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One Big Question: Are we too dismissive of Darwinzon Hernandez’ potential as a starter?

Everyone seems to peg him as bullpen help this year, but that’s not the initial plan for the lefty.

Darwinzon Hernandez
Kelly O’Connor;

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Darwinzon Hernandez.

The Question: Are we too quick to dismiss the possibility of Darwinzon Hernandez sticking as a starter?

Given the way the Red Sox roster looks right now, the organization’s plan in the major-league bullpen is more or less clear. Yes, Craig Kimbrel is still out there and yes I still believe there is a decent chance they cave and sign him. I also acknowledge that is very possibly just wishful thinking on my part. For now, it only makes sense to look at the roster as it stands right now and judge their apparent strategies based on that. With that in mind, the Red Sox clearly have a couple of guys they really like in Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier. Beyond that, they are just stockpiling potentially useful arms to bring into camp and seeing who can stick around and who can make an impact that isn’t anticipated right now. There are a lot of names in that big group about whom you can be excited — right now, as camp is about to begin, Colten Brewer is probably the guy I’m expecting the most out of. Generally speaking, though, it’s the young relievers who are yet to make their big-league debuts that are carrying the most buzz as potential difference-makers.

I’m speaking of course of three relievers, two of whom were added to the 40-man roster this winter as Rule 5-eligible players. Travis Lakins starting building his excitement last year and many wanted to see him get a chance down the stretch in 2018. That didn’t happen, but barring injury he should get his shot in 2019. Durbin Feltman was a 2018 draft pick, but he’s seen as being basically major-league ready now and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if he pitched well enough to get an Opening Day roster spot. That’s not the most likely outcome, of course, but it’s definitely possible.

Darwinzon Hernandez
Kelly O’Connor;

Then, there’s the left-handed Darwinzon Hernandez. Among everyone in the Red Sox organization, no one has watched their hype and stock rise quite like the fantastically-named southpaw. Hernandez was the subject of some mild excitement during the regular season as he racked up a decent number of strikeouts as a starter, but most of the minor-league focus was on hitters like Bobby Dalbec and Michael Chavis. Then, the Arizona Fall League happened. Of the first 12 outs Hernandez recorded out in the desert, 11 were strikeouts. All told, he faced 49 batters, recorded 34 outs and 24 strikeouts. This was also entirely in relief, and his stuff was out of control.

Also out of control: His write-ups this winter after that performance. Like I said, Hernandez’ strikeout stuff was always noticeable during the season, but he clearly opened up the eyes of national scouts in shorter stints on a bigger stage down in Arizona. In their write-up of the top Red Sox prospects, Fangraphs says he could be a high-leverage arm and one of the 30 or so best relievers in baseball. Keith Law, meanwhile, named the lefty as the top prospect in the system and had him in his “just missed” section of the top-100 prospects in the game.

Given the gaudy numbers in Arizona, the write-ups that have been coming through this winter and the fact that he’s on the 40-man roster, it’s understandable to see the excitement building. The Red Sox need someone to step up in the bullpen, and Hernandez has the stuff. Why not him?! Well, one reason could be that the team isn’t even planning on using him in that role, at least not to start the season. These things can always change quickly, but heading into camp the plan right now is for Hernandez to head to Portland to start the year in the SeaDogs rotation. Ideally, the team would like to see him grow in that role and become a legitimate rotation option in the next couple of years. It seems, however, that most of us are dismissing that possibility before it’s given a chance in 2019.

To be fair, there are reasons for that. There’s a reason that even the most glowing reports on Hernandez are tied to how he could potentially perform in a late-inning relief role. The biggest issue is easily his control. Now, obviously walks can still be harmful as a reliever, but it’s also easier to hide those issues. Just look at Matt Barnes and Craig Kimbrel. Between High-A and Double-A last season, Hernandez struggled with his control despite the dominance with his stuff. Over 107 innings of work, the southpaw issued 66 free passes, or 5.6 per nine innings. That includes six walks in six innings out of the bullpen in Portland. For what it’s worth, he walked 4.8 per nine in Arizona. Keep in mind that this is also against relatively immature competition. As he moves up the ladder, he’ll find it’s harder to get hitters to chase junk. If Hernandez is going to be elite in the bullpen, he needs to take a step forward in this area. If he’s going to stick as a starter, he needs to take about three steps forward.

Darwinzon Hernandez
Kelly O’Connor;

It’s not just the control, though. The pitch mix is also something that looks a lot more like a reliever than a starter. Hernandez’ biggest weapon is his big fastball, which can sit in the mid-90s as a starter and get up higher than that in shorter stints. He also has a couple of breaking balls he can play around with with a slider and a slower curveball. That latter pitch has come along nicely and serves as a nice change of pace, It’s also not a true changeup, though, and as a lefty it’s tough to succeed as a starter without a true changeup. Hernandez does have one, but it’s a work in progress. If he comes into camp with real improvement in that pitch, that would be the biggest sign that we should take him seriously as a potential starter.

At the end of the day, it’s perfectly reasonable to be excited about Hernandez as potential bullpen help this year. I’m excited too! Still, we probably shouldn’t be expecting much, particularly early in the year. Most industry experts agree he’s not too long for the rotation, but there are still people who see him as a potential starter. If he can make tweaks to help his control and also get his changeup to even close to average, he’ll be more valuable than he would be as a one-inning reliever. It’s nice that the fallback option is for him to be a potential shot in the arm for the bullpen in the second half of the year, but in the meantime we should be paying more attention to his potential out of the rotation.