FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Of Darwinzon Hernandez, the exciting 22-year-old lefty prospect who started for the Red Sox on Sunday against the Twins, you hear descriptions you haven't heard often in recent years about an upper-level pitcher in Boston's farm system.
"Well, I mean, he's special," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora.
"He’s got a hell of an arm, I'll tell you that," said Red Sox ace Chris Sale. "I've watched him throw a couple of times. He's right where he needs to be."
Then there is this, from the man who has been in charge of monitoring Hernandez's development since the Red Sox signed him as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in 2013.
"Darwinzon's got really high upside," said Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett. "He's got three above-average Major League pitches at any given time."
Hernandez fired two scoreless innings in the Red Sox's 9-7 win over the Twins, allowing one hit, walking two and striking out three. After breezing through the first, Hernandez escaped a bases-loaded jam in the second by freezing Luke Raley on a strikeout.
The No. 4 prospect for the Red Sox and first among their pitchers, according to MLB Pipeline, Hernandez sure seems like he is going to arrive in Boston before long.
And his emergence comes at a time when Jay Groome, the organization's other top lefty pitching prospect, is spending his season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Starter or reliever?
When it comes to Hernandez, the big question is which path he will take in his initial ascent to the Majors. Though Hernandez finished last season making five dominant relief appearances (no runs and 10 strikeouts in six innings) for Double-A Portland, he was used exclusively as a starter before then. In 95 starts as a professional, he is 23-17 with a 3.25 ERA.
If Hernandez is to help the Red Sox this season, it most certainly will be in the bullpen. That could come in handy because Boston doesn’t have a lefty reliever with overpowering stuff. Either way, Hernandez will likely start the year in Double-A as a starter so he can complete his development and continue to build his workload.
Nobody is more intrigued by the possibilities than Sale, who remembers when the White Sox had this same decision to make with him.
"I know a lot of people talk about him being in the bullpen, but a big body, that's a big guy, I'd like to see what he can do as a starter and see how that goes," said Sale. "Obviously that's [option] 1A."
But then Sale thought about how his own career started, and how he fast-tracked to the Majors by dominating as a reliever in 2010 and '11 before settling in as the stud starter he has been ever since '12. The benefits of that path are easy to remember.
"The beauty of the bullpen is a lot of times you’re right in the middle of a big situation or high-pressure pitches," Sale said. "As a starter, you kind of build up to that. Even second and third, one out in the first inning, obviously you want to get out of that, but it’s not nearly as important as when it’s seventh or eighth inning. It will teach him to throw strikes in those situations. When he gets there as a starter, he’ll be a little more accustomed to it."
Hernandez isn’t about to be picky about his role. If the bullpen gets him to Fenway Park faster, all the better.
"If that opportunity presented itself, I'd definitely be willing to do that," Hernandez said. "I just want to make sure I take advantage of every opportunity given. Whatever they give me, I'm going to try to do my best at, try to go out there and pitch the best that I can."
Stuff is electric
Sale has seen enough of Hernandez during Spring Training to get an idea of his projectability. The fastball hums in at 95 mph for the most part, and will tick up to 97 every now and then.
"His fastball is really good," Sale said. "The breaking ball is good. He just seems to be a little inconsistent with it sometimes. But that's just repetition and obviously it's so early in spring. I talked to AC, I talked to [pitching coaches] Dana [LeVangie] and Banny [Brian Bannister] about it a little, too.
"The good thing about him is he’s getting swing and misses inside of the strike zone, which means clearly you have good stuff. You can start there and start kind of getting in the perimeter and then even below and above. That's only going to make him that much better. He's ahead of the curve as he sits right now. It’s a good spot to be in."
After going 3-4 with a 5.40 ERA in 13 starts before the All-Star break for Class A Advanced Salem last year, Hernandez went 6-1 with a 1.88 ERA the rest of the way.
For the season, the big lefty allowed one homer in 23 starts for Salem, and none in his final 65 2/3 innings.
So what clicked?
"I kind of went through a moment where I realized, 'I don't have to think about what's going to happen in the future,' and I started focusing on the little things I do every day to get closer to that," Hernandez said. "So that's what I was telling myself so I'd be in a good mind frame moving forward. And at the end of the year I was very excited with the year I put together, and it meant that what I decided to do was going to work."
Learning from the best
On a workout day earlier in camp, the Red Sox purposefully had Hernandez in the same group as Sale and David Price, meaning he got to watch their side sessions before he threw his own.
"I actually follow those guys," Hernandez said. "To see how they prepare to throw their sides, how they went about their sides, and everything about their work was something that's very exciting to me."
And Cora thinks it was a momentum starter for Hernandez’s camp.
"He learned a lot from David and Chris on that morning," said Cora. "He’s been staying with it. For how young he is, he has good structure and that’s going to help him out in the future."
Sale has been particularly impressed by the way Hernandez has carried himself in his first big-league camp.
"I think he's shown a lot of interest and a lot of drive, too. Especially being young, those are the two things you really need," Sale said. "In baseball, there's really not a whole lost you can control other than your attitude and your effort. He's got those going already. Fun guy to be around. Always seems to be in a good mood. And a good work ethic, too. Those are all good starting points.
"I see him being a big part of our bullpen, even our rotation someday, hopefully sooner rather than later."
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.