Kevin Towers came to the Diamondbacks with a sterling reputation as a bullpen builder. One of his first moves: trading Mark Reynolds and (later) John Hester to the Orioles for Kam Mickolio and David Hernandez. Looking at the deal in hindsight, it worked out well for the D-backs; Mickolio threw just 6.2 crappy innings for the team, but Hester hasn’t made much of a major league impact. Reynolds hit 60 bombs in his two years with the Orioles, but hit .221 in each year and hovered just above league average in producing runs (sounds familiar, right?).
FanGraphs pegs Reynolds’ tenure with the Orioles at -0.1 WAR. Brushing aside the other two players, the 3.2 WAR tallied by Hernandez looks quite good.
And that’s probably the best way to describe Hernandez’s first two seasons with the D-backs: quite good. In his first season, Hernandez threw 69.1 innings of 3.38 ERA baseball, and he followed that up with a 2.50 ERA in 68.1 innings in 2012. If you called him a bullpen ace, some would agree with you. If you called him one of the best setup men in baseball, I would agree with you, too.
But he was not the same in 2013. His 4.48 ERA tells you that, but his 4.36 FIP tells a more compelling story, compared to the 2.94 and 2.08 FIP marks from the previous seasons. Something was awry, although the best ERA-estimator around counsels us to not blow it out of proportion. His 3.28 SIERA would look great as an ERA, and that’s what he “deserved.” Compare that to a 2.17 SIERA in his excellent 2012 season, and a 3.13 SIERA in the still-good 2011 campaign.
His walks didn’t really balloon; that rate (3.47 BB/9) was lower than his rate in 2011. It was a “drop” in strikeout rate and a significant increase in home run rate that did Hernandez in. To some extent, the HR rate could be luck. And while his strikeout rate dropped more than 3 Ks per 9, it was still 9.53 K/9 in 2013.
We know there’s more to the story, though. Hernandez came out dealing in 2013, with very good peripherals in April and for most of May. But then the wheels really did come off; from the beginning of June until when he was demoted in August, Hernandez had a horrendous 7.71 ERA. The underlying statistics don’t look all that different; Hernandez had a lot of bad luck, the hits happened to string together, and he had a couple of horrendous outings in August to cap things off.
More importantly, when Hernandez came back from Triple-A Reno, he was the 2012 version of himself, if in a small sample. He faced 53 batters that September, walking 4 but striking out 16; opposing batters hit just .128 with a .405 OPS. To a large extent, Hernandez was unlucky before his demotion, and lucky after it. But there’s still evidence to support the premise that he got out of whack, got a chance to get his mechanics back together, and then dominated once he did.
In the wake of pre-season Tommy John surgery, there’s a lot that’s murky about Hernandez. We don’t know what version of himself will materialize or when, and with MLB Trade Rumors’s Matt Swartz projecting a $2.125M salary in Hernandez’s final year of arbitration, the amount of money at stake is not trivial. Let’s look at some pros and cons.
Reasons to non-tender Hernandez
1. Tommy John. Relievers tend to return a bit quicker than starters, but that has mostly to do with the extra time it takes for starters to build up innings; it’s not a measure of some inherent bounce-back skill for relievers. The average 28-year-old pitcher has returned from Tommy John just 71% of the time (n=73), according to research by Jon Roegele. The average return time for that age group is a scary 16.9 months, a longer period than recent averages of 15+ months. Still, the median return time has been 13 months, and the most common month total is 12.
Hernandez had his surgery on April 1, 2014. Sure, it’s very possible he’ll see action at Chase Field in April of next year; but it’s also very possible that his return will end up being in May, even without a setback. And what if he does experience a setback that pushes his return to July? What if he turns out to be in the minority of pitchers who doesn’t return from TJ? Those are reasons to not extend an offer to Hernandez. Basically, it’s very unlikely that they’ll get a full season from Hernandez next season, and it’s more likely with Hernandez than with other pitchers that they won’t get much of anything from him in 2015. Is that worth over $2M for a club struggling to find flexibility?
2. He can’t be demoted without his permission. Once Hernandez completes a rehab assignment and joins the major league club, the D-backs won’t be able to send him back to Triple-A. They’ll be out of options. Big deal, right? It’s not like they’d want to demote him unless he wasn’t pitching well anyway, and with Hernandez slated to be a free agent after the 2015 season, it’s not like they would have future to preserve.
It’s not a trivial deal, though. We know that from the 2013 experience, when it was only a break from MLB action that cured Hernandez’s woes. That’s the greatest advantage of having a young bullpen, I’ve argued before: when it comes to relievers, flexibility may be more important than price. Relievers can’t get a day off and take extra batting practice. They can’t work on anything in a bullpen session like a starter. They’re the only part of a baseball team that can’t make adjustments outside game time without spreading the major league club thin. That alone is a reason why Hernandez might be less valuable in 2015 than he was in 2013.
