Yet, I certainly wouldn't view this signing as negatively as the acquisitions of Ortiz and Sidney Ponson last year. For one thing, the Twins will probably only be filling one rotation spot with a washed up vet. That's much more palatable than the idea of promising 40 percent of your starts to Ponson and Ortiz, particularly when you consider that there is a lot less certainty in the rotation this season now that Johan Santana and Carlos Silva are gone. Let's break it down:

You'd like to think that Boof Bonser and Scott Baker are locks for two spots in the rotation, and hopefully Francisco Liriano can fill another spot. Given his dominance in Triple-A last year and his success with the Twins in September, I have to believe Kevin Slowey will make the rotation out of Spring Training. As I explained on Monday, I believe Phil Humber will start the season pitching out of the bullpen, so had the Twins not acquired Hernandez we would likely be left with a battle between Glen Perkins, Kevin Mulvey, Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing for the final spot in the rotation. Given that Perkins and Mulvey have essentially no experience at the Triple-A level, both could probably benefit from starting the season there, and it's not clear that either Blackburn or Duensing are ready to pitch in the Twins' rotation yet. Slotting Hernandez in that final rotation spot allows all four pitchers to start the season in Rochester (or perhaps, in some cases, the Twins' bullpen) and step in should any of the other five starters suffer an injury or prove ineffective.

While I'm not outraged with this signing, I'm not particularly fond of it either. There are two camps among fans when it comes to the 2008 Twins: one camp believes this team has a legitimate shot at competing, the other one doesn't. No matter which camp you belong to, there is little reason to get excited about this signing. If the Twins truly can compete this season, it's highly unlikely that Hernandez will provide better production as a starter than one of the Blackburn/Duensing/Perkins/Mulvey group would be able to provide, so he's not really enhancing their chances. If the Twins can't compete, then this is a rebuilding year and player development will be the key goal, in which case there's a good chance Hernandez will be hindering the development of at least one of those young pitchers.

Just as they have with many of their other free agent signings over the past few years, the Twins are bringing in an aging veteran who was good at one point but is not very good anymore, and banking on that veteran returning to something close to his old form. As we've seen with Ponson, Ortiz and Tony Batista, this just doesn't happen very often, and what you see is usually what you get with players like these. More than likely, that will be the case with Hernandez. Nevertheless, he does create some depth in the pitching staff, and immediately becomes the only player on the roster who has pieced together a full season in a major-league rotation. There's some value in that, and we'd be ignorant to overlook it.

7 comments:

neckrolls said...

I think your projected rotation is right on (though I like Perkins in the bullpen to start the season, so Reyes isn't the only lefty). Otherwise, I'm completely with you. I think somebody will get a chance to come up by June 1, and that somebody will have racked up at least another 60-70 innings at AAA, experience from which they could all benefit. Hopefully, Hernandez won't completely suck in April/May, and he'll have decent trade value - surely there will be contenders desperate for a relatively inexpensive "innings-eater" by mid-summer.

This is only a bad move if, as you said, he stands in the way of developing the future. Hopefully, the Twins will have the good sense to trade him at the right time.

sploorp said...

I'm with you on this one. I'm not jumping up and down with excitement, but I'm also not ready to tar and feather management either. One thing I will say is that I think I would be more upset if the Twins didn't do anything. It's also not like there was a whole lot of choices. Livan was the best that was available. We essentially got Silva back for 7 million less than what the Mariners paid.

I also don't feel as though he will be blocking one of the younger guys progress. The only way that could happen is if Liriano makes the team out of spring training and none of the starters get hurt or choke. And if all that does happen and the prospects do get blocked, the upside is the Twins will probably be in pretty good shape and giving Detroit and Cleveland a run for their money.

Chances are that at least one of the above scenarios won't pan out and there will be at least a little bit of shuffling in the line up. It's very likely that a number of our prospects will get some major league experience before the season is over.

I also don't see this as quite the same move as Ponson and Ortiz, even though it might still turn out that way. With Ponson and Ortiz, there were definite downward spirals - two very well defined trends. With Livan, the trend isn't quite so clear. His stats are a bit more all over the place. He has had a few bad years in the past, but has come back with solid seasons.

Hit got lit up pretty bad with the Nationals in 2006, but did well with the Diamondbacks after he was traded. I have no idea what his problem was last year. I think somebody said his velocity was way down. I don't know if it's true or what it means or if it's curable, but he was still pitching pretty good as recently as the end of 2006. At the very least we should have an innings eater to help keep the bullpen from getting overused.

The only downside I really see is that the Twins are out five million if it turns out that he sucks for real.

