Livan Hernandez’s next steps

Livan Hernandez will pitch Sunday for the final time as a starter this year - the Nationals will take him out of the rotation after that start to make room for Stephen Strasburg - and there’s a chance he could be getting on the mound for the final time as a member of the Nationals. The steps Hernandez has taken in the last few weeks, though, make it less likely that will be the case.

The Nationals will shut Hernandez down for the season after Sunday’s start against the Mets, having him pinch hit and work with some of the Nationals’ young pitchers for the rest of the season. They have five pitchers they’d like to evaluate - Strasburg, Brad Peacock, Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang and Tom Milone - and John Lannan is still in the rotation, so something had to give.

“(Hernandez) has nothing to prove. He’s had a good year,” manager Davey Johnson said after Friday’s game. “We need some of these guys that don’t have the innings to have a chance so we can give them some experience at the major league level.”

But the grace with which Hernandez has handled the move makes it more likely he could return to the Nationals next year. It’s certainly clear he’s angling for that.

The 36-year-old has already said he’d be willing to pitch in long relief for the Nationals next year, adding he wouldn’t accept that kind of a role for any other team. And he told on Friday that he understood the team’s decision to move him, saying he would help the team’s young pitchers, many of whom already look at Hernandez as a mentor.

As long relievers go, the Nationals could certainly do worse than a pitcher who hasn’t missed a start in 14 seasons. Hernandez would have to adjust his intricate warmup routine to working out of the bullpen, but he’s pitched enough on short rest and has kept his arm in good enough shape that he’d likely be able to adapt. And his durability could make him a nice backup plan, considering the relative youth the Nationals will have in their rotation next year.

Strasburg will likely be on the same 160-inning limit in 2012 that Jordan Zimmermann was on this season, and while Zimmermann will have a bigger workload, it’s still unlikely he will be in line to throw more than 190 innings or so. Lannan has logged a 200-inning season, and the guess here is the Nationals will add a veteran middle-of-the-rotation starter in free agency, but even if they do, they could have four pitchers in their rotation with one 200-inning season between them.

Hernandez, then, could still find plenty of work next year, either in relief or as a spot starter. And it could be quite the shock to hitters to go from five innings of Strasburg’s high-90s heat to Hernandez’s mid-80s fastball and looping curveballs. If he’s really willing to embrace that kind of a role, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Nationals bring him back at a modest price. And everything he’s saying makes it look like a viable option.