Felix Hernandez is the latest player who has opted against participating in the 2020 season, as his agent Wilfredo Polidor tweeted this evening. The longtime Mariners ace and former AL Cy Young Award winner signed a minor league deal with the Braves in January, and was named on Atlanta’s initial 60-man player pool.
Concerns over the COVID-19 crisis prompted Hernandez’s decision, as has been the common theme among other players (David Price, Ian Desmond, Joe Ross, Tyson Ross, Mike Leake, Ryan Zimmerman, and Welington Castillo) who have also declined to play in the abbreviated 2020 season. That list will surely grow in the coming days and weeks as more players consider their personal situations and health situations around the United States.
In Hernandez’s case, he will be foregoing what was shaping up as an interesting semi-comeback attempt back in Spring Training. The right-hander has struggled with both injuries and ineffectiveness over the last three seasons, including a 6.40 ERA over 71 2/3 innings in 2019. Departing Seattle after 15 years, Hernandez caught on with the Braves and posted a 1.98 ERA over 13 2/3 frames of Spring Training work, creating some excitement that “King Felix” had a bounce-back performance left in the tank.
Hernandez was one of the favorites for the rotation spot left open by Cole Hamels’ injury, though the delayed start to the 2020 season has meant that Hamels will likely be available by the new Opening Day (projected for July 23). This left only the fifth starter job open, with Kyle Wright and Sean Newcomb in competition with Hernandez. It’s possible the Braves could join other teams in deploying a six-man rotation or more creative methods like openers or piggybacked starters in order to keep everyone fresh, though they will have one less option on hand with Hernandez now unavailable.
Retirement was rather definitively not on Hernandez’s mind last September, and while sitting out the season doesn’t mean Hernandez is any closer to calling it a career, he’ll face a tougher path in finding another minors deal this coming winter. Despite his past track record, the righty will be hampered by his lack of recent results, his age (35 next April), and the fact that Hernandez will have gone over 18 months without a big league appearance. The 2020-21 free agent market is also likely to be the most unusual and competitive in history, as team financial restraints could result in a lot of veterans having to settle for lower-than-expected deals, squeezing the market even further for reclamation projects like Hernandez. That said, there’s no risk to a team in taking a flier on Hernandez on a minor league contract and seeing what he has next spring.