The Rays NEVER sign free agent starting pitchers. The last time they signed one to a major league contract was back in 2000, when they signed Steve Trachsel and Juan Guzman, who wound up making just one horrific start for the team. Instead, they have always relied on their system’s pitching depth, and the results have been incredible. James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Alex Cobb all came up through the Rays system and have provided the Rays with excellent pitching at salary levels that they could afford including team-friendly extensions to Shields, Moore, and Davis. Even as players like Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza (both whom the Rays didn’t draft but acquired for homegrown players traded at peak value) have been traded away, the Rays’ outstanding pitching depth has allowed them to continue fielding one of the best rotations in baseball season after season even as the names have changed. That will continue to be the case even after the trade of Shields and Davis to the Royals with Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery joining a still-impressive group of Rays pitchers. But at the same time, the Rays are down to Price, Hellickson, Moore, Cobb, Niemann, and Archer for the pitchers they know they can rely on to hold down rotation spots in 2013 and Archer could use more time at Triple-A or maybe could be best utilized out of the bullpen. The Rays still have five starters even excluding Archer, but if one starter goes down and Archer struggles with control as he has been prone to do (including in his last three big league appearances in 2012 after pitching great his first three times out), suddenly the Rays would be rushing players to the big leagues out of desperation. Other teams might be willing to take on that risk, but not the Rays. The Rays have shown time and again that they will not put their prospects’ futures at risk and would rather be safe and move them slowly through the minor leagues so that when they arrive in the majors they’ll be as good as they can possibly be. With that in mind, the Rays are reported to be close to making an extremely out of character move, signing right-hander Roberto Hernandez to a one-year contract, although presumably at a low monetary value.
Hernandez, who turned 32 in August, pitched the first six years of his career with the Cleveland Indians under the name Fausto Carmona and had his share of remarkable moments. In 2007, his second season in the big leagues, he went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA in 32 starts and 215 innings on his way to a 4th place finish in the AL Cy Young voting and capped off his year by tossing nine innings of 1-run ball against the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALDS, a game the Indians would win in 11 innings. Two years later, Hernandez went 13-14 with a 3.77 ERA in 33 starts and 210.1 innings and was an All-Star for the first time. However, since 2007 Hernandez has gone just 33-51 with a 5.06 ERA and a 372-275 strikeout to walk ratio in 659.1 innings pitched, including a 7.53 ERA in 3 starts at the end of 2012. He missed almost the entire season with visa issues after it was discovered that he was in America under an assumed identity. Even taking out his rocky return stateside in 2012, Hernandez has been well below average in 4 of his 6 major league seasons and has clear character issues. However, his stuff certainly warrants another chance. Hernandez throws a sinker that usually ranges from around 92-95 MPH that is able to force a ton of groundballs- Hernandez’s career groundball rate is a great 58.5%- and he also throws a good changeup and a serviceable slider. Hernandez has never missed as many bats as he should, striking out just 5.4 batters per 9 innings for his career while topping out at just 5.7 per 9 as a starter, and the principal reason for that is a lack of consistent command of all his pitches. However, he’s certainly the type of pitcher the Rays love to tinker with, and even if he never misses many bats, he’ll be pitching with an excellent infield defense behind him, especially with Yunel Escobar replacing the sub-par shortstop options the Rays featured last season until Ben Zobrist got things under control.
Hernandez will give the Rays a swingman option in the role that Wade Davis played at the beginning of last season and Andy Sonnanstine played in years past with the ability to possibly move into the rotation or into a more significant bullpen role if he pitches well or injuries necessitate it. Sonnanstine managed a 4.78 ERA in 56 appearances for the Rays between 2010 and 2011, mostly eating up innings in blowouts and making spot-starts. Worst-case scenario is that Hernandez gives the Rays that level of performance, at the very least saving them from throwing ill-prepared pitching prospects into the fire for a time, and he has the ability to be quite a bit better if the Rays can work their magic again. Signing Roberto Hernandez is a low-risk move by the Rays that will help them solidify their starting pitching depth, and if all goes well, the Rays could end up with another above-average pitcher making pennies on the dollar compared to what he’s worth.