The Blue Jays addition of Roberto Hernandez was the most noteworthy takeaway from a rush of signings, but the 35-year old Dominican is battling regression
Roberto Hernandez is a name that still registers in MLB circles, making him the likeliest of Toronto’s Friday additions to directly impact the 2016 MLB roster. Agreeing to a minor league contract, Ben Nicholson-Smith reports that his deal comes with a base salary of $1.25 million if he’s on the active MLB roster, including $750,000 in available incentives. On top of that, the former All Star has a March 28th opt-out.
Looking at his track record, that’s not bad business for a veteran arm with the ability to make the odd spot start and contribute in a long-man role. There’s also a level of familiarity with both Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro from his Cleveland Indians days. Hernandez was signed by Cleveland as an amateur free agent in 2000, eventually pitching from 2006-2012 for them at the MLB level.
Hernandez, at the time, went by the name Fausto Carmona, a false identity he had used to gain a work visa in the United States. He was also using a falsified age (he was 31 at the time of discovery in 2012, not 28 like had been listed). He would serve a three-week MLB suspension before re-emerging as Roberto.
We need to look at Hernandez in a focused window, however, and the past two seasons don’t provide a great deal of optimism that he’ll make a strong impact in 2016. Jumping two years back to 2014, Hernandez made 29 starts and three relief appearances for the Dodgers and Phillies. In that time, he posted a 4.10 ERA with a 4.0 BB/9 and 5.7 K/9.
Last season in Houston, making 11 starts and nine relief appearances, Hernandez managed a 4.36 ERA over 84.2 innings, allowing 2.8 BB/9 and striking out just 4.5 batters per nine innings. His days of Cleveland success evidently are gone. Much of this has to do with a decreased velocity and ground ball rate.
Hernandez was a brilliant ground ball pitcher early in his career, forcing a 64% ground ball rate between 2007 and 2008. That number then hovered in the mid-50s from 2009-2011, but his last two seasons have seen much more pedestrian ground ball rates of 49.7% and 51.9%.
His velocity has been in consistent decline with this, which shouldn’t come as a great surprise given his age. His fastball has dropped from an average velocity of 91.1 MPH in 2013 to just 88.9 MPH this past season. His sinker then fell from 91.6 to 89.0 while his changeup fell from 84.7 to 82.5.
Velocity dips can be overcome, of course, but even if he can plateau his performance from the past couple of seasons, that’s not appealing at an MLB level for the Jays. Instead, he would need to improve upon those results. Again, it’s possible with a new catcher, pitching coach, defense and environment, but I’m not putting my dollar on the likelihood of it happening.
Assuming we hit mid-March with Hernandez still in competition for a swingman role, something along the lines of what Toronto may have envisioned from Yusmeiro Petit, my one worry is that this contract structure could work to his advantage. Think of Hernandez as an out-of-options bullpen arm.
The dream scenario would be Hernandez agreeing to start in Buffalo, having him believe he is just one or two call-ups away. In the situation that he is close to winning a seventh bullpen job, however, the fear of losing him could aid Hernandez in leapfrogging a younger arm with option years remaining. This hypothetical is admittedly diving too far down the rabbit hole, but it’s a factor that needs to be considered with the contracts, especially ones that feature an opt-out clause.
From Hernandez’s side of the table, this contract structure works out awfully well. If he falls short of the 25-man roster, which I see as the likely outcome, a strong March gives him the option to opt out of his deal and catch on with another organization. That is, again, if he feels he can be afforded a greater opportunity elsewhere.
Essentially, there are a lot of moving parts, and more of those parts are pulling him off the roster than pushing him on. As long as the contract details don’t play a role in decision-making, though, it’s a fine gamble for both sides to take.