Can Roberto Hernandez Help Cleveland in 2012?

On Sunday, the prodigal son returned to the Indians. Roberto Hernandez, the pitcher we all knew and sometimes loved (or loathed) as Fausto Carmona from 2006 to 2011 has received his visa and returned to Cleveland. Jokes were made, apologies were issued, and now it’s time to get back to baseball. Regardless of what your opinion is about Hernandez receiving a visa after lying about who he was the first time (Lewie wrote a thought-provoking editorial about this issue on Monday), Hernandez’s return can’t hurt the Indians on the field. The real question is, can he help this team in 2012?

One thing Indians fans need to accept is that there’s really no longer any ceiling with Hernandez. He is what he is right now, and he’s not going to be really much better. While a three-year age jump may not seem like much, going from age 28 to age 31 means that he’s almost certainly developed as much as he will as a baseball player.

Don’t interpret this as saying Hernandez doesn’t add value to this club; if he can post numbers similar to his All-Star 2010 season (and yes, I know he was simply the Indians’ token All-Star), when he posted a 3.77 ERA (4.11 FIP) in 210.1 innings pitched. FanGraphs pegged his performance at 2.8 wins above replacement, a tremendous value for a number three or four starter, which is really all the Indians need Hernandez to be for them now.

However, Hernandez put up those numbers after participating in spring training and facing live major league hitters, something he hasn’t been able to do since last September. Minor-league appearances just aren’t the same. Indians fans have already seen that there’s an adjustment period after a player has been away for that long (it took Johnny Damon well over a month to find his groove).

Given how far behind he is in his conditioning, I have serious doubts about Hernandez’ ability to rejoin the starting rotation this season. There are certainly candidates for replacement: Derek Lowe has apparently run out of gas and Josh Tomlin has been walking a tightrope all season. But I don’t think Hernandez will be able to make a positive impact in the rotation until next season at the earliest.

Luckily for Hernandez, the Indians have needs other than the rotation. Despite a famously disastrous stint as closer, Hernandez was actually quite valuable as a reliever when he served as a staff swingman in 2006; his 0.6 fWAR wasn’t bad for a guy with fewer than 75 innings pitched that season, and that number includes the awful period as closer. The Indians could start him off as a long man and move him back into more high-leverage situations depending on how he responds—if they do trade Chris Perez, Hernandez could end up to be a really valuable asset.

I don’t expect Hernandez to have much impact on the 2012 big-league club, but if he does I fully expect it to be in the bullpen. This isn’t a bad thing; outside of the Joe Smith/Pestano/Perez combo and the recently found Esmil Rogers there hasn’t been much consistency in the ‘pen. Hernandez can make an impact, but the days of wondering when Fausto Carmona will put it all together are long gone. He’s Roberto Hernandez now, and he is who he is.

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