After trading away their most experienced starting pitcher earlier this week, the Orioles have added a former Cy Young Award winner aiming to rejuvenate his career.
On Wednesday, Baltimore announced a minor-league agreement with former Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who sat out the abbreviated 2020 season. The six-time All-Star pitcher signed a minor-league deal with Atlanta last January and made a strong impression — allowing just three earned runs and striking out 14 in 13 2/3 Grapefruit League innings — before the season was suspended in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He did exactly what we asked him to do, which is get guys out,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker after Hernandez’s decision to opt out in early July. “He didn’t do anything to not warrant making our club in the spring.”
Hernandez will turn 35 in April and hasn’t posted an ERA below 5.00 since the 2017 season, but the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner was once among the most dominant and durable pitchers in baseball. The right-hander won the ERA title in 2010 and 2014 and logged at least 200 innings in eight consecutive seasons from 2008-15.
The Orioles shouldn’t be expecting a pitcher reflecting those credentials, of course, but a starting rotation full of questions could use a veteran placeholder or two capable of eating some innings while the organization evaluates the readiness of several young arms likely to pitch in Baltimore at some point in 2021. Hernandez is set to make $1 million if he makes the major league roster, according to MLB Network.
In his final season with the Mariners in 2019, Hernandez went an ugly 1-8 with a 6.40 ERA in 15 starts spanning 71 2/3 innings. The Venezuelan native celebrated as “King Felix” in Seattle posted a combined ERA of 5.42 over 314 innings from 2017-19, but he won 169 games, logged an impressive 3.42 ERA, and was worth 50.1 wins above replacement over 15 seasons with the Mariners.
If nothing else, Hernandez will be an interesting spring story for a club that’s seemingly been more focused on cutting costs on and off the field than adding major league-caliber talent this offseason.
Hernandez wasn’t the only veteran pitcher to receive a minor-league deal this week as the Orioles re-signed 36-year-old lefty Wade LeBlanc after trading veteran starter Alex Cobb to the Los Angeles Angels for 23-year-old infielder Jahmai Jones. LeBlanc logged an 8.06 ERA over six starts for Baltimore in 2020 and suffered a season-ending elbow injury in August.
While Hernandez and LeBlanc will have opportunities to win rotation spots behind projected Opening Day starter John Means, rookies Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin appear to be good bets to be part of the starting five after making a favorable impression last season. Other starting candidates include rookie Bruce Zimmermann, 2020 waiver claim Jorge Lopez, and Rule 5 picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells. The Orioles added pitching prospects Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, and Alexander Wells to their 40-man roster this offseason, but none of those three have pitched above Double-A Bowie.
The Orioles also announced minor-league agreements with infielders Seth Mejias-Brean and Malquin Canelo and pitchers Dusten Knight, Konner Wade, and Spenser Watkins on Wednesday.