King Felix to Atlanta

Bill Shanks

Almost eighteen years after coming close to signing Felix Hernandez as a 16-year-old kid from Venezuela, the Atlanta Braves finally will have the right-hander in their spring training camp. The Braves agreed to a minor league contract with Hernandez Monday that includes a trip to big league spring training in North Port, FL.

The Braves scouts believed they had Hernandez in the fold back in 2002, but he instead signed late with the Seattle Mariners. Hernandez made his debut in Seattle in 2005 and for 12 seasons was one of the best pitchers in the American League.

From 2005 through 2016, Hernandez made six All-Star teams and had a 154-109 record in 359 starts, with an earned run average of 3.16. Hernandez was the American League Cy Young winner in 2010 when he had a 2.27 ERA in 34 starts with 232 strikeouts in 249.2 innings pitched.

But the wheels have come off the last three seasons. Hernandez is 15-27 in 60 starts between 2017 and last season, with an ERA of 5.42. Last season in 15 starts, Hernandez was 1-8 with an ERA of 6.40.

The Braves are going down the Anibal Sanchez route to see if Hernandez can turn things around. Sanchez had a 6.41 ERA with Detroit in 2017 and was then signed by the Braves in spring training the next March. Sanchez went 7-6 with the Braves in 25 games (24 starts) with 135 strikeouts in 136.2 innings pitched and then got a three-year contract from the division-rival Washington Nationals.

Hernandez will go to spring training and compete for the fifth starter’s job with Sean Newcomb, who wants a chance to start again after being effective last summer as a reliever, and kids Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson. Top pitching prospect Ian Anderson will also get a look in March to see how close he is to being ready for the show.

History shows the Braves have had success at this before. John Burkett signed with the Braves in 2000 when he was 35 years old after struggling with the Rangers for four seasons (5.13 ERA). Burkett had a 3.74 ERA in his two seasons with the Braves and then pitched two more years with the Red Sox.

Aaron Harang had struggled in Seattle in 2013 (5.76 ERA) and was signed by the Braves late in spring training in 2014 after being released by the Indians in mid-March.

Of course, not every reclamation project has worked out for the Braves. They signed 44-year-old Bartolo Colon to a one-year, $12.5 million dollar deal in 2017 and he flopped with a 8.14 ERA in 13 starts.

The Braves won’t have that type of financial commitment with Hernandez, who will make $1 million if he makes the MLB roster.

Hernandez finishes his Seattle career with a 169-136 record and a 3.42 ERA in 419 games (418 starts) with 2524 strikeouts in 2729.2 innings pitched.

The first four spots in Atlanta’s rotation will be held by Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Cole Hamels and Mike Foltynewicz. The move to sign Hernandez likely means the Braves will not be bringing another starter into camp via free agency or a trade, allowing them to now focus on finding a middle-of-the-order bat for the lineup.

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