Hernandez won't transform Phils, but fills a void

Hernandez won't transform Phils, but fills a void

Lunch Break: Phillies agree to deal with Hernandez

December 12, 2013, 6:00 pm
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Roberto Hernandez has the lowest line-drive rate (16.6 percent) in the majors since 2006. (USA Today Images)

One year, $4.5 million for Roberto Hernandez -- good move or bad move for the Phillies?

This one isn't so black and white.

Pro: It's a one-year deal, and one-year deals are rarely bad moves.

Con: Two of the Phillies' one-year deals last season (John Lannan, Delmon Young) were bad moves.

Pro: Hernandez is an extreme ground-baller (57.8 percent ground balls for his career).

Con: Hernandez was 6-13 with a 4.89 ERA last season.

Pro: He set career-highs in 2013 in strikeout rate (6.7 per nine innings) and K/BB ratio (2.97).

Con: He allowed 24 homers in 151 innings.

Pro: His stats should improve in the National League.

Con: He's moving from a pitcher's park in Tampa to a hitter's park in Philly.

It's a low-risk signing by the Phillies, who needed some rotation depth. Prior to Thursday, their projected rotation was Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Kyle Kendrick and Jonathan Pettibone.

Questions remain with three of those five. Can Gonzalez's elbow hold up over 180 innings, or is he better suited for setup duty? Will Kendrick be the solid pitcher he was in the first half of 2013, or the 6.00-ERA guy he was after the All-Star break? Will Pettibone tire out again, and can he learn a secondary pitch to complement his fastball?

Teams very rarely go through a full season using five starters, so even if you believed everything would break right with Gonzalez, Kendrick and Pettibone, the Phils still needed some insurance. And they got that for a very affordable price with Hernandez. (How can the Phillies justify paying Kendrick a projected $7 million in 2014, by the way, when a more-skilled pitcher like Hernandez is worth just $4.5 million on the open market? It's still confusing that the Phillies didn't give more thought to non-tendering Kendrick.)

Some fans -- through comments, e-mails and Twitter -- lashed out after Jim Salisbury broke news of the agreement with Hernandez. The common reaction was "it's not enough." And that is partially correct -- Hernandez is not a game-changer. He doesn't transform the Phillies from an 80-win team to an 85-win team.

But the Phillies needed someone to gobble up innings, even if those innings are pitched by an average or slightly-above-average pitcher. We saw in 2013 with Ethan Martin that upside is exciting, but not if it can't get you through four innings. Not if it burns the bullpen every fifth day. In Hernandez, the Phils are getting a bona fide strike-thrower who should amass no fewer than 175 innings. That has value.

Why not sign Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, you might ask. Well, all three of those righties are in line for four- or five-year deals worth at least $14 million per year, and signing Jimenez and Santana would have cost the Phils their second-round pick in next June's draft. None of those three is a sure bet to produce for even half of their deal -- Santana and Jimenez were great in 2013 but awful in 2012, and Garza hasn't pitched a full season since 2011.

I still think Garza was worth a shot if the Phils could have talked him down to four years, but the Angels and Diamondbacks reportedly spent the week in Orlando courting him.

From the outset of free agency, Ruben Amaro Jr. made clear that he was going after mid-tier starting pitchers -- the Bronson Arroyos, the Ryan Vogelsongs, the Scott Feldmans. Hernandez is a better option than Arroyo and Feldman because he gets more groundballs and swings-and-misses, and he's significantly cheaper. Would you prefer Hernandez for one-year, $4.5 million or Feldman for three years, $30 million? That's the deal Houston gave him. 

So back to the original question: Good move or bad move?

The opinion here is that it's a decent move given Amaro's preferences for a short-term deal for a mid-tier starter. Garza would have moved the needle more, but he also would have taken up double-digit payroll space in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and perhaps beyond.

With Hernandez, the Phils are spending $4.5 million in hopes that his impressive strikeout, walk and ground-ball numbers result in a lower ERA than they did in 2013. It doesn't push them ahead of the NL contenders, but it makes them a little better than they were yesterday.