Call it denial if you want, but after the trauma of losing Santana and Hunter (even though I know there was virtually nothing we could have done), I really need to look for any kind of potential upside I can find. And here is mine ...

For me, I think the thing I like the most about him - maybe even more so then the innings - is the fact that he has made it to the post season four times with three different teams. Two of those times ended with a world series championship.

Think about it for a second ... the guy has two world series rings.

I don't know if any of you have ever held one, but I have and it is a total rush. I was 40, out of shape, with a bad back, and hadn't picked up a bat in over 15 years, but there I am, holding this thing thinking, maybe I could hit the batting cages, work on my swing a bit, then join some kind of duffer league. Well, I never did wind up hitting the cages or joining a league, but I did start working out at the gym again right after. As a result I'm probably in better shape right now then most guys half my age. I'm thinking if holding a ring for just a few seconds can do that for me, I can just imagine what it might be able to do for team that gets to see two of them on a daily basis.

I'm just picturing Livan standing at his locker with a bunch players crowding around ogling them and trying them on. I could easily see Morneau working them into his long list of pre-game routines and superstitions.

Yes, it may be stupid, but it also may be just the thing to help them look past their shortcomings and focus on what they need to do.

Anonymous said...

"in which case there's a good chance Hernandez will be hindering the development of at least one of those young pitchers." I just don't know where this logic comes from. Pitchers benefit from more time in the minors. As I asked at BYTO, of all the young pitchers last year, who started in the rotation, and who declined the most. Every young pitcher who started the season in the minors went onto have pretty good years, esp. with Slowley going back down a second time.

For me, this is a rebuilding year, and Livan is an essential part of that equation.

I also think you can't dismiss service time for players like Perkins and Liriano. Both of whom, I think start at AAA to chagrin of too many Twins fans

wwcd said...

OK, #1 it is a rebuilding year. Bill Smith is building this team for 2010. If we can keep some of the young pitchers in the minors part of the year and delay when they are eligible for free agency you better believe he'll do it. We have no chance this year and I'll believe that until the pitchers report for spring training.

#2 This guy gets 200+ innings in the NL when he can get lifted for a pinch hitter anytime, there must be something there (or there was no bullpen?). I think switching to the AL might help. He no longer has to worry about hitting, Rick Anderson can work his magic with him, and he'll have a good defense behind him. If he can stay away from the long ball he should be at least passable.

#3 There is that intangible "veteran presence" thing. Probably has more of an impact the younger and less experienced of a staff you have. And how can you not like someone who gives quotes like this one from asapsports.com.
Q. Miguel Montero told me you have a great ability to mess with the hitter's mind, and I wonder if you can tell me how you do that exactly?
LIVAN HERNANDEZ: I will tell you after the game tomorrow (smiling). I try and sometimes it happens, sometimes not. All my career I try to -- you got a ball and the hitter got a bat. You gotta try to make people out different ways. Sometimes you throw a fast one down the middle that people don't expect and come with a fast one, 3-2 waiting for a curveball. And sometimes when you've got different pitches, you can throw any count. And it will be like the last game in Chicago I tried to play with the hitter a little bit because it's a team that's got a lot of power. And you don't want to lose the game on one pitch. You don't want to throw -- so you throw whatever you want. Montero, he called a great game behind home plate. He's 24 years old, but he can catch and he can play the game the way -- the best way.

Nick N. said...

sploorp: Interesting thought on the WS ring. Who knows, maybe that can serve as motivation for these guys. Although I think there is already at least one player on the roster with a ring -- Mike Redmond.

I just don't know where this logic comes from. Pitchers benefit from more time in the minors. As I asked at BYTO, of all the young pitchers last year, who started in the rotation, and who declined the most. Every young pitcher who started the season in the minors went onto have pretty good years, esp. with Slowley going back down a second time.

The difference is that last year, Garza and Slowey were both still quite inexperienced and I don't think it was clear in either case that one of them was major-league ready. That's why I was never as outraged about the Ortiz signing as a lot of people. The difference here is that Blackburn and Duensing (and to a lesser extent Perkins) are getting pretty old for prospects and have quite a bit of minor-league experience now. It's probably about time for them to show their stuff.

To be clear, I never said that Hernandez will definitively block anyone, I just noted that there's a "good chance" that if he's in the rotation for the entire season, he will be blocking a deserving candidate from getting some big-league innings. But seeing as how there will still be four other rotation spots and about 800 innings to dole out to youngsters, it's not the worst thing in the world. That's why I'm not overly upset about the signing.

There is that intangible "veteran presence" thing. Probably has more of an impact the younger and less experienced of a staff you have.

I've just totally lost faith in that concept after the Ortiz/Ponson fiasco last year.

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