I was satisfied with our in-house options and assumed they likely were as well, but once they made a strong run for Ryan Vogelsong, I began to sniff around the list of remaining free agents looking for a fit. My eyes fell on the man formerly known as Fausto Carmona, and just a few weeks later, he was indeed an Astro.
This isn't said to toot my own horn as some sort of predictive wizard or talent evaluating guru. Admittedly, my suggestion wasn't backed with any significant level of gusto; Hernandez is not a great player. Hernandez struggles to be even an average player. Hernandez is 34 years old and is four full seasons removed from his last sub-4.00 ERA. I'd be lying if I said that he excited me, or that I expected something great.
But, if things play out as it appears they may, it seems he'll end up as our fifth starter, and fifth starters don't need to be great. Fifth starters need to keep the other team in check and not get lit up. If you have a fifth starter who can hold the team to three or four runs in six innings, or maybe seven on a good night, you'll be doing okay, especially when you're team figures to compete for the most team home runs in the Majors that year.
Hernandez has proven he can do that, when he's right. Since becoming a full-time player in 2007, Hernandez has averaged six innings per start, reaching 150 or more innings in five seasons and 200 or more twice. During his last two seasons, despite spending some time in the bullpen, he still managed 5.2 innings per start.
He's also been pretty healthy; you have to go back to July of 2011 to find his last DL stint (for a strained thigh), and he's never hit the DL with elbow or shoulder issues. Assuming he isn't getting rocked often, Hernandez is clearly a guy who's has proven himself pretty reliable in terms of taking the ball every fifth day and giving you some innings, if nothing else.
But I get it; now's the time to improve, right? Heading for .500, now is the time to quit worrying about things like cheap innings and simply not melting down. We want some excitement. I hear you. But Hernandez isn't just an inning-sucking punching bag; it's easy to forget that there's real talent there, and that it fits the Astros' mould.
Hernandez is a ground ball machine, for the most part; his career rate is 56.8%, in fact. 2014 was the first year he was ever below 50%, and a return to form in that category could be just one piece of the puzzle to regain some value. His control is pretty solid as well; from 2010 through 2014 he posted a strong 2.76 BB/9. It should be noted that it spiked uncharacteristically up to 3.99 last year; expected regression there is another positive point.
He also owns a 4.29 xFIP on his career. While not sparkling, that's better than the 4.50 "quality start" territory, and if he pitches to that level, the Astros will have no one to blame but themselves if they can't score enough runs to win half the games he starts.
Hernandez also provides some time for Asher Wojciechowski. While Wojo has been very good this Spring Training, let's remember what that is; a tiny spring sample size against hitters who have largely never seen him before. Let's remember that Wojo missed a lot of last season due to injury, and when he finally returned, posted a 4.85 FIP against AAA competition. He might be ready for the Majors, but a couple more months in AAA to make sure of it won't hurt. He brings the excitement that prospects bring, but cooler heads must prevail sometimes when it comes to player development. Make no mistake; barring more injuries, Wojo will have his shot in the Majors in 2015. Hernandez simply let's the Astros be selective and wait for the opportune time.
And lastly, though it should go without saying at this point, let's not forget Brent Strom. Hernandez is a groundball-getter with good career control numbers and significant MLB experience. Guys like him have benefited from coming under the tutelage of great pitching coaches late in their careers before (think of some of those Cardinal rotations from 8+ years ago when Dave Duncan was around).
I get the desire for the shiny new toy, but part of me wants to see if Hernandez can have a little late-career renaissance and build up some value for a deadline deal. Nothing would be sweeter than getting some real production, and then a decent prospect or two, for an old vet that we picked up off the scrap heap.
When and if the Astros get really good again, they won't have a bunch of top-of-the-first-round picks to stock up the farm anymore. Refurbishing guys like Hernandez in the back of your rotation and then flipping them is one way teams can continue to add young, cheap depth to their farm even while being competitive. So don't be too dismayed if Hernandez is pegged as the fifth starter when camp breaks; while not exciting, there's a good chance he provides some real value, and Strom and the Astros organization has done enough to be given the benefit of the doubt.