Free agent Hernandez a good deal
Right-hander one of most reliable talents left on market
As long as you have a pulse and a record of showing up for work on a regular basis, being a free-agent pitcher is still a pleasant circumstance.
This is true even in late January, with almost three months of the offseason in the books. This winter's free-agent pitching class has typically been described as "thin," and OK, it's probably somewhere between slender and emaciated. But that is all the better for those free-agent pitchers who are still at large.
This brings us to Livan Hernandez, who is reportedly close to a deal with the New York Mets. Hernandez's work in 2007, even for the National League West-winning Arizona Diamondbacks, was not particularly compelling. He was 11-11 with a 4.93 ERA. This was his highest ERA in six seasons, but for the eighth straight season, he pitched more than 200 innings.
It might be argued that Hernandez, 32, is not at a point in his career where improvement could fairly be expected. But what could be fairly expected would be Hernandez taking the ball when the ball is offered to him and then eating a lot of innings.
And that would be particularly ideal for the Mets, who project a rotation with two pitchers who have serious health concerns. One of them happens to be Orlando Hernandez, the older half-brother of Livan.
Some people believe that El Duque is the considerably older half-brother of Livan. But even that is not the issue. The record says that Livan Hernandez would provide the Mets with the promise of many innings pitched. With a high-octane offense already in the Mets' equation, Livan Hernandez looks like a very logical move for them.
The current free-agent alternatives are not particularly splendid. Yes, Johan Santana is being made available by the Minnesota Twins, and yes, the Mets are one of the primary suitors for his services. But to obtain Santana, the Mets would have to part with a truly significant number of talented young players.
Santana is in a category by himself among available pitchers. He could transform the nature of the Mets' rotation, or that of almost any another club, for that matter.
But free agency provides a club with an opportunity to obtain talent without completely mortgaging the future. Thus, the open-market competition for Livan Hernandez is not Johan Santana, but the remaining starting pitchers in the free-agent class of 2007-08. This is where Livan Hernandez begins to look relatively better and better.
For instance, you could sign David Wells. He has won 239 games and he has a record of being at his absolute best in the biggest games. But he will be 45 in May, he is not quite a portrait of physical fitness and last season he was 9-9 with a 5.43 ERA.
How about Bartolo Colon? Not all that long ago, he was the ultimate innings-eater. But now his shoulder problems appear to be almost chronic, and he did not resemble himself in 2007, going 6-8 with an unsightly 6.34 ERA.
Want somebody healthier? What about Brett Tomko, whose stuff has never been questioned. After a 2-11 stretch with the Dodgers last season, he picked up the pace in late-season outings with the Padres. But the Padres, who know pitching as well as anybody, made him an offer to return as a reliever.
Kyle Lohse? He's a better bet to be able to work than most of the available pitchers, so he's probably a better bet, period. But he's also a career 63-74 pitcher, who had compiled most of that record while pitching for winning teams in Minnesota.
Josh Fogg? He has been a competent Major League pitcher, a .500 pitcher for his career. But it is difficult to forget his last start, which came in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. He gave up six runs on 10 hits in 2 2/3 innings.
Byung-Hyun Kim? His unconventional delivery can still be confounding on any given night, but his 2007 ERA of 6.08 indicates that there weren't enough of those given nights. He'll find work, but maybe not for a genuine contender.
There are more, but the storyline doesn't vary much: pitchers with questions regarding their potential effectiveness or their potential health, or both. The Mets wouldn't have to consider, for instance, Kris Benson or Steve Trachsel, because bringing them back would be the organizational equivalent of driving in reverse.
The point is, given the current market, Livan Hernandez appears to be not only a better choice, but a safer choice if the goal is stability in the rotation.
No, signing him would not be like obtaining Johan Santana. But that isn't quite the issue. The issue is whether Livan Hernandez is better than the available free-agent alternatives. It appears that he is. This may be damning him with truly faint praise, but that is the current pitching reality.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.