Posted on January 20, 2020, by Bryan Zarpentine
They say it’s not over until it’s over, and for six-time All-Star and former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, it’s not over just yet. Coming off the worst season of his career, Hernandez has decided not to give up and retire after a brilliant career. The man they call King Felix is going to pick himself up, dust himself off, and try again after agreeing to a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves. Hernandez will get a chance in spring training to make the team and will receive a salary of $1 million if he pitches in the majors this year.
Hernandez was an all-star as recently as 2015, the last in a run of six consecutive all-star nods. However, he’s had a gradual but undeniable decline in the four seasons since then. He managed to go 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA in 2016 despite a stint on the IL, but shoulder and biceps issues limited him to just 16 starts in 2017. Things really fell apart for King Felix in 2018 when he went 8-14 with a 5.55 ERA. This past season, a shoulder problem limited Hernandez to 15 starts. He was also 1-8 with a 6.40 ERA when he was healthy enough to pitch right before the 34-year-old hit free agency.
Based on the last two seasons, nobody should be surprised to see Hernandez have to settle for a minor league contract with no guarantee of cracking the big league roster. Along those same lines, few should be surprised that Hernandez would want to avoid going out the way he performed in 2019, even if it means leaving the only organization he’s ever known.
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In theory, Hernandez might be able to contribute if he can stay healthy. There’s no doubt that the shoulder problems that kept him on the IL for long stretches last year had a negative impact on his performance. If he can stay healthy might have good enough stuff to be a viable major league starter. On the other hand, he’s been in the big leagues since he was 19 and has over 2,700 innings under his belt. He went 10 straight seasons with at least 190 innings from 2006 to 2015, going over 200 innings in eight of those seasons, so it’s possible that years of wear and tear have finally caught up with Hernandez.
If King Felix makes the Braves, it’ll likely happen as the team’s no. 5 starter. Atlanta appears to have four starters locked into the rotation with Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, and Cole Hamels. That will leave Hernandez to compete with Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright for the final spot in Atlanta’s rotation. Wright could surely benefit from additional seasoning while Newcomb could be shifted to the bullpen where he excelled last season. That leaves the door ajar for Hernandez to make the opening-day roster if he shows in spring training that he’s healthy and can still be effective.
From Atlanta’s perspective, this is a no-risk move. If Hernandez can still pitch in the majors, his experience makes him a bargain at $1 million. If he gets to spring training with nothing left in the tank, the Braves have other options for the final spot in their rotation. This is all about whether or not King Felix can still pitch. It’d be a little sad to see one of the best pitchers of the last 15 years finish his career the way Hernandez pitched last season. If nothing else, he’ll get one last chance to prove that the kind isn’t dead yet.