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Is Felix Hernandez a bounceback candidate or just a veteran presence for the Orioles?

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The Orioles now have an accomplished veteran competing for the rotation on a minor league deal. Problem is, he’s past his prime, with no guarantee of a comeback.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves
Felix Hernandez delivers a pitch for the Atlanta Braves during Spring Training 2020.
David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

In typical Oriole fashion, the transactions have been more abundant in the weeks leading up to spring training than in any other part of the offseason. More specifically, there has been a lot of movement recently in the Orioles rotation. Alex Cobb was shipped out west, Wade LeBlanc was brought back on a minor league deal, and now the club is adding a former Cy Young winner and six-time All-Star.

First reported by Jon Heyman yesterday evening, Felix Hernandez is joining the Orioles.

The pessimists will say he’s obviously washed up and this is yet another example of the Orioles signing a former superstar way past his prime. The optimists will say he can fill a huge leadership gap in the rotation and has a chance to recapture his former glory. Bear in mind though, it is only a minor league deal.

The situation immediately brings to mind the Orioles’ signing of former two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana about seven years ago. He never threw a single pitch for the O’s.

Santana signed a minor league deal in March of 2014 and started the season with the Norfolk Tides as he tried to work his way back from shoulder surgery. Then he tore his Achilles tendon in early June that year and was never heard from in Birdland again.

Santana was 35 when he attempted his comeback with the O’s. Hernandez will turn 35 this April. Before signing with Baltimore, Santana had a 4.85 ERA and 0.1 bWAR in 21 starts in 2012. Hernandez last pitched in 2019, when he had a 6.40 ERA and -0.6 bWAR in 15 starts.

But although he will turn 35 relatively soon, Hernandez has been a major leaguer for 15 years, having debuted in 2005 at the age of 19. Just imagine the nuggets of wisdom he can drop on the young guys.

With Cobb gone, the Orioles have no real veteran leader for the starting rotation. John Means instantly becomes the most experienced, but with only three years in the bigs he doesn’t fit the bill. It’s believed that Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin are the best bets right now for the rotation behind Means, but after that, the possibilities are really wide open.

In terms of a leader/mentorship role, how do you even attempt to quantify that? For Hernandez specifically, he doesn’t have anything left to prove. And he’s made his fortune already for sure, having earned upwards of $217 million up to this point in his career, according to Baseball Reference. He’s obviously not doing it for the money.

So that should mean he’s hungry to get back to his former self and prove the doubters wrong. Hopefully, that also means he can contribute to his new team in additional ways, like coaching up the youngsters and showing them the right way to go about their business in the big leagues.

Hernandez could also potentially fill the cliched baseball role of innings-eater. From 2006-2016, he averaged an astonishing 212 innings per season. But no wonder he only pitched 86.2 innings for the Mariners in 2017 and saw a serious downturn in results the following year. It’s a miracle his arm didn’t completely fall off.

He opted out of the 2020 season, so depending on how you look at it, he’ll either be well-rested or just rusty.

But does he have anything left in the tank? From 2005-2017 with the Mariners, he had a 3.20 ERA, 3.35 FIP and averaged 0.8 HR/9. His last two years in Seattle (2018-2019) he went downhill fast, registering a 5.82 ERA and 5.44 FIP while allowing 1.7 HR/9.

Plus, as a new member of the Baltimore Orioles, there’s the concern of pitching in the AL East, which is no picnic. It’s hard enough for pitchers in their prime and at the top of their game, let alone one who hasn’t excelled in years.

The Orioles are no strangers to signing veteran starters in particular to fill out their rotation. Last year they grabbed LeBlanc and Tommy Milone on minor league deals and both ended up making multiple starts. And as stated before, LeBlanc is back yet again.

And yet again, it’s going to be a strange season in terms of the coronavirus impact. Considering how 2020 was only a 60-game season and the minor leagues were cancelled completely, teams will have to be extra cautious so as to not overwork their pitchers. So just like in 2020, and maybe even more so this year, the Orioles will need to have depth in order to address this issue.

The Hernandez signing is another step towards that goal of starting pitching volume, and we’ll just have to see later if anything else can be gained from this signing or not.