By Adam McCalvy | MLB..com
PHOENIX—Once the hot new face in New York Yankees camp, “El Duquecito” is fighting for his baseball life on the opposite end of the game’s spectrum.
No matter. This guy has been through some tough stuff already.
A Cuban defector nicknamed for his similarities to second cousin Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Adrian Hernandez is in Brewers camp on a minor league contract. He is the only non-roster player among as many as nine pitchers vying for five spots in the starting rotation.
His name is always mentioned first when manager Ned Yost or general manager Doug Melvin are asked about dark horses to make the club. He has brief Major League experience—eight games with the Yankees from 2001-2002—and he brings a utility belt of pitches that he delivers from as many as three arm angles.
“I think he’s a real sleeper,” Yost said. “I don’t think he ever got an opportunity to consistently pitch and show what he can do over there in New York at the big league level. He always had pretty good success at every other level.”
Hernandez only improved his stock in his Cactus League debut by shutting down the A’s in two hitless innings. He threw mostly fastballs and worked exclusively with an overhand delivery.
“I don’t have too much pressure on me here,” Hernandez said. “With the Yankees, I did my job but I was sent to Triple-A. Here I feel good with the manager, the coaches, and I think I have a chance. I feel really good.”
Like former Brewer Alex Sanchez, Hernandez escaped Cuba for a new start in the U.S.
He defected on Jan. 2, 2000, using an exit visa acquired by his agent to slip through security and board a flight to Costa Rica, then to Guatemala. His face was well-known in Cuba at the time because he starred for the nation’s top team, Havana Industriales, but convinced airport officials that he had permission to leave the country for a 10-day baseball exhibition.
“They believed me. They signed the papers and a lot of people lost their job because of that,” said Hernandez, who exited in street clothes and not in drag as some New York papers initially reported. “I could have lost everything. But I said, ‘OK, I have to do it.’ I was scared. It was everything or nothing and I decided I wanted to go.”
With Industriales, he made about $7 a week. After trying out for several Major League teams Hernandez signed with the Yankees for $4 million.
But he paid a price.
Hernandez did not tell his mother about his plans to defect until the day after and said he still speaks to her every day via telephone. He has two younger sisters in Cuba and an older brother, plus aunts, uncles and cousins.
“She cries, but at the same time she is happy for me,” Hernandez said of talks with his mother.
He spends winters in Tampa, a 45-minute flight from Havana. But Hernandez has not seen any of his family in four years.
“This is what I chose,” he said. “This is my dream. Now my dream is to someday go back to Cuba during the offseason like other Latin players do. That is the dream for all the Cuban people.”
The Brewers are dreaming of Hernandez stabilizing a young and inexperienced rotation. Ben Sheets and Doug Davis are considered locks for starting gigs, with Hernandez and four others gunning for the last three spots.
Former Yankees scout Dick Groch, now a special assistant to Melvin, was in the group that originally signed Hernandez and believes he sometimes is hurt by his allegiance to “El Duque,” who throws harder with more consistent control. Groch said “El Duquecito” would be well-served to pitch like he did against Oakland on Friday: Trust two or three solid pitches and throw from one angle.
“He can keep the nickname, just ditch some of the funky arm angles,” Groch said.
Hernandez will pitch again Wednesday against the Rockies.
“I never worry about guys in front of me,” he said of the competition. “I worry about working hard today. This is the best thing for me, pitching with Milwaukee. It is an opportunity. I’m excited.”