Darwinzon Hernandez might be the Red Sox’s most fascinating player for the remainder of 2020.
The 23-year-old left-hander, just activated from the injured list Thursday after a bout with COVID-19, joins a Boston pitching staff in desperate need of reinforcements. And he’ll enter the fray without a defined role, casting both uncertainty and intrigue over what the future holds for the young southpaw.
“I think it’s possible he could end up in a lot of different spots,” Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke told reporters Thursday during a video conference. “Sometimes you think of your length guys as just being the guy that pitches when you need innings to fill. You’re down in the game quite a bit and you just need the innings. But because Darwinzon can put up a lot of zeros, I don’t want to limit him to those types of games.
“If we go four or five innings with a starter, and we’re tied or we have a lead, and he’s pitching really well, there’s nothing wrong with coming in and throwing two, three innings there. Hopefully still giving your offense a chance to get some more runs. And those are really meaningful innings. So he’s not limited to what he can do. And really depends on how he pitches and where we see the best fit for him.”
Hernandez made a name for himself at the major league level as a reliever last season, striking out 50 batters in 27 1/3 innings while posting a 3.95 ERA out of Boston’s bullpen. (He also made one start with the Red Sox in which he allowed three earned runs over three innings.)
He struggled with his control at times, walking 21 batters in those 28 relief appearances, but the total body of work coupled with Hernandez’s obvious talent suggested a late-inning role could be in his future, even though he’s made it clear he’d prefer to be a starter in the long run.
Flash forward approximately 11 months — a stretch filled with departures and injuries for the Red Sox — and the question is all the more debatable and pertinent: How can Boston extract the most value from its hard-throwing lefty?
In a perfect world, Hernandez would evolve into a workhorse starter capable of providing 200-plus quality innings. Such commodities are few and far between across Major League Baseball nowadays, however, that it’s perhaps an irrational dream let alone a fair expectation.
Thus, the Red Sox must determine the point at which Hernandez’s upside as a reliever supersedes his potential as a traditional starter. From there, they can chart his course, doing so with an open mind.
Is he a closer? Is he a setup man? Is he a long reliever?
Oftentimes, we’re so hellbent on slapping a label on someone that we’re unable to see the forest for the trees. Hernandez’s optimal value ultimately might come from him being Boston’s Swiss Army knife, capable of pitching in a variety of high-leverage situations.
Think peak Andrew Miller, a pitcher the Red Sox are familiar with from both his time with the organization and his success against Boston in a versatile role during the 2016 postseason.
Maybe Hernandez pitches three middle innings one day, returns a few days later and records a single out in the final frame. Maybe he even starts a game or two, either as a conventional starter or an opener.
The reality is the game is evolving, to the point where it’s more difficult than ever to place players — including pitching prospects — into rigid categories. Heck, we’ve even seen an influx of possible two-way stars, with Shohei Ohtani chief among them.
So, when it comes to Hernandez, the Red Sox’s only concern should be maximizing his potential contributions. Why waste time trying to pin down a very specific role — or determine definitively whether he’s a starter or reliever — when team needs fluctuate with such regularity and there’s an increased emphasis on piecing games together with a certain analytic savviness? Outs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings can be just as important as outs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
The Red Sox, owners of one of the worst records in Major League Baseball, need an infusion of pitching talent above all else. Hernandez has that in spades, which makes for a compelling storyline moving forward, so long as Boston embraces the experiment with open arms.