I've spent a lot of this winter talking about the importance of rotation depth. Early in the off-season I used it as a reason why the Brewers shouldn't trade a starter. The Brewers clearly felt differently as they traded both Marco Estrada and Yovani Gallardo. There's even been some thought (albeit just from bloggers) that Taylor Jungmann might be available in the rumored Jonathan Papelbon deal.
Considering my previous stance, it might surprise you to learn that I'm actually okay with that. Things are a little bit different now. We recently learned that Tyler Thornburg is healthy. The Brewers have added some depth to the bullpen making it possible to give some spot starts to Will Smith if need be. That wasn't true before.
The Brewers have also re-signed Hiram Burgos to a minor league deal. He's not a great pitcher, but I'm more comfortable giving him a start than I am Michael Blazek who I'm actually fine with as 9 or 10 on a depth chart. This of course ignores the presence of Ariel Pena and Johnny Hellweg who could at some point return from injury and reinsert themselves on the depth chart. Not to mention the possibility (slim though it may be) of the mid-to-late season emergence of some of the Brewers AA starters.
None of this means the Brewers have great or even terribly good depth in the minors and so I'm still a strong advocate of adding to it. To that end I suggest the Brewers sign Roberto Hernandez --Wait, stop! I know you're about to skip the rest of this article and head to the comment section to shred me to pieces--I'm talking about a minor league deal. Just hear me out.
Roberto Hernandez is not a very good starting pitcher. Except for the first season of his career when he was mostly a reliever he's never had a strike out rate that wasn't below league average. Only once did he have a WHIP below league average. He's only had a FIP below 4.00 once and that was 8 years ago. He hasn't had an ERA below 4.00 since 2010. His 2014 average was the lowest of his career. Are you sold yet?
Okay listen, there are some good things too. He sprained his ankle in 2012 but ignoring that he's consistently been able to eat innings. He hasn't made fewer than 24 starts since 2008 and he made 29 last year. That would definitely add some stability to the depth chart. But the real reason I think the Brewers should sign him (to a minor league deal) is related to his ground ball rate (career 56.8%).
Earlier in January I explored the idea that the Brewers were attempting to construct a ground ball heavy pitching staff and get the most production out of it by utilizing shifts. August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs came up with a similar idea in his article "Going Low and Away with the Brewers." In it he shows how the Brewers seem to prefer pitching low in the zone and also how Jonathan Lucroy helps Brewers pitchers maximize this approach.
Roberto Hernandez fits this philosophy rather nicely. Take a look at his zone profile from 2010-2014. First to right handed hitters.
And now to left handed hitters.
Both sides: low and away. He pretty much perfectly fits the Brewers pitching philosophy. He also seems to be attempting to maximize his ground ball potential. According to PITCHf/x he's all but abandoned his four seam fastball in favor of his sinker and slider. His GB% has responded by going down though, which is curious. It might be because he's throwing more pitches outside the strike zone and batters are swinging at fewer of the pitches inside the strike zone. Maybe Lucroy could help him with that by stealing some strikes and forcing batters to be more aggressive?
Don't misunderstand me though. I'm not saying Roberto Hernandez is secretly a good pitcher. I'm not even saying the Brewers can turn him into a good pitcher. But if there is any club that can perhaps get the most out of him, the Brewers are that team. And remember, I'm talking about adding him as minor league depth and slotting him ahead of Hiram Burgos and Michael Blazek.