It’s a refrain Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman has said over and over again- if there ever comes a day that the Rays have to resort to the free agent market for starting pitching, they will be in serious trouble. This offseason, though, they actually did just that, albeit in an unorthodox fashion, signing Roberto Hernandez to a major league deal worth $3.25MM plus incentives. How significant is it that Hernandez is set to make his Rays debut as a major league free agent? Per Rays PR man Dave Haller, Hernandez’s start this afternoon marks the first time in 1693 games that a player signed as a major league free agent will make a start with the Rays, the first since Wilson Alvarez back on July 12, 2002. Alvarez was in a different situation than Hernandez as the Rays signed him to a misguided 5-year contract prior to their inaugural season in 1998 despite a career 4.5 BB/9 and just a 6.7 K/9. Even though Hernandez is being signed for much less money, though, his career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.55-to-1 is nearly identical to Alvarez’s 1.50-to-1 entering 1998. Why are the Rays going down the misguided path of the Devil Rays years all this time later?
Once again, the Rays find themselves resorting to an enigmatic free agent right-handed pitcher to fill a whole in their rotation. This time, though, the Rays don’t have any delusions of grandeur. They signed Hernandez to a 1-year contract that won’t kill them financially even if he completely falls apart. And for the money they’re paying him, the Rays aren’t asking Hernandez for much. He’s started the third game of the season for the Rays but he’s truly the Rays’ 5th starter, only getting a starting job when he beat out Jeff Niemann in spring training. The Rays hope he can be a pitcher who can eat innings and keep them in games, and if he does that as their 5th starter, they’ll be thrilled. And unlike Alvarez, the Rays also have reason to believe that Hernandez has broken through. Hernandez wowed the Rays this camp with his changeup, with Chris Gimenez calling it Hernandez’s best pitch, and adding that to his electric mid-90’s sinker gives Hernandez a chance to strike out a few more batters and pitch more effectively. The Rays aren’t throwing money in desperation looking for a savior in a pitcher without the capability. Instead, they’re taking a gamble with little risk and hefty possible reward knowing Hernandez has the ability to be a solid major league pitcher and maybe more.
Yes, the Rays streak of not using free agent starters is over. This time, though, the Rays are only using the signing of a free agent pitcher in Hernandez to complement everything else they’re doing and take the next step in a strategy that they have been using for a long time. For years, we have seen the Rays sign eemingly washed-up relievers to cheap contracts and seize considerable reward in the process when they became revitalized in a Rays uniform. Signing a starting pitcher to a similar contract is the next step in the thought process and if their low-risk gamble on Hernandez pays off, maybe signing more starting pitchers to cheap, high-upside contracts could become a strategy the Rays go to more often. The Rays’ signing of Hernandez was something out of blue when it happened and quite out of character even when we look at it now. However, instead of being a sign of the Rays regression to old, failed tactics, it’s a sign that they’re willing to adapt and do whatever it takes to keep their rotation and their entire team among the best in baseball.