There's really nothing surprising about yesterday's news that right-hander Livan Hernandez had signed a minor league deal with the Houston Astros, ending his latest tour of duty with the Nationals.
The Nats have finally gotten to the point where there's sufficient depth in their starting rotation, and enough arms in the minor leagues, that they had no need for a 36-year-old control specialist who got by on guile. Make no mistake, Hernandez wanted to return - "Of course, why wouldn't I?" he said with a big smile when I asked him in September - but there was only the slimmest of chances that would happen, and all hope evaporated after the Nats re-signed Chien-Ming Wang and traded for Gio Gonzalez.
Hernandez, who came to D.C. with the Expos in 2005 and started the first game in Nationals' history, leaves as the team's career leader in wins (44), starts (129), strikeouts (476) and innings pitched (828 2/3). But his value far surpassed those numbers.
He was a father figure in the clubhouse, someone willing to share his experience and knowledge. The fact that he was willing to work for his place on the roster - like when the Nationals re-signed him in February 2009 - wasn't lost on veterans or rookies. He had a knack for self-deprecating humor and was usually a thoughtful interview. He'd grab a bat if necessary, was an accomplished bunter and no one was better at blocking the catcher from retrieving a ball dropped down the first base line.
Hernandez would have been happy to come back as a long reliever - with Davey Johnson's desire to have both left- and right-handed long men, I half expected a press release announcing Hernandez's re-signing to pop up in my in-box any day now - but he'll have to watch from afar to see if the Nationals turn a corner.
The deal with the Astros includes a spring training invitation, so Hernandez will be in Kissimmee, Fla., only a short drive from Viera in spring training. You can be sure he'll pitch when the Nationals and Astros meet because Hernandez is at the top of his game when he's given the opportunity to best one of his seven former employers. I can't see Hernandez going to Triple-A if he doesn't make the Houston staff, but maybe he can show enough to earn a job somewhere if the Astros don't pan out.
There's no telling how much gas is left in Hernandez's tank. But when it's finally empty - or when he can't convince someone to give him the ball - look for him to return to the Nationals in some capacity. He'll be welcomed with open arms.