State of the Rays: Hernandez still an experiment

For Roberto Hernandez to keep his starting role, the Rays need one thing from him: more innings.

Since his Tampa Bay Rays introduction, Roberto Hernandez has been something of an experiment. Manager Joe Maddon and executive vice president Andrew Friedman, though hopeful, could not entirely know what they would receive from the right-hander formerly known as Fausto Carmona.

Hernandez had a notable seven-year career with the Cleveland Indians, though he posted winning seasons just twice, a 19-8 mark in 2007 and an 8-7 record in 2008. His ERA had hovered above 5.00 for most of his time in the majors, finishing below 4.00 two times, 3.06 in 2007 and 3.77 in 2010.

Then he was all but absent last season, because of issues ranging from identity fraud in the Dominican Republic to an injured right ankle that limited him to three starts. He had a career-high 7.53 ERA in in those appearances, the last coming in an Aug. 27 loss to the Oakland Athletics. In December, the Rays signed him to a one-year, $3.25 million deal to add depth to a staff that moved forward without workhorse right-hander James Shields, sent to the Kansas City Royals in a major trade earlier in the month.

Upon his arrival, Hernandez's numbers were not overly impressive, but they were serviceable: A 53-69 record with a 4.64 ERA. In spring training, he beat out right-hander Jeff Niemann for the final rotation spot in the exhibition season's most contested competition. As was learned later, Niemann suffered from right shoulder issues during work in Port Charlotte, Fla., and is expected to miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery in April.

Now, after all those developments, Hernandez must be watched closely. His transition has been less than smooth, posting a 2-5 record with a rotation-high 5.73 ERA in nine starts.

Questions have increased about Hernandez's place as a starter, after he was knocked for five runs and six hits in four innings in a listless appearance against the New York Yankees on Friday at Tropicana Field. For now, Maddon has said no changes will be made. But there is little doubt that it will be up to Hernandez to preserve his role.

"You look at the body of work prior to that, it was pretty darn good and the last two (starts) have not been as good," Maddon said Friday. "What I would pin it on is location of the pitches more than anything else. It has just not been there."

Hernandez, usually collected and soft-spoken, admitted some frustration with his position Friday. His past two starts have given him reasons to wince: He has allowed 14 hits, 10 earned runs and just four strikeouts in six innings (against the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles). The Rays lost five of his first six starts, and he has appeared in a rotation-low 48 2/3 innings to this point.

That last number is potentially the most damning. Tampa Bay needs an arm that can extend deep into games, particularly to place less strain on a bullpen that has had a variety of issues this season. 

Early in Hernandez's career, with the Indians, he showed he was capable of stretching himself when necessary: He has thrown in more than 200 innings twice during his career, 215 in 2007 and 210 1/3 in 2010.

For the most part, though, Hernandez has been a question of late. Outside those high water marks, and after his rookie season of 2006, he has posted innings totals of 120 2/3 (2008), 125 1/3 (2009), 188 2/3 (2011) and the 14 1/3 from last season.

In this way, he appears to be a drop-off when compared to a healthy Niemann, who appeared in no fewer than 135 1/3 innings from 2009 to 2011.

"Just look, he's giving up hits," Rays reliever Cesar Ramos said of Hernandez. "It will change for him. He will be fine if he just keeps doing his thing. I think it's just one of those things where those hits are going to find people, and they're going to be outs."

The Rays hope a move from the current trend occurs sooner rather than later. For Hernandez, inconsistency has been the most consistent part of his profile this season. What can he do to improve?

"Keep on working and be ready for the next time," he said Friday. "I will do whatever it takes for the opportunity to go to the mound."

How many more chances he will receive as a starter remains to be seen.

What's Hot

The Rays' bullpen woes have received most of the attention the past week, but their offense remains one of baseball's recent best. 

Before an 8-3 victory over the New York Yankees on Sunday, since April 17, Tampa Bay ranked second in the majors behind the Cleveland Indians in runs scored (190, 5.4 per game). In that span, the Rays ranked third in the majors in on-base percentage (.343) and fourth in batting average (.275) and slugging percentage (.456). It is quite the turnaround. 

Earlier, through April 16, they ranked last in the American League in runs (39), batting average (.204), on-base percentage (.284) and slugging percentage (.305).

What's Not

Where would the Rays be if they could hold ninth-inning leads? 

After closer Fernando Rodney experienced a major-league-high fifth blown save Saturday night in a loss to the New York Yankees in 11 innings, Tampa Bay has blown five ninth-inning leads, four occurring in the last 18 games. 

The Rays are 1-4 in such contests, a year after only blowing two ninth-inning leads. Rodney, dominant a year ago in finishing with a 0.60 ERA, has allowed more blown saves, runs (13) and walks (18) than he did in 2012.

Quotes of the week

"It's hard, because when you have a two-run lead in the ninth, you try to win the game. You've got a chance a win the game – you can keep the scoreboard like that, 3-1. The next day you have to try again and refresh and get ready to play."

-- Closer Fernando Rodney, after blowing his fifth save in the ninth inning during the New York Yankees' 4-3 victory in 11 on Saturday at Tropicana Field. The Rays entered the ninth with a two-run lead, but Rodney experienced consecutive blown save chances for the first time since Sept. 8 and 10, 2010.

"I honestly have no idea. It probably all depends on how I feel when I play catch – how all that happens and how I bounce back after that. It's not trial and error, but we just have to base it on day-to-day."

-- Left-hander David Price, speaking Saturday about a possible timetable for his recovery from a left triceps strain that placed him on the 15-day disabled list May 16. He missed the Rays' recent road trip to Baltimore and Toronto and said he could start throwing in the coming days.

"We're in a holding pattern. We're just waiting to see. We're doing all our due diligence to make sure if and when the time comes that we'll be ready. But we're not involved in those negotiations at all."

-- Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn, on the Rays' stadium issue after he threw out the ceremonial first pitch Friday before a game between Tampa Bay and New York. The Rays have a lease that ties them to Tropicana Field until 2027, but principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said he wants to explore options for a potential new home for his franchise.  

Numbers game

.342/.328: Batting averages for James Loney and Evan Longoria, respectively. The Baltimore Orioles' Chris Davis (.337) and Manny Machado (.329) are the only other teammates in the majors batting .328 or better.

16-4: The Rays' record this season in games started by left-hander Matt Moore and right-hander Alex Cobb. Moore (8-0, 2.21 ERA) and Cobb (6-2, 2.66 ERA) lead Tampa Bay's staff in victories and ERA. Cobb has thrown a rotation-high 67 2/3 innings in 10 starts.

16: Length of Evan Longoria's career-best hitting streak that ended Friday night after going 0 for 4 against the New York Yankees. The streak began May 6 against the Toronto Blue Jays and also included hits against the San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox and Orioles.

Tweet of the week

Another drawback of a stint on the disabled list: boredom. 

Recently, David Price compared life on the DL to living the offseason again. The existence is slow. The existence is tedious. The existence can be flat-out boring. 

For a moment, inspiration appeared to strike the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner: Why not fly north of the border and catch a few Rays games against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre? 

Turns out, the tweet was a tease. On Saturday, Price revealed that he had, in fact, stayed home the entire time. So no impromptu trip to Canada. Still, credit him for creativity.

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