Could Roberto Hernandez Crack Tampa Bay Rays Starting Rotation?

By Tyler Brett
Steven Bisig – USA TODAY Sports

The backbone to the success of the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East almost always boils down to pitching and defense. They’ve been able to create a string of competitive teams based on the simple formula and it doesn’t look like they’re going to deviate from it anytime soon. But with the departure of stalwart arms like Wade Davis and James Shields via trade, there are some openings in the starting rotation. Could that open the door for a comeback for Roberto Hernandez, formerly known as Fausto Carmona?

For now, the Rays consider Hernandez as a starter entering Spring Training. The 32-year-old has seven years of big-league experience under his belt with the Cleveland Indians (when he went by Carmona), but is coming off an abbreviated 2012 campaign where he made just seven starts, three in the big leagues, after getting arrested in his native Dominican Republic and suspended due to false identity issues.

But Hernandez is ready to move on from all of that and get a fresh start after being let go by Cleveland following 12 years in its organization. The Rays signed him in December, though, with the intention of seeing if he could crack their starting five. He’ll have plenty of competition as he tries to hold on to the fifth starter spot and the Rays will have plenty of options to choose from as they sort out their rotation.

The ace position is set, of course, with defending Cy Young Award winner David Price ready to come back and have another great season. He’s backed up by the young arms of Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore who are both poised to step into their prime pitching years. That leaves some questions about the back end of the rotation that will be left to some combination of Hernandez, Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, the club’s top prospect.

Cobb and Archer, whose upside may force his way up into the big leagues, likely have a leg up on Hernandez for the final rotation spot. The star of the Rays’ prospect arms, Archer appears physically ready to step into the No. 5 starter’s role and pitch 180-plus innings after throwing nearly 160 last season, including 29 1/3 in the majors. The possibility is still there, however, that both start the season in the Minor Leagues.

Tampa Bay has a tendency to be conservative with their young arms and wait as long as possible to start the big league clock on them. The team could still start Archer at Triple-A and Cobb has an option left, which would greatly enhance Hernandez’s chances of sticking in the rotation. Both young arms, however, could prove this spring to be better bets to perform in 2013.

The key may be Niemann. The 29-year-old right-hander is coming off an injury-shortened 2012, and has struggled with injuries his entire career. He made just eight starts last season and has never pitched 200 innings in a season. The team may prefer to protect Niemann’s arm by putting him in the bullpen, where he could give the club serious value as a middle-relief specialist.

It will take a strong showing this spring, and a couple of slip-ups from young arms along the way, but Roberto Hernandez could break camp as one of the five starting pitchers for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013.

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