The COVID pandemic forced the Royals to push players through the Royals system quicker than expected. Even though Brady Singer and Kris Bubic seemed destined to begin the year in Triple-A Omaha and Double-A Northwest Arkansas, respectively, the Royals had them both make their MLB debuts within the first two weeks of the 2020 MLB season. Even though Bobby Witt, Jr. had yet to play above rookie league ball in Arizona, he made the 60-man roster, competing against players on the Royals roster who had seen big league service time. And though first-round pick Asa Lacy had not even completed his junior year of college and had yet to make a professional pitch, the Royals added him to the Alternate Site by season’s end.
That being said, no player benefited more from the pandemic perhaps than right-hander Carlos Hernandez.
Surprisingly, Hernandez did not make the initial 60-man roster, as he didn’t get added to the roster until August 12th (along with Lacy). Though he saw limited time due to injury in 2019, and was signed at 19-years-old out of Venezuela, which is late for an international prospect out of Latin America, the Royals added him to the 40-man roster prior to the start of the 2020 season, mostly to protect him from getting picked up in the Rule 5 Draft. A big, burly 23-year-old pitcher who stands at 6’4 and nearly 250 pounds, Hernandez has posted a 4.56 ERA and 2.86 K/BB ratio in over 199 innings and 42 games (41 starts) over three seasons at the Minor League level, though he had not advanced above low-A Lexington prior to 2020.
Even though Hernandez lacked experience in the upper-Minors of the Royals system, the Royals called up Hernandez on August 30th, and on September 1st, he made his debut, pitching 3.2 innings of relief, as evidenced below:
Hernandez made his first MLB start on September 12th against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Kauffman Stadium, as Mike Matheny and the Royals swapped Hernandez in the rotation with a struggling Matt Harvey. While Hernandez showed some “rookie struggles” in his first start as a Royal (amplified by three home runs allowed in three innings pitched), he still struck out two batters and demonstrated eye-popping stuff, with his fastball registering in the upper 90’s on frequent occasion in his no-decision.
For the year, Hernandez posted a 4.91 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, and 2.17 K/BB ratio in 5 games, 3 starts, and 14.2 IP. While his WAR was unimpressive at -0.2, the fact that Hernandez didn’t completely implode in his MLB debut, even though had yet to pitch beyond the South Atlantic League, was a promising sign that Hernandez was worth protecting on the 40-man last off-season.
And thus, with a Minor League season (hopefully) returning in 2021, Royals fans have to wonder: what will the Royals do with Hernandez in 2021? Will they send him back to the Minors, perhaps hoping he can work and develop some things in High-A Wilmington or Double-A Northwest Arkansas before an eventual call-up around mid-season? Or will the Royals continue to roll the dice and keep him up at the big league level, even if he is still a work-in-progress on the mound?
Let’s take a look at what Hernandez could offer this Royals organization in 2021, and what will likely happen to the young Venezuelan pitcher next year.
There is no question that Hernandez possesses some of the most electric stuff currently on the Royals starting staff. Last year, according to Statcast data, Hernandez’s pitching arsenal included a sinker (which he threw 40.8 percent of the time), a curve (33.3 usage rate), a changeup (15.3 usage rate), and a four-seasom fastball (10.6 usage rate). His sinker and fastball both averaged 96.4 MPH and 95.2 MPH, respectively, which shows the potential Hernandez could produce in the rotation. However, despite the high-velocity, his sinkers and fastball struggled to be effective, hitters posted a .303 and .567 wOBA against the pitches, respectively (despite whiff rates of 21.6 and 28.0 percent, respectively).
If there are some comforting signs regarding Hernandez’s 2020, it is these two factors: hitters only posted a contact rate of 76.8 percent (80 percent is around average), and he induced a swinging strike rate of 11 percent, which was 10th best out of all Royals pitchers into 2020, according to Fangraphs. Considering that Hernandez is only 23-years-old (he will be 24 soon), the fact that he has already demonstrated “swing and miss” stuff at the Major League level should bode well him for him, even if he has to make a transition to the bullpen down the road.
