Felix Hernandez’s comeback bid will be the first story of the Braves’ exhibition season.
Hernandez will start the team’s Grapefruit League opener Saturday, when the Braves host the Orioles. It will be Hernandez’s first shot at proving he has more left in the tank as he vies for a spot in the Braves’ rotation.
“He’s commanding the ball everywhere,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “Up, down and out, multiple pitches. … That’d be real big (if he could recapture some level of his past success). You look at the last couple years, how we’ve been able to get some guys in similar situations, specifically like an Anibal (Sanchez). He was a tremendous asset for us.
“I think this is that same kind of situation. I know Felix feels healthy. He feels strong. I caught one of his bullpens and he seemed healthy and strong. Very good command, a little better off-speed than I even thought he had. So I was pretty excited and encouraged seeing that.”
Hernandez, who turns 34 in April, is a former Cy Young winner possessing a pedigree few can match. But he’s dwindled in the past few seasons, limited to 16 starts in 2017 and posting a 5.82 ERA over his past 44 outings (two seasons).
He signed a non-guaranteed $1 million deal in January. Hernandez is adamant he’s healthy and believes he will make the team’s rotation, which at least temporarily has two open spots, with veteran lefty Cole Hamels slated to miss the beginning of the season.
Sean Newcomb is expected to claim one of the spots behind Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz. Hamels, who was stalled by shoulder discomfort, will be ready in late April at the earliest.
If that’s the case, Hernandez is likely competing against Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright to open the season in the rotation.
Wilson, a youngster trying to establish himself, will start Sunday against the Tigers. Fried will start Monday’s game at the Blue Jays, according to manager Brian Snitker.
The Braves will play 33 spring training games, hosting 17 of them at their new home, CoolToday Park, in North Port, Florida. They’ll begin the regular season at Arizona on March 26.
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