February 12, 2008

Twins Sign Livan Hernandez

Faced with the possibility of an entirely 26-and-under rotation following the trade of Johan Santana, the Twins predictably acquired a veteran starter yesterday by signing Livan Hernandez to a one-year deal worth $5 million plus $2 million in incentives. With a pair of All-Star appearances and a World Series MVP, Hernandez is a relatively big name. However, heading into his 13th big-league season he's far from the same pitcher who starred as a rookie for the Marlins during their World Series run in 1997.

If not for coming one-third of an inning short in 1999, Hernandez would have 10 straight seasons with at least 200 innings, which is why nearly every article about the signing describes him as an "innings eater." While the label is accurate, Hernandez's innings have decreased dramatically in both quality and quantity in recent years. Since winning 15 games with a 3.20 ERA and 178-to-57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2003, Hernandez has experienced a steady and significant decline in performance:

YEAR    GS     IP   IP/G     ERA    WHIP     OPS     SO%    BB%   K/BB
2003 33 233 7.1 3.20 1.21 .691 18.4 5.6 3.3
2004 35 255 7.3 3.60 1.24 .698 17.7 7.0 2.5
2005 35 246 7.0 3.98 1.43 .770 13.8 6.6 2.1
2006 34 216 6.4 4.83 1.50 .797 13.3 7.5 1.8
2007 33 204 6.2 4.93 1.60 .863 9.9 8.5 1.2

Hernandez's ERA, WHIP, OPS against, strikeout rate, and strikeout-to-walk ratio have all gotten worse in four straight seasons. During that time his ERA jumped from 3.20 to 4.93 while his OPS against rose from .691 to .863, and he lost a staggering 46 percent of his strikeouts. Over the past two years he's averaged fewer innings per start than ever before and Hernandez's control has gotten worse with age, culminating with last year's walk rate ranking as his worst since his first full season.

And all of that took place in the NL, where pitchers bat and the overall competition has been weaker. Hernandez will now take his mid-80s fastball and rapidly declining numbers to the AL for the first time in his career and the results don't figure to be pretty. He had a tough time keeping his ERA under 5.00 in the NL over the past two seasons--allowing the most hits and second-most homers in the league last year--and even including his prime Hernandez's career mark during interleague play is 4.91.

He's a decent bet to crack the 200-inning mark again, but only because the Twins figure to hand him the ball 33 or 34 times. His actual performance figures to be well below par. Hernandez's relatively big name and "innings eater" label are likely enough for many Twins fans to approve of the signing--and a dieting Boof Bonser surely welcomes another big-gutted hurler--but his performance last season was every bit as bad as Ramon Ortiz's performance in 2006 (the year before he signed with the Twins):

                    GS      IP      ERA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Hernandez '07 33 204 4.93 .308 .371 .499 .863
Ortiz '06 33 191 5.57 .297 .362 .486 .845

Hernandez managed to post an ERA that was a half-run lower, but the .308/.371/.499 hitting line that opponents produced against him was actually slightly worse than the .297/.362/.486 mark that hitters turned in while knocking Ortiz around (although Hernandez was calling a much tougher ballpark for pitchers home). The hitting lines produced against Ortiz in 2006 and Hernandez in 2007 both look fairly similar to the career marks that Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer have posted at the plate:

                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Hernandez .308 .371 .499 .863
Mauer .313 .394 .459 .853
Ortiz .297 .362 .486 .845
Morneau .276 .340 .498 .838

Like Ortiz in 2006, last year Hernandez essentially turned the hitters he faced into a cross between Morneau and Mauer. Similar struggles in the year before joining the Twins aside, signing Hernandez for $5-7 million is less of a mistake than handing $3.1 million to Ortiz last season. Hernandez has been a better pitcher than Ortiz during their respective careers and even in the midst of a steady decline figures to be a better pitcher for the Twins.

Ortiz's track record suggested that he had little chance of being even mediocre for the Twins, while Hernandez at least looks somewhat capable of potentially supplying the team with 200 innings of an ERA around 5.00. Beyond that, after trading Santana and losing both Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva to free agency the Twins had plenty of payroll room to work with, making a one-year commitment for somewhere between $5 million and $7 million less hurtful than usual.

Of course, there are still much better ways to spend $5-7 million and despite all the usual talk of the team desperately needing a "veteran starter" the Twins had no shortage of rotation options between Bonser, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, Nick Blackburn, and Philip Humber, not to mention guys like Zach Day, Kevin Mulvey, Brian Duensing, Brian Bass, Ryan Mullins, Anthony Swarzak, Oswaldo Sosa, and Kyle Waldrop (among others) as backup plans.

The Twins have succeeded because of young talent and have often won in spite of their annual pursuit of veteran mediocrity. Signing guys like Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, Tony Batista, and Juan Castro had little benefit and wasted money, hurt the team, and held back better, younger players. Rather than pay $5-7 million for a five-something ERA while the rotation at Triple-A Rochester dominates the International League, the Twins could have trusted their stockpile of young arms while using that money elsewhere.

Hernandez's salary would go a long way toward draft and international bonuses, where frugality has lessened the Twins' ability to acquire high-end prospects. An extra $5-7 million may not mean anything this season, but it could be a big help come 2010 and using that money to ink players to long-term contracts before then is another superior option. With that said, given as much as $25 million in payroll room following key departures the Twins no doubt felt pressure to spend money immediately.

Throwing $5-7 million at a formerly good pitcher who'll struggle to keep his ERA below 5.00 is far from a disaster and Hernandez's durability certainly carries some value, but if ever there was a time to trust young talent and avoid wasting money on veteran mediocrity this season was seemingly it. Young and unproven are not synonymous with bad, and the Twins had more than enough quality rotation options to get through the season without paying Hernandez $200,000 per start.

A rotation headed by Liriano, Baker, Bonser, and Slowey, with Humber, Perkins, Blackburn, and others taking their turns would have been plenty effective and there's an argument to be made for there being value in letting everyone gain experience and take lumps together in a rebuilding year. On the other hand, there's also an argument for many of those pitchers benefiting from additional seasoning in the minors or bullpen, and delaying service-time clocks will allow the Twins to control them longer.

Beyond that, it's possible that Hernandez could fetch a decent prospect in a midyear trade or barring that garner a supplemental first-round draft pick after the season if he's again ranked as a Type B free agent. Both on the field and off the field Hernandez is not without value and overpaying for veteran mediocrity is much more palatable this season, but like with Craig Monroe's $3.82 million deal there were perhaps better ways to spend money that's apparently burning a hole in the team's pocket.

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