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.