3. Roster and dollar crunches. I have a high level of confidence that Hernandez will be better than Matt Stites in 2015 — but less confidence that he’ll be worth $1.6M more. Addison Reed and Oliver Perez are locked in, and Daniel Hudson is likely to open the season as a reliever. Add in Matt Reynolds, Evan Marshall, Eury De la Rosa, Randall Delgado, and other candidates like Andrew Chafin, Will Harris and Jake Barrett, and even if you project a major injury or two, the D-backs are unlikely to be scrambling for bullpen arms. More to the point: while Reynolds should be good to go when spring training starts, Brad Ziegler probably will not be. The returns of Ziegler and Hernandez may track closely, if Hernandez is going well. They can’t cover for each other; and to make room for them both, two relievers would need to be removed.
Add to that the fact that the D-backs already have dollars committed up to the halfway point of next year’s payroll range. To make any move at all in the offseason, the D-backs will probably need some give. It looks like I was a little high in that projection by earmarking $2.5M for Hernandez (again, the Swartz projection is $2.125M), but the principles are the same. The CBA prohibits the D-backs from offering less than $1.6M in arbitration, and there’s a good chance that if they go to arbitration, they’ll lose; he might end up making $2.5M anyway. That’s risk that would need to be built into the decision.
Reasons to tender Hernandez a contract
1. He could be worth it. Steamer projects a 3.11 ERA for David Hernandez next season. That’s pretty good. If you had the opportunity to sign Hernandez for a one-year deal, what would you think he’d sign for? I think it would end up being more than $2.125M. I think the going rate for a reliever of that quality could be more in the $3M neighborhood.
So there isn’t a lot to say there; if the D-backs have the opportunity to sign someone at a below-market rate, then it’s almost dumb to not do it. Maybe he doesn’t fit them, exactly. But if by tendering Hernandez a contract the D-backs were able to trade Reed or Ziegler or (especially) Perez, the club would do well.
2. Flexibility versus free agents. Yeah; a big part of the #2 “con” part above was flexibility. I think that’s true. But what about long-term flexibility? The option that leaves the D-backs the most flexible is to non-tender Hernandez and not sign a replacement. But if non-tendering Hernandez leads the D-backs to go hunting for a replacement, the D-backs will sacrifice long-term flexibility by non-tendering him.
Even if the going rate for someone of Hernandez’s likely skills was in the $3M neighborhood, it would absolutely be an advantage to be able to sign him for a single year. Not only are relievers volatile, but they get hurt. In scenarios in which both Hernandez and his replacement suffer significant injuries during the 2015 season, you’d prefer to have the guy who’s not already signed for 2016.
Conclusion: Another way
The pros and cons seem like they’re in a neck and neck race, and with the non-tender deadline more than six weeks away, there’s no reason to make a decision right now like the D-backs did when they jumped the gun with Tony Sipp last year. But there are three alternatives to simply making the up-or-down decision to tender Hernandez a contract.
The first: make Hernandez an offer right now. There’s no rule against that, and if the D-backs think he’s probably only going to be worth $2M, they can make him that offer before deciding whether to tender him a contract. For all we know, he might be in favor of a non-tender, which would mean getting the advantage of free agency. But he might go for it. There is harm in asking, however; if the club makes that offer, it will be tipping its hand as to how it’s likely to maneuver before an arbitration hearing. Hernandez could simply reject the offer, hoping to get a midpoint between that number and a number of his own later in the process.
The second: trade Hernandez right now. More than with the average pitcher, there are a lot of factors to consider with Hernandez when it comes to his 2015 value. Give a room of 29 other GMs a chance to look at these very same factors, and chances are, they won’t all view them the same way. That means some are likely to look on Hernandez more favorably than others. Maybe that discrepancy will be enough for another team to justify handing over something of value to the D-backs. I view this as very unlikely, but there’s no reason not to feel around.
The third, and probably preferred option: offer Hernandez an extension, rather than a one-year pact. It could be tied to games played, such that if Hernandez pitches in fewer than 30 games, the D-backs get a $2M option for 2016; the amount of dollars on the option could inflate based on games played, and Hernandez could get a smallish buyout to make it worthwhile to him. Hernandez is no spring chicken, but if his control is at all affected by the layoff, he might end up happy that he hit free agency after the 2016 season instead of the 2015 season.
Gun to my head, I don’t think I would tender Hernandez a contract if it were a simple up-or-down decision. I do think the D-backs will; that difference is mostly in that I believe more in the effectiveness of younger bullpens than your average baseball person. But I absolutely do think they should get on Hernandez right now, and offer him $2M or $2.2M for 2015, with an escalating option for 2016 based on games played. I think that makes a lot of sense for both sides, depending on the actual figures. Non-tender Hernandez? Let’s hope it just doesn’t get to that point.
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