Every year around this time in camps all across the league, a certain player(s) will come along and pique the interest of their teams fan base. As is the case with most seasonal romances, these types of "spring flings or crushes" do not last long. For the most part, by the time summer rolls around we've moved on and the player is forgotten. The 2009 version of the Tampa Bay Rays feature many interesting candidates, but for me personally, I've already found my "spring fling" for this year in Carlos Hernandez.
The story of Carlos Hernandez is a strange and somewhat sad one. A once highly talented left handed prospect, Hernandez is now a 28 year old shell of his former self, trying to stick around in major league camp long enough to earn a possible spot in the Triple A rotation.
The trouble for Hernandez started before he even achieved his greatest success as a pitcher. In 2001, on what many reports call a "freak accident," he suffered an injury while running the bases on a dive into second base. Whether the extent of the injury was known right away or not, Hernandez had partially torn his rotator cuff. The Astros gambled with the old "rest and rehab" course of action and it paid off in the short-term.
In 2002 as a 22 year old rookie, Hernandez would put up some impressive numbers at the major league level for Houston. He went 7-5 with an ERA/FIP of 4.38/4.30 while striking out 93 batters in 111 innings. However, the short-term gamble blew up after the season when tests revealed that not only was his rotator cuff torn, but his labrum was as well. Hernandez would undergo surgery to repair both tears and miss the entire 2003 season. In the not so distance past, a torn labrum was almost like death to a pitcher's career. Couple the labrum with a rotator cuff and Hernandez was facing near baseball death at the age of 23.
As mentioned above, he missed the entire 2003 season and attempted a comeback in 2004. He was 24 years old and still had a ton of upside, but his numbers didn't show that. After having some success at the Triple-A level, he made nine starts for the Astros, going 1-3 with an ERA/FIP 6.43/7.22 and saw his K/9 drop to 5.57. 2005 was more of the same. He would spend the entire season pitching for Triple-A Round Rock with an unimpressive 5.56 ERA and K/BB rate of 1.22. When 2006 arrived he was barely hanging on in the organization, and at the age of 26 it seemed that promise he showed four years earlier was all but gone.
Hernandez pitched for Venezuela in the 2006 WBC, facing only one batter and allowing a solo home run. He was let go by the Astros in early 2006 and was out of baseball entirely in 2007. By the time 2008 rolled around Hernandez was a forgotten man until late in the season when he appeared in the box score for the Single A Vero Beach Devil Rays. Some how, some way, Hernandez caught the eye of Rays brass and they liked him enough that they gave him another shot. Once again, the Rays had found talent off the scrap heap and dared to give it another chance when others wouldn't. I'd also like to think the fact that Rays Medical Director Dr. James Andrews performed the repairs to Hernandez in 2003 might have helped draw Hernandez and the Rays together.
It's hard to get excited about the numbers of a 27 year old pitcher in A ball, but Hernandez showed that he still had the ability to pitch and pitch effectively. He finished 2008 with a 1.04 ERA and an FIP of 2.08 in six starts. His K/9 was back up to 8.65 and he did not allow a home run in 26 innings. This performance earned him an invitation to major league camp this year.
Apparently he caught the eye of Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey along the way because they chose him to start for the Rays in the grapefruit league opener. Hernandez pitched two effective and efficient innings not allowing a hit or a walk. He induced three groundball outs and struck out one batter. Hernandez has struggled with control in the past, but he threw 18 of his 25 pitches for strikes. One source close to the Rays told us that Hernandez looked good in his first game against Major League hitters in almost five years.
Even with all the positives now surrounding Hernandez, he is a long shot at best to make the Rays come opening day. In the battle for the fifth starter spot, he is fifth in line behind younger and more talented arms like: David Price, Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot and Jason Hammel. His chances at a bullpen job are even less with over a half dozen relievers battling for one or maybe two open spots.
Realistically, Hernandez is battling pitchers like Chris Mason and James Houser for a possible rotation slot for the Durham Bulls. However, this doesn't negate his value to the Rays. This off-season we've seen the Rays make all types of thrifty low risk/potential reward moves in the name of depth, and Hernandez fits right in that category. Odds are he'll never throw a pitch for the Rays in a Major League game, but it doesn't hurt to have a quality arm who is one call away if needed.
I'm sure Hernandez, himself, knows these things, but that shouldn't stop him from trying. At 28 years old, and after overcoming major surgery arm, he is still in camp for the defending American League Champions. Sure, his success story isn't likely, but if he looks across the room he'll see faces like Carlos Pena and Grant Balfour who are living proof of what he's trying to accomplish. Again, its unlikely that Hernandez ends up having a renaissance like Balfour or Pena, but then again it is the Rays, and when have things ever seemed likely with this team.