Hernandez focuses on winning, not closing

GLENDALE, Ariz. — When the Diamondbacks gave reliever David Hernandez a two-year contract last June, the 27-year-old admitted wanting to be a closer but said, “You’ve kind of just got to wait your turn.”

It seemed then as if the wait could nearly be over. The D-backs had not picked up their option on 35-year-old closer J.J. Putz, who’d scuffled a bit after posting 45 saves in 2011. But Putz got back on track, and got his option renewed in October, followed later in the offseason by a one-year extension through 2014.

So for now, Hernandez has to be content to remain the closer-in-waiting.

“Whenever you have the opportunity to extend a guy like J.J., that definitely makes our team better,” Hernandez said. “I just want to win and I want to go to the playoffs and win a World Series. If that means I have to pitch in the sixth inning because there’s other guys ahead of me, that’s fine. I just want to win.”

Ahead of Putz, Hernandez has been among baseball’s most effective setup men, enough so that Team USA tabbed him as an injury replacement in the World Baseball Classic this year (after it came to light he was ineligible to pitch for Team Mexico). Over the last two seasons he has notched 48 holds. His ERA dropped from 3.38 in 2011 to 2.50 in 2012. His 98 strikeouts last season tied for fourth among all big-league relievers.

Hernandez has also been an invaluable backup closer when Putz needed rest and when he went on the disabled list in the middle of the 2011 season. He has saved 15 games with the D-backs, including 11 when Putz was hurt.

Still, Hernandez admits to a continual itch to become a closer, and those opportunities only make him want it more.

“It has that feeling, when you do it once, you want to do it again,” Hernandez said. “Then you do it again, and you want to do it again. At the end of the day I want to be a closer, I want to have that opportunity. I feel like I’m ready for that next step.”

But don’t mistake Hernandez’s desire for discontent. He’s been nothing but appreciative of the opportunity to learn from Putz.

The D-backs, too, are comfortable keeping Hernandez where he is for now.

“It’s a great fit for him,” manager Kirk Gibson said. “He’s also been very successful when J.J. hasn’t been able to go. He’s been very successful as a closer, but he’s perfect for where he’s at.”

That’s not to say the D-backs wouldn’t hand the job to Hernandez if Putz struggled. And they have Hernandez under contract through 2015, so he could conceivably be in line to take over as closer after next season.
That is a bit of a wait — Hernandez will be 29 on Opening Day 2015 — but a lot can happen in two seasons. For the present, Hernandez offers the D-backs one half of what many teams long for every season — a reliable 1-2 punch in the final two innings capable of shortening games.  

The role of a setup man, though, does not come with great acclaim. Inside the organization, however, it’s another matter.

“You’ve got to get to your closer,” Gibson said. “Ideally your starter gets close to your closer, but the further away he is the more you’re going to have to find your way to the closer.”

Until his time comes, Hernandez says he’s happy to pitch now in relative anonymity.

“I’m not really worried about that,” Hernandez said. “I’d rather fly under the radar. I’m not a guy that’s looking for the spotlight, but if I had the spotlight I’d appreciate that too.”