With the arrival of Johan Santana, who would have believed there’d be so much concern and discussion surrounding Orlando Hernandez at the beginning of spring training?
Only two weeks of workouts, and already pundits are clamoring for El Duque to move to the bullpen, citing his various physical woes.
For example, from Marty Noble in his most recent “mailbag“:
The Mets would be better off now and in the future if they move Hernandez into the bullpen and start Mike Pelfrey in the rotation. Hernandez would stand a better chance of lasting the entire season, and Pelfrey would get some positive big league time.
Really? Based on what? Pelfrey’s 5.57 ERA and 4 1/3 inning starts last year? Because his performances were so glowing and full of potential compared to El Duque’s 6-, 7-, and 8-inning efforts and his 1.17 WHIP?
I hate to single out Noble’s comments, because he’s far from the only pundit who has this stupefying notion that El Duque is somehow better off in the bullpen. In fact, the theory has spread like a virus this winter, and I suppose it’s based on Duque’s miraculous three innings of relief work for the White Sox during the 2004 ALCS and another single, hitless inning of relief in the World Series a few days later (he walked FOUR in that inning, by the way).
Take a look at Hernandez’s career, and you’ll notice that he’s pitched in 219 games — 211 as a starter. But those three innings against the Angels four years ago stick in people’s heads like a moth on flypaper.
I’m not going to argue the fact that Orlando Hernandez is fragile, and the fact that he might be surreptitiously carrying an AARP card doesn’t increase our confidence in his health. He’s going to break down — that’s for certain — and he’s going to spend at least one stint if not two on the DL this season. But we know that going in, and it’s OK because we have Pelfrey waiting in the wings to grab a dozen or so starts. It’s not unlike “the deal” we have with Moises Alou: no one expects more than 100 games from Alou — but no one is calling for the leftfield job to be handed to Endy Chavez, either. We know these guys are older than dirt, but also know that when they’re in the lineup, they’ll be better than at least 75% of the rest of the men who play their position. More importantly, we have Alou and Hernandez for the postseason. That’s really their singular purpose on the roster, to somehow keep their bodies patched together so they’re able to provide October heroics.
The notion of putting El Duque in the bullpen is not only baseless, it’s sheer stupidity. We all agree that Orlando has health issues — so why in the world would we think that putting him into a role of irregularity would somehow keep him healthier? People who opine that a relief role would be “best” for Hernandez based on health concerns clearly have no idea how the human body works in an athletic environment nor have any experience managing pitchers. Talk for a few minutes to a professional trainer or a physician and they will tell you that the ideal routine for an injury-prone athlete is exactly that: routine. Fragile (and recovering) players need to adhere to a strict, consistent program of physical activity — a starting pitcher’s routine, in fact, is ideal. You want to see El Duque land on the DL? Have him sit around the bullpen doing nothing for a week and a half, then put him into the fourth inning of a game for mopup duty. Better yet, tab him for a middle relief role, making him warm up and cool down three or four times during a game before getting in. Remember, he’s been a starter his entire life — to suddenly switch him to relief is not something that he can be expected to adjust to without a) difficulty and b) experimentation. For example, we don’t know if he can pitch on back to back days, because he’s never done it before. We don’t know if he can throw an inning or two, then come back two days later, on a consistent basis. Off the top of my head the only longtime veteran starters who made a successful transition to the bullpen were Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz — but they were in their early 30s when they did so, not their early 50s. Change is difficult as one gets older.
Personally, I think bullpen management is challenging enough for Willie Randolph — he doesn’t need the added pressure of wondering whether he can use El Duque or not from day to day. Let’s remember that, when healthy, Hernandez put forth some of the best starts we saw all year — and with that in mind how should he be used out of the ‘pen? You certainly don’t want to waste his talent in a long relief, Aaron Sele role, where he may or may not pitch for weeks at a time. But does he have the physical ability to be useful in a middle relief or setup role? It might turn out that his body doesn’t recover quickly enough to pitch EFFECTIVELY more than once a week — and if that’s the case, wouldn’t you rather try to get 7-8 innings out of him rather than one or two? If he’s going to falter, I’d rather see it happen in the third or fourth inning of a game that can be salvaged, rather than the seventh or eighth frame of a 4-3 ballgame.
In a fantasy world, where all we rely on are PECOTA or Strat-O-Matic cards, having Orlando Hernandez in the bullpen seems like a great idea. In reality, where we must deal with the quirks and inconsistencies of the human body, it’s not so clear-cut. Maybe El Duque’s body will easily transition to the rigors of relief — but maybe it won’t. In a rotation where he’ll take the fifth turn — a turn that won’t be needed until late April — and isn’t expected to make more than 20 starts, is it worth the gamble?