As of now, the Royals seem pretty set in the rotation 1 through 3, as Brad Keller, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic should set the top 3 spots of the starting pitching staff. However, the four and five spots are shaky at best. Danny Duffy was the Opening Day starter in 2020, but it seems at this point he would be better of settling in the bullpen, since that may fit his pitching style at this point in his career. After that, all bets are off when it comes to who takes the fifth spot in the rotation. Jakob Junis will likely be in the bullpen (he started working out of the pen down the stretch), and it doesn’t seem likely that the Royals will burn service time on Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, or Asa Lacy at the start of the year (like they did with Singer). Thus, it seems that Hernandez could have an outside shot of usurping the fifth spot in 2021, even if he had his ups and downs.
However, the question is this: how much do the Royals and Dayton Moore value Hernandez and his long-term future in Kansas City? If the Royals value him and see him as a contributor to the Royals rotation (or bullpen as a setup man or closer), down the road, then it may be better for the Royals to have Hernandez start in Double-A to begin the year, and work on some things for half the season. Once the Royals hit the halfway point, Moore should call him up, and let him inherit a spot in the rotation. While it does move Hernandez back a tad (go from MLB to the Texas League in less than a year), it does give him the chance to work on his repertoire in a lower risk environment, which in turn could boost his confidence and make him more ready for the Majors in 2021. His start against the Tigers is a prime example of his potential, as he struck out three in and inning and 2/3, but his inconsistency in command led to three runs allowed to a Tigers lineup that was not good, honestly.
On the other end, if the Royals don’t believe in Hernandez as a long-term piece, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Royals start the year with Hernandez in the rotation, with the hope that he could perhaps generate a trade possibility for Moore to perhaps acquire a veteran who could help improve this lineup or perhaps a more polished position prospect of a similar caliber. A 23-year-old in Double-A or High-A ball? Meh. But a 23-year-old pitching in the Majors? That will definitely stir up more buzz on the trade market.
The idea of perhaps “trading” Hernandez could be the route to go for the Royals. While an organization can never have enough pitching depth, the fact of the matter is that the Royals have a surplus of arms in their system, and though Hernandez is enticing, he does not have quite the pedigree that Kowar, Lynch, and Lacy have (or even Jonathan Bowlan, Alec Marsh, Yefri Del Rosario, or Austin Cox in some ways). If the Royals can upgrade their lineup in some way by cashing in on an asset like Hernandez (coupled with another prospect in their lower levels), that could go a long ways in terms of helping the Royals improve in the standings in 2021 and 2022.
The Royals have a big decision to make on Hernandez in the near future, who will be entering his second season on the Royals’ 40-man roster. Hernandez did flash some promise and did okay in his MLB debut during the weird, pandemic-affected season. After all, he didn’t pitch beyond Lexington prior to 2020, and he didn’t even make the 60-man Camp roster when play resumed in July. The fact that he accumulated nearly 15 innings of Major League work is in itself an accomplishment for the young Venezuelan pitcher, and could be a stepping stone to some future success, even if he may not start off 2021 on the active roster.
At the same time, Hernandez’s future will be an intriguing one to follow. He has some projection as a pitcher, but it seems like the Royals have other pitchers in the system who have more upside than Hernandez, especially starting ones. Could Hernandez be a end-of-the rotation option or even a late innings specialist? Absolutely. However, is he going to leap frog one of the Royals’ top pitching prospects in the next two-to-three seasons? That seems harder to project.
Hernandez’s Spring Training will be a critical one for him and the Royals front office. If he performs well, and earns a spot in the rotation, that could mean some other shuffling on the roster as well (it could perhaps spell a move to the bullpen for Danny Duffy or even a trade). Furthermore, Hernandez could also be building a case for himself on the trade market as well, for a solid start to the year in the Royals rotation could push Moore to perhaps deal him sometime during the 2021 season, especially if the Royals need offensive help, which at this time, may be the case in the outfield, especially if Edward Olivares or Franchy Cordero don’t step and perform in 2021.