Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Hernandez Strategy

No, that's not the title of the lost Robert Ludlum thriller. It's how the Twins should extricate themselves from the mess they got themselves into when they signed Livan Hernandez.

After his pathetic start this weekend, I got really nervous about how much damage he was going to do to the Twins before he goes the way of Sidney Ponson, Ramon Ortiz, and Tony Batista. It certainly raised my eyebrows when neither he nor Gardy seemed the least bit concerned. "He knows how to pitch" says Gardy. "I always do bad in spring" says Livan.

I agree that Hernandez knows how to pitch. However, his stuff is so hittable at this stage of his career, his guile and craftiness won't be able to carry him very far. As for the bad spring comment, I decided to look it up.

He doesn't always do bad in spring. Not at all. His spring lines from the past 5 seasons:

2003: 15.2 IP, 6.59 ERA, 1.60 WHIP
2004: 19 IP, 2.37 ERA, 1.05 WHIP
2005: 33 IP, 2.18 ERA, 1.03 WHIP
2006: 20 IP, 1.80 ERA, 1.30 WHIP
2007: 10.1 IP, 13.06 ERA, 2.52 WHIP(!)

2003 was not particularly good, but the next three years were exactly what you'd like to see from your ace. He went on to have solid performances in each of those seasons (though he slipped substantially in 2006). Last year's spring was atrocious, and this year's (13 IP, 9.69 ERA, 2.15 WHIP) isn't much better so far. However, last year he answered the bell and had a very solid April and May, combining to go 5-2 over his first 11 starts, with 73 IP, 3.58 ERA, and 1.46 WHIP.

The Twins are hoping for similar production this spring, and there's hope he'll deliver. Over the last 6 years of his career, Hernandez has been very effective in April and May. Even as his overall numbers have declined over the past three seasons, his combined April/May numbers from 2005-2007 are decent:

35 starts, 233 IP, 4.09 ERA, .272 BA against

That's reasonably close to Carlos Silva. He turned out to be rather valuable this off-season. If Hernandez' ERA is anywhere close to 4.00 on May 31, the Twins should find someone to trade him to as quickly as possible. Sell high!

If they wait until June, it may be too late. June has been Livan's worst month throughout his career. Over the past three seasons, his combined June line is 99 IP, 5.69 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, and .322 opponent's BA. No matter how well he pitches in the spring, he always goes in the tank in June. There's no reason to think this year will be any different. After he drops that type of performance, his trade value will diminish considerably. The Twins should pawn him off on some poor sucker while they still can!

Every summer, some team loses a starter and is looking for a proven innings-eater to help carry the rotation through the summer. By the end May the Twins will be in a wonderful position to help that team out.

That's because Rochester is going to have one or more starting pitchers in the rotation who would earn a spot on the opening day roster were Livan not in the way. If Baker and Liriano manage to overcome their setbacks and start the season in the rotation, I think it's likely that Nick Blackburn, Philip Humber, and Glen Perkins or Brian Bass (assuming he clears waivers) will be proving all they need to prove for 11 or so AAA starts. To say nothing of Brian Duensing or Kevin Mulvey. I'm probably forgetting somebody. The point is, somebody will be more than deserving of a shot in the Twins rotation by June.

So, best-case scenario: Livan gives the Twins about 70 competent innings in April and May, then gets shipped out for a decent return, while making room for a promising prospect. Two things could de-rail this plan:

1. The Twins don't have the sense to cash out after 2 months. It could be tough to part with someone who appears to be pitching well. But if they really want him to pitch 200+ innings in a Twins uniform, they should be prepared for at least 130 of those innings to totally suck.

2. Harrowing thought: what happens every June? At least 15 games of interleague play. Meaning, that was the month of the season when Hernandez was facing AL hitters. Maybe the reason Livan's numbers have been so mind-boggling awful every June has something to with the fact that he was up against DHs instead of pitchers, and stronger hitters overall. If that truly is the cause, his April may turn out to be like his past Junes. In that case, the Twins may not find a taker for him, and they'll just have to release him. Give them credit, they did it with Ponson et al. That outcome would certainly make his signing seem like a waste of money, though.

I'm rooting for history to repeat itself, and for Bill Smith to have the nerve to trade a winner while his value is still high.

But I'm preparing for a Ponson repeat as well.

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