Hernandez's streak-snapping start stands out amid Rays' unique strategy
On Thursday afternoon, the Rays made a notable bit of history. They sent Roberto Hernandez — the former Fausto Carmona — to the mound to face the Orioles, snapping a streak of 1,207 consecutive games in which they did not start a pitcher whom they signed as a major league free agent. That streak dates back to July 15, 2005, when Hideo Nomo took the hill and made what proved to be the final start of his major league career.
Since then, Tampa Bay has become quite the pitching factory, drafting and developing so many good starters that openings in its rotation are like reservations at a four-star restaurant: "I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to wait until next April when something might open up." Not all of the 23 starters they've used between Nomo and Hernandez were drafted by the organization, but most of the key ones were. Here's a quick breakdown, with the number of starts they've made for the team since that 2005 date:
Draft (783): James Shields (217), David Price (121), Jeff Niemann (92), Andy Sonnanstine (80), Jeremy Hellickson (65), Wade Davis (64), Alex Cobb (32), Matt Moore (32), Seth McClung (29), Jason Hammel (28), Doug Waechter (23)
Minor League Rule 5 Draft (17): Tim Corcoran (17)
Amateur Free Agent (4): Brian Stokes (4)
Overall, 64.8 percent of their intervening starts came through the draft, 33.4 percent through trades and 1.7 percent through other means. Within those breakdowns is the outline of the Rays' rise to power. The trades for Kazmir, Garza and Jackson produced three of the five starters on the team's 2008 pennant winners (Shields and Sonnanstine were the others), but they didn't stick around much longer. Instead, they were traded for players who furthered the team's efforts to contend; the trade of Kazmir to the Angels in August 2009 brought back infielder Sean Rodriguez, that of Jackson to the Tigers in December 2009 brought back outfielder Matt Joyce, and the one of Garza to the Cubs in January 2011 brought back a package that included prospects Archer — currently on the waiting list — and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee. Led by Price, the homegrown talents have subsequently done the bulk of the heavy lifting; the current starting five is Price, Hellickson, Moore, Cobb and Hernandez.
Hernandez is a curious addition to that mix. Prior to the January 2012 discovery that he had been pitching under a false identity, he had been rocked for a 5.01 ERA in 111 starts from 2008 through 2011, failing to live up to his big 19-8, 3.06 ERA season with the Indians in 2007. During that four-year span, he was actually 0.6 wins below replacement level. The ensuing legal brouhaha surrounding his identity limited him to just three starts and 14 1/3 innings for the Indians last year, and he was again hit hard. Though he generates a ton of ground balls, he simply doesn't miss many bats, and lacks good control; his career strikeout rate is just 5.4 per nine, his walk rate 3.5 per nine — too close for comfort.
That the Rays, with their wealth of young pitching and their limited resources, guaranteed "Fauxto" $3.25 million on a one-year deal signed in December certainly raised some eyebrows, as he would appear to be the type of pitcher for whom a minor-league deal would suffice. The team has gained a reputation for being able to squeeze productivity out of erratic pitchers such as Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney by tweaking their mechanics and repertoires or even their positioning on the rubber, but their success has been limited to relievers, not starters.
In tabbing Hernandez to join the rotation, the Rays have bypassed the tried-and-true Niemann, who to be fair is coming back from a leg injury that limited him to eight starts last year, and showed reduced velocity this spring; he's out of options and can't be sent to the minor leagues without the risk of being claimed on waivers. They've also farmed out Archer, a high-ceiling 24-year-old righty who ranked 36th on Baseball America's latest Top 100 Prospects list. He threw 29 1/3 innings for the Rays last year, with a 36/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio, after putting up a 3.66 ERA with 9.8 strikeouts per nine for Triple-A Durham. Also in the mix is for a rotation spot at some point, but sent to join Archer at Durham, is Jake Odorizzi, a 22-year-old righty acquired in the trade that sent Shields to Kansas City and brought back Wil Myers. Odorizzi put up a 3.03 ERA while striking out 8.4 per nine in 145 1/3 innings across Double-A and Triple-A last year before making a two-start audition with the Royals in September.
Hernandez may be in the rotation simply to buy those other pitchers a bit more time, though it's worth noting that the team's up-and-out strategy with starting pitching — trading the most expensive ones to open up spots — could be in play. In addition to trading Shields, Rays general manager Andrew Friedman was said to have checked out the markets for his other starters this past winter. As I noted a couple months back, the reality is that Tampa Bay will trade last year's Cy Young winner, Price, before he reaches free agency following the 2015 season, and the amount of club control remaining over Hellickson (who won't become arbitration eligible until after this season and won't reach free agency until after 2016) and Moore (signed through 2016, with club options that run through 2019) makes them appealing trade targets as well. Friedman keeps more irons in the fire than most GMs, and in taking a quick spin with Hernandez this early in the year, he could be trying to expand the team's options that much further. It may not work, but you can't fault them for trying.