LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Fifteen years after Livan Hernandez’s 15-strikeout game against the Braves in the NL Championship Series, the 37-year-0ld pitcher has joined the Braves.
The Braves signed him to a one-year, $750,00 major league contract Friday and plan to use the stocky right-hander as a long reliever and spot starter. Braves general manager Frank Wren said he called Hernandez’s agent five minutes after the pitcher was released Friday morning by the Houston Astros.
“Very nice to come to a good team with a chance to make the playoffs, go to the World Series and win the World Series,” said Hernandez, who has pitched more than 3,100 innings, made 474 starts and compiled a 174-176 record and 4.39 ERA in 17 seasons. “The Braves have got a lot of history. I know a lot of people here from playing against them.”
Among current major leaguers, only Jamie Moyer has more starts and innings than Hernandez, on his eighth team.
Wren said Hernandez will not affect the No. 5 starter competition between Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran.
“Not at all — totally separate,” said Wren, who has known him since Hernandez was a 20-year-old Cuban defector who signed a free-agent contract with the Marlins in 1995 when Wren was Florida’ s assistant GM.
With the Braves, Hernandez can earn additional incentives for innings ($125,000 each for 110, 120, 130, 140, 150 and 160) and games ($50,000 each for 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60), with a $750,000 maximum limit.
Hernandez was a rookie when he famously exploited umpire Eric Gregg’s wide strike zone in Game 5 of the 1997 NLCS, piling up 15 strikeouts in a win against Greg Maddux. Those Marlins went on to win the World Series.
His 7-3 record and 3.97 ERA in 12 postseason games includes 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA in three games (two starts) against the Braves in 1997 and 2002.
His fastball is about 15 miles per hour slower now and Hernandez relies on guile, location and changing speeds, including big, slow curveballs. He won 10 games with a 3.66 ERA in 211-2/3 innings for Washington just two years ago, and was 8-13 with a 4.47 ERA in 29 starts for the Nationals last season.
“He’s got a lot of guts,” Braves catcher David Ross said. “He definitely gives you a chance to win when he’s out there. That’s all you can ask. You can count on him to take the mound. He wants the ball. That’s a hard thing to put a value on.”
Hernandez pitched at least 200 innings in 10 seasons and more than 230 in five, including NL-leading totals from 2003 through ‘05. He had 41 wins and 734-2/3 innings pitched in that three-season stretch with Montreal and Washington.
“He definitely gives innings,” Braves veteran Eric Hinske said. “He definitely does that.”
Wren was former Florida general manager Dave Dombrowski’s assistant in the 1990s and was in a small group of Marlins officials who traveled to the Dominican Republic to scout Hernandez after he defected from Cuba.
The Marlins wined and dined him in Miami – Wren recalls taking Hernandez to South Beach and to dinner at Gloria Estefan’s Miami restaurant – and beat out multiple teams to sign him.
“Now I’ve got him on the back end [of his career],” Wren said. “The thing about Livan, he competes. That’s half the battle. When you’re out there and you think you can get hitters out — someday you don’t have your best stuff but if you think you can get hitters out you’re going to figure out a way. And he’s always had that ability.”
Hernandez was 1-2 with a 5.63 ERA in five starts this spring for the Astros.
“We made it clear to Livan that he was not in competition for the fifth-starter spot at this point,” Wren said, “that he would be a long man and maybe an occasional spot starter, where you don’t want to run to Triple-A to get a guy for one start. And we also have some flexibility now with Cristhian Martinez.”
Martinez was a long relief specialist last year, but with Hernandez aboard they can use Martinez in various situations.
Hernandez will fill one of the last two bullpen vacancies, which until Friday looked as if they would go to Cory Gearrin and lefty Yohan Flande. Gearrin might be the pitcher most affected by the move.
Hernandez said there was another benefit to signing with Atlanta. “I don’t have to face the Braves anymore,” he said, smiling.
He has a 9-18 record in 37 regular-season games against the Braves, his worst against any team. But after going 3-15 with a 5.52 ERA in his first 25 games against them, he was 6-3 with a 2.84 ERA in his past 12 starts.
The Braves still have five open spots on their 40-man roster, and Wren said they were working on other possible deals.