David O’Brien of The Athletic (subscription link) spoke to Félix Hernández, who appears poised to crack Atlanta’s rotation to start the year. With his 34th birthday coming up on April 8th, the Braves righty is aware that success on the hill will look much different than it did as a youngster. “Command all the corners. Command of my fastball and a good breaking ball, and with my changeup, I think I’m going to be fine,” said Hernandez, who acknowledges he has lost velocity from his younger days. The key now, according to Hernandez, is to “control all my pitches, mix my changeup, breaking ball, sliders and my two-seamer, I’ll be fine.”
Hernández is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Aníbal Sánchez, who signed a minor-league pact with Atlanta ahead of his age-34 season. Sanchez didn’t make the Opening Day squad that year (2018). However, he did have his contract selected a few days later and wind up throwing 136 2/3 innings of 2.83 ERA ball for the Braves, before going on to sign a two-year, $19MM contract with the Nationals and helping them win the 2019 World Series. Hernández has a 1.98 ERA through 13 2/3 innings this spring, which the Braves hope is the beginning of a similar renaissance. King Felix is coming off a great overall run in Seattle, but his ERA climbed for five consecutive seasons, finally landing at 6.40 in 2019.
With just over two weeks until Opening Day, more roster decisions are just over the horizon. Here are some noteworthy details…
- Mark Bowman of MLB.com spoke to Tyler Matzek, who is attempting a comeback after some time in the proverbial wilderness. The 29-year-old lefty is a former first-round pick of the Rockies, having been selected 11th overall in 2009. After climbing the ranks and making his MLB debut in 2014, things went downhill for him because of what Bowman calls “the yips.” (For those unfamiliar, “the yips” is a slang term for a pitcher’s sudden inability to throw strikes, usually chalked up to psychological causes.) Speaking about his struggles, Matzek said, “When you’re throwing it behind hitters and have no idea where the ball is going as a lefty, that’s usually a pretty good indicator something is wrong.” Matzek, who spent parts of the past two seasons pitching for the unaffiliated Texas AirHogs, is in Braves camp and opening some eyes with his spring appearances, including striking out Red Sox stars Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez. Bowman notes that it’s unlikely Matzek will end up on the Opening Day roster, but he could be a name to watch going forward. On a personal level, though, it seems like it’s already a triumphant comeback tale for Matzek. “The game was taken away from me for a little while,” he said. “I’m just happy to be back and have the chance to compete at any level.”
- The Astros are looking for answers after the recent news that it will “take a miracle“ for Justin Verlander to be ready by Opening Day. One of those answers could come in the form of right-hander Bryan Abreu, according to Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle. Abreu, who will turn 23 on April 22nd, made his MLB debut in 2019, coming out of the bullpen in seven games and compiling 13 Ks over 8 2/3 innings with an ERA of 1.04. Even with Verlander’s injury, Abreu seems to be a long shot to wind up in the rotation. Pitching coach Brent Strom lists Austin Pruitt, Framber Valdez and Josh James as candidates to fill in behind Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr. and Jose Urquidy, but he also has a fondness for Abreu. Strom indicated that he expects Abreu to be “a big-time starter at the big league level for a number of years,” though he also acknowledges the hurler could be present on Opening Day as a member of the bullpen.
- Chris McCosky of The Detroit News pegs right-hander Jose Cisnero and left-hander Gregory Soto as potential difference-makers in the Tigers’ bullpen. Manager Ron Gardenhire seems pleased that Cisnero’s fastball reached 97 mph on Tuesday. “That’s the first time we’ve seen him get up to mid-90s,” Gardenhire said. “He’d been 91-92 and we were getting a little concerned.” As for Soto, he hit 100 mph on the gun three times during the same game, impressing pitching coach Rick Anderson. “That was fun to watch,” he said. The Tigers have a lot of uncertainty in their bullpen, even after naming Joe Jimenez the closer Tuesday. Having a couple of fireballing relievers take a step forward would be a welcome addition to a squad that mustered only 47 victories in 2019.