WTNYJanuary 23, 2004
Cuban Refugees
By Bryan Smith

Yesterday, two Cuban pitchers took the mound in front of Major League scouts in an attempt to attract a large offer. One is a 24-year-old flamethrower that would be a 'rookie' in 2004, while the other is a 38-year-old five-year veteran. The latter has accumulated more than 50 wins during that time, including a 17-win 1999. Both have large injury concerns, the younger was said to lose 10mph off his fastball last year, while the elder didn't pitch in 2003.

So, that begs the questions, where will Maels Rodriguez and Orlando Hernandez pitch in 2004, and how effective will they be?

Hernandez threw at the University of Houston yesterday morning, in front of scouts from twenty Major League teams. El Duque said through an interpreter that he was about 85%, and that he would be 100% by Spring Training. Hernandez looked to have revive his career with a strong 2002 season, but shoulder surgery kept him out a year ago.

In 2002, Hernandez made 22 starts with the Yankees, compiling an 8-5 record with a 3.64ERA. He only allowed 131 hits in 146 innings, while striking out 113. His K/9 has always been around 7.00 during his career, but a K/BB of 3.14 was a career high. El Duque has always been a flyball pitcher, as his career GB/FB rate of 0.81 shows. Hernandez throws a ton of different pitches, and has used almost every arm angle in the book. In 2002 he revived the 'eephus' pitch, an lob that he threw to Alex Rodrigeuz, that the slugger promptly hit out of Arlington Park.

So far, we know that the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, and Pirates were all present to see Hernandez throw. The Yankees seemed to be there out of courtesy, as vice president of major league scouting Damon Oppenheimer said, "We have a lot of respect for him, so we wanted to make sure we were down here." That doesn't indicate a whole lot of current interest, so don't expect the Yankees to make a run after him. Returning to New York is a possibility, but it would be as a member of the Mets. Hernandez would be effective in Shea Stadium, but not in Texas, another possible destination.

As for Maels Rodriguez, details of his throwing session haven't been published yet, but the Red Sox had a private workout with the right-hander earlier in the week. The "100mph fastball" that Cubans bragged about wasn't quite true, although the Red Sox did have him in the mid-90s. Rodriguez set the Cuban record for strikeouts in the 2000 season, compiling 263 in 178.1 innings. He was limited to 113 innings last year, but kept his strikeouts high at 117.

In a USA Today article this week, Milton Jamail, author of Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball is quoted as saying "If I was a team with a lot of money, I'd take a chance with Maels. If I was in a middle market, I wouldn't consider it." Minnesota Twins GM Terry Ryan repeated more of the same, saying "When I see certain (big-spending) teams are going, I figure 'What's the point?.'"

The main competitors for Maels' services figure to be the Yankees, Rangers, and Mariners. With the retirement of Kaz Sasaki, the Mariners have the most money to spend, but Tom Hicks and George Steinbrenner aren't used to standing down in auctions. Rodriguez would help the Rangers the most, who have needed an ace atop their staff since Nolan Ryan left. Maels would replace Gil Meche in the Mariner rotation, but wouldn't even be guaranteed a spot with the Yankees. Instead, he would battle it out in Spring Training with Tommy John surgery recoveree Jon Lieber.

If Rodriguez signs with the Yankees he is likely to follow the path of fellow Cuban Jose Contreras. But, that's where the comparisons between the two countrymen end. Contreras was said to be Cuba's best pitcher, and is a 6-4, 224 lbs. beast. Rodriguez is said to be 5-11, which will turn many scouts away. While I consider Contreras with the highest regard, Rodriguez shouldn't be expected to have the same success. Someone will drastically overpay for Maels, who should be a little above league average during the life of the deal he signs.

In other workout news, A.J. Burnett had a 23-pitch session in the Florida bullpen Thursday, and is making fantastic progress from elbow surgery. The Marlins will pick up Rick Reed in the next couple of days, and Reed will hold down the 5th starter spot until Burnett is ready. Expect A.J. to start the season on the D.L., then appear in 5-10 games in relief, and then to bounce Reed from the team.

Jimy Williams announced yesterday that Tim Redding will be Houston's 5th starter, eliminating any competition that would have taken place in camp. This was disheartening for the likes of Carlos Hernandez, Jeriome Robertson, and Brandon Duckworth, but was the best move for the team. The rotation will be the least of Houston's worries in 2004, and Williams should spend camp much more worried about his offense and bullpen.

Finally, Roy Halladay signed a 4-year extension on Thursday, worth $42M. This is less than the $45M that Javier Vazquez signed for, and should help set the market for Kerry Wood and Kevin Millwood. Consider what Halladay and Vazquez have done the last two seasons:

Halladay: 41-14 3.10 476/505.1 372/94
Vazquez: 23-25 3.57 441/461.0 420/106

And here is what Wood and Millwood have done:

Wood: 26-22 3.43 321/424.2 483/197
Millwood: 32-20 3.63 396/439 347/133

And yes Jim Hendry and Ed Wade, you should use that in negotiations. Have a good weekend.