NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Asked if there is anything special he needs to do at this point of his career, Félix Hernández chuckled and said, “I’m not that old. I’m 33.”
Those only aware of what Hernández did while producing an American League-best 3.00 ERA from 2007-15 might assume the six-time All-Star would still have a few good years left. Those who have watched him produce a 5.42 ERA while totaling just 59 starts over the past three seasons have reason to wonder if he has one good year left to offer.
“I feel really good,” Hernández said. “I’ve just got to go out there and do my thing."
A slimmer Hernández has arrived at Braves camp confident he is healthy enough to extend his career by winning one of the available rotation spots. It might seem his bid improved Wednesday, when it was revealed Cole Hamels will miss at least half of April. But Hernández's attempt to be part of Atlanta’s Opening Day roster still rests only on his ability to prove he is still capable of being a serviceable big league starter.
“You never know,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “A guy like that might come into our system and benefit from how we look at things with pitch mixes and some of the other information we have. You never know what that might do for a guy.”
This was a no-risk gamble for the Braves, who will give Hernández a $1 million salary if he is placed on their Major League roster. Thier willingness to take a chance on him was influenced by the success Aníbal Sánchez had after he was released by the Twins and landed with the Braves two weeks before the start of the 2018 season.
Sánchez was referenced when Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos made an hour-long recruiting pitch to Hernández this winter. The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner targeted four potential contenders, but ended up choosing Atlanta because he felt this option gave him the best chance to finally pitch in the postseason.
“I’m just glad to be here,” Hernández said. “It’s a great team, a great organization and a great group of guys. My mindset is I’m healthy. I’m just going to go out there and compete against anybody.”
Hernández’s competition for the two available rotation spots consists of Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Touki Toussaint. If Hamels is projected to miss just a handful of starts with left shoulder discomfort, the Braves aren’t going to commit $1 million to Hernández unless he clearly proves he is a better option than each of the other candidates.
“He’s 'The King,'” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “I can’t wait to get to know him even more.”
Hernández will forever be recognized as King Felix. But to extend his baseball reign, he must prove he’s overcome the right shoulder issues that led him to produce a 4.36 ERA over 16 starts in 2017 and a 5.55 ERA over 28 starts in '18. He posted a respectable 3.91 ERA through last year’s first five starts, one of which was shortened because of food poisoning. He then produced a 6.27 ERA over the seven starts he made after missing more than three months with a right lat strain.
Hernández opted not to elaborate on any changes he’s made to create the confidence he’s brought to camp. But any words he might have spoken at this point will be trumped by the actions he takes while spending the next six weeks proving he’s different than he was the past few years.
“That’s the past,” Hernández said. “This is a new year. This is a new organization and a new team.”