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Son Of A Bitch

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The announcement that Stros Bro alluded to in his post yesterday, that the Astros will no longer have need for the services of Carlos Hernandez, does not come as a surprise.

It does, however, come with a degree of wistfulness.

There's a whole bunch of what-might-have-been, a huge dollop of coulda-shoulda-woulda in the story of Carlos Hernandez. The newsbrief on the official site didn't exactly play that down, but still, I thought a short look at just how full of potential Carlos Hernandez seemed just five years ago might be illuminating.

Like countrymen Bobby Abreu and Carlos Guillen and Freddy Garcia and Richard Hidalgo, the Venezuelan Hernandez was signed as an NDFA by the hugely influential Latin scout Andres Reiner, and he played his first professional season for the Astros' entry in his home country's summer league.

He did very well as a finesse lefty, posting a 2.54 ERA and a strikeout to walk ratio of 2-1/2 to one, and he did it all at the age of 17.

He then spent 1998 as the closer for the Astros' Dominican League team, before coming stateside. In the two years since he was 17, Hernandez had added 10 mph to his fastball, and was now throwing in the low 90's at the age of 19. But people who saw him thought his sharp curve was his best pitch, and he had a slider besides.

Hernandez tore up the Appalachian League in 1999, leading the league in ERA and K/9IP. On August 28, in the Appalachian League regular season finale, Hernandez fanned 18 Elizabethton Twins-- including 9 straight--in a seven-inning complete game 1 - 0 shutout.

In 2000, while pitching for single A Michigan, Hernandez was getting clocked at 94 on his fastball, and his curveball was getting called "whiplike." On May 28, 2000, the lefty threw a seven-inning no-hitter vs. West Michigan, walking three and striking out nine. It remains the last time an Astro from the lower minor leagues tossed a no-no.

Michigan--led by Hernandez and by team MVP Jason Lane--won the Midwest League championship. Hernandez at this point was getting noticed by scouts outside the organization. He pitched an inning in the 2000 Futures game, and was named the 9th best prospect in the organization for the 2000 season on Baseball America's Top Prospect List.

And he was still only 20.

Hernandez began at then-AA Round Rock in 2001, and through August, had fashioned himself a 12 - 3 record to go with 167 strikeouts and only 69 walks in 139 innings. But on August 15, with Scott Elarton traded to Colorado, with Tim Redding having worked his way back to New Orleans, and with Brian Powell having been excruciatingly bad in the start they gave him at Florida with myself in attendance, Houston recalled Hernandez from Round Rock.

The move was probably made more out of desperation than anything else, but Hernandez, tapped to start at home vs. Pittsburgh on the 18th when Shane Reynolds was sidelined with a strained back, came through with seven innings of shutout ball in his major league debut. He struck out 7 while only walking one and giving up two singles. With the start, Hernandez had become the first Houston Astro born in the 1980's, and the first lefty to start a game for the 'Stros since Mike Hampton left. With Dotel's two innings of scoreless relief, he had combined for just the second shutout in the history of what was then called Enron Field.

Hunsicker was hardly going to return Hernandez to Round Rock now, and the Venezuelan was nearly as good in his second start at Philadelphia, again striking out seven, again giving up no runs. Carlos Hernandez was 21 years old, and he'd thrown 13 major league innings without giving up a run.

That scoreless streak would get to 17-2/3 innings before Adam Dunn hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning of the August 29th home game vs. the Reds.

But of course, it wasn't the jack from Dunn that hurt, it was the injury Hernandez sustained two innings earlier, when he dove back into second trying to prevent Julio Lugo's liner from turning into a double play. Hernandez was out, and out for the year. He'd suffered a partial tear in his rotator cuff, and he would never be the same.

Despite the fact that he missed all of September, the Astros and those around them were very optimistic about Hernandez' future during the winter of 2001. Baseball America put him on the top of their prospects list and the bubble gum companies started putting phrases like "future star" on his baseball cards.

Of course, it never happened. Hernandez was serviceable in 2002, but the shoulder had developed tendinitis, and that was the end of Carlos Hernandez, power pitcher.

The Astros I think were more than patient, first hoping the power would return, then, failing that, helping him try to remake himself into the pitcher he began his career as: the finesse lefty.

But even that wasn't to be, as became apparent when they found another tear in his shoulder in April of 2006, just when it was starting to look like he might well be the next guy up from AAA.

So now the Astros have non-tendered him, and now, at the ripe old age of 26, maybe he can convince some team he's not a has-been, maybe he can get someone to take a chance on him, five years after Carlos Hernandez was going to be a superstar.

Son of a bitch, huh?