Indians confident in absorbing rotation's loss
Depth eases uncertainty following Hernandez's legal issues
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Ubaldo Jimenez understands the pressure felt by young baseball players in his native Dominican Republic. That is because he has been in their shoes and he has experienced the same temptation to lie about his age.
A few years shaved off a birth certificate could mean a lot more money in the bank account. In a country where many families fight poverty and view baseball as a gateway to a better future, choosing to use a false name or age is a path that many young Dominican players are enticed to pursue.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Jimenez said. "I had people that told me, 'If you get a couple years younger, they're going to give you more money.' That's something that you think about when you're that age."
On Wednesday, when Indians pitchers and catchers held their first official workout at the team's player development complex, there was one person noticeably missing. Roberto Hernandez -- the pitcher known as Fausto Carmona for more than a decade -- remains in the Dominican Republic dealing with legal and visa troubles.
Hernandez was arrested on Jan. 19 outside the United States consulate in Santo Domingo, D.R., while attempting to renew his visa so he could join the Indians for Spring Training. The pitcher was charged with using a false identity and it was revealed that he was 31 years old -- three years older than Cleveland believed.
It is a situation that created a hole within the starting staff, which projects to include Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe, Tomlin and Jimenez, along with the winner of this spring's fifth-starter competition. Arms in the mix for that job include Kevin Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff and Zach McAllister.
Cleveland feels its rotation is better equipped this year to absorb setbacks.
That belief is being put to the test well before Opening Day.
"Guys who will help fill that role are more prepared with some big league experience," Masterson said. "We've got Lowe in there now. I think we have a solid starting staff. We have four guys who are locked in, in my opinion. And then you have three, four or five guys who have been in that fifth starting role and who will fight and be prepared.
"We're definitely in a good spot. We'd definitely like to have Rob here, but you make due."
Masterson then cracked a smile.
"I imagine he'll be here at some point in time," added the pitcher. "And the big goof will fit in just as well as before -- after he gets worn out tremendously by every single person."
That type of support for Hernandez, who has gone 53-66 with a 4.59 ERA in six seasons with the Indians, can be found in all corners of the clubhouse.
"Regardless of his name," said Tomlin, "we support him as a person no matter what. He's a great guy. We're behind him 100 percent and we hope he gets back."
"We're not going to turn our back on him," Indians manager Manny Acta said.
Acta -- also a native of the Dominican Republic -- has kept in contact with Hernandez throughout the ordeal. Jimenez, who worked out with the pitcher for a few weeks this offseason, said he has also been in touch with Hernandez since news broke that the pitcher had been using a false identity.
It was reported that the mother of the real Fausto Carmona went on a radio show in the D.R. and outed the Indians pitcher after he refused to increase the payments for using the name. Hernandez had a $7 million club option picked up by the Tribe in late October and the Carmona family allegedly wanted more money.
Those developements then led to Hernandez's arrest.
"He was embarrassed," Jimenez said. "That's what he told me. He said, 'I feel so embarrassed right now when I have to look everybody in the face.' But I told him you have to get your head up. It's something where he's not the only one who has done it. And he did it for a good reason. It's not a good thing to do, but what can you do?"
One of the reasons that players in the Dominican Republic sometimes go down that road is the belief that, once they are older than 17 or 18 years old, scouts will move on to younger players. Hernandez was 20 when he signed with the Indians in 2000, but the team believed he was only 17 at the time.
Even at 17 years old, when Jimenez signed with the Rockies, he had people telling him he should say he was younger, too. The pitcher said he believes the only thing that stopped him from lying about his age was that his parents insisted that he finish high school before signing a professional contract.
"Thank God I had really good parents," Jimenez said. "They always told me -- my mom and my dad -- that you have to finish high school first. I couldn't sign until I finished high school. That's something that they made me do. That's probably why I didn't do it."
Earlier this month, Hernandez started out on a campaign to help educate young players in his home country about the consequences of lying about their name or age. He is currently on Major League Baseball's restricted list and he could face a suspension from the league upon returning to the Indians.
While on the restricted list, Hernandez will not receive any salary payments from the Indians. There is also no certainty about when or if he will be able to pitch in the big leagues again.
In the meantime, Hernandez has been speaking to kids who have yet to enter the many baseball academies set up in the D.R. by Major League teams. He has also been handing out T-shirts that read "En la Verdad esta el Triunfo" in Spanish on the front.
In Truth, there is Triumph.
"He's doing a good thing," Acta said. "He's preaching to the right crowd, too. ... When you go to the academies, it could be a little too late by then. He's going to the kids that are probably in a position where they could be taken advantage of or taking the wrong steps.
"It's nice for him to assume the responsbility and do that community service, if you want to call it that."
An Associated Press report on Wednesday quoted Hernandez as saying he is hoping to receive a judicial pardon for his crimes. It seems doubtful that Hernandez's situation would be resolved early in Spring Training, but the pitcher hopes to rejoin the team this season.
"I'm doing all that is necessary so that when the pardon is granted, I won't have to wait long to play again," Hernandez told the AP. "I know I should have come clean before, but I was scared to reveal what happened to me. That's why I waited until it became public."
Masterson, who has taken part in mission trips to the Dominican Republic in recent offseasons, was also happy to hear about the steps Hernandez is taking in trying to help kids who might be in a similar situation.
"He's an awesome guy," Masterson said. "You can't put that past him. What he did maybe when he was 17, 18, 19, 20 -- OK. But as far as the individual goes, he's a good person and he loves taking care of people. It doesn't surprise me that he's doing something like that, but it is good to see.
"Hey, he knows he made a mistake."
And the more Masterson has thought about it, the more he understands why Hernandez chose to use a fake identity.
"If you look at some of the digs, there are some good things down there," Masterson said. "But it's also full of poverty. Why wouldn't you take a chance of being 17 for three years in order to get out of that when there's high-stakes money involved? Even the money you can make as a Minor Leaguer would help your family.
"And when you get over here, the way Dominican players take care of each other, it's pretty impressive. You have big league guys helping out as many guys as they can because of that factor. For me, I wasn't upset [when I heard the news about Hernandez].
"It's not something you expected, but for me, having been down there a lot, I understand where it comes from. That doesn't necessarily make it right. But in that situation, would I probably have wanted to do the same thing? Absolutely.
"Does it make it right? No, but that's kind of the way I felt about it."
A year ago, when Hernandez served as the Indians' Opening Day starter, losing him would have been a crushing blow at the start of the season. Now, with the emergence of Masterson and Tomlin, plus the additions of Jimenez and Lowe, Cleveland feels it is in a better position to withstand a loss within the rotation.
The reason for that confidence is also due to the depth behind the first four starters. As things stand right now, the Triple-A Columbus rotation could feature five arms with varying degrees of Major League experience.
"Before we even got [Lowe], we felt pretty good about Gomez, Huff and McAllister," Acta said. "I think that it's a credit to our farm system that we have gone from, three Spring Trainings ago, trying to fill out three spots to coming in and having five guys fighting for one back-end-of-the-rotation spot."
The pitchers seem to agree.
"You definitely don't want to lose a guy like that," Tomlin said, "especially a guy like him, by no means. He's a great person to have around the clubhouse, a great person to have on the staff. But, I think we saw a lot of upside to the guys that we have in the rotation this year, and guys that we have for depth."
For now, there is no locker reserved for Hernandez at the Tribe's spring complex. Truth be told, though, there is not an empty stall to be had at the moment given the high volume of players in camp with the club this preseason.
Acta said Hernandez is working out in the Dominican Republic -- the pitcher is not allowed to leave the country right now -- and the manager is confident that the sinkerballer will do what it takes to be ready whenever he is cleared to return to the United States.
That said, there is no known timeline for his return.
"Now, we're just wondering when are we going to see Rob?" Masterson said with a grin. "Are we going to have a really big birthday party for him? Are we going to have three cakes because he got three years older in one day?"
All kidding aside, the Indians appear more than willing to welcome Hernandez back with open arms.
And his teammates are understanding about the pitcher's past mistakes.
"You have to find a way to get out of poverty," Jimenez said. "And he lives in the country. He lives on a farm. When a guy comes with an offer, you're probably not going to say no, because you're trying to help your family.
"Fausto is not the first one and he's not going to be the last one."