A year ago, Wilkel Hernandez was a mostly forgotten prospect in a miserable Los Angeles Angels farm system. His inclusion in the Ian Kinsler trade was the epitome of a lotto ticket toss-in.
Fortunately for the Detroit Tigers, Hernandez’s star has become much brighter since then. He has outshined the “main piece” in the trade, outfielder Troy Montgomery, and now rates among the more promising of the Tigers’ farmhands. He slots in at No. 25 on our list, and could climb higher with a strong season in 2019.
Originally signed in 2015, the 19-year-old Hernandez is a native of Venezuela. He spent two seasons in the Angels organization before the trade that sent him to Detroit, including a 2.61 ERA and 4.23 FIP in a 41 1⁄3 inning stint in 2017. That would be his last summer in L.A. He came to the Tigers organization in the Ian Kinsler trade, the last major deal of the team’s recent teardown.
The Tigers took it slow with Hernandez last spring, and didn’t assign him to a club until June. He then spent most of the 2018 season working for the West Michigan Whitecaps, where he tossed 41 innings with thoroughly unimpressive numbers. Scouts were impressed with what he had to offer, however, and he jumped onto the prospect radar with a few excellent starts that showed off his potential. Let’s take a look at what caught their eye.
Hernandez’s arsenal is anchored by a fastball that sits in the low 90s but can be dialed up to 96 miles per hour. It has room to grow as he fills out his thin frame. At its best, it is a plus pitch, especially when Hernandez is able to get in on hitters and establish a presence on the inside half of the strike zone. Most low-level hitters can’t handle this caliber of fastball, and they took a lot of uncomfortable swings against him this past year, producing both weak contact and whiffs.
Hernandez made some decent strides in his command in 2018, but plenty of work remains. He also made adjustments that benefited his nascent changeup and provide some cause for optimism about his feel and athleticism. There is a long way to go, but with so young a pitcher, you’re just looking for signs of improvement.
West Michigan Whitecaps pitching coach Jorge Cordova was kind enough to speak to Bless You Boys, explaining that Hernandez’s command improved significantly last summer as his confidence grew. A physical change also helped — moving to the right side of the rubber.
“He’s still developing his changeup, too,” continued Cordova. “When we got him, his changeup was too firm, like 5 miles an hour less than the fastball. We had to modify to the grip to make it more of a circle-changeup to kill some of the velocity on it, and obviously, to gain more movement.”
A pitcher’s changeup is intended to be 8 to 12 miles per hour slower than his fastball without slowing down his arm speed. If the separation between them is too small, it just reads like a bad fastball and professional hitters will have no problem squaring up against it. Hernandez transitioned to a circle change because it creates more contact between his fingers and the ball, enabling him to throw it slower with some control, but without slowing down his arm in the process.
While the rest of his game still needs a great deal of work, Hernandez has the raw tools to successful navigate the minor leagues. He displayed that he was able to pick up on little adjustments in 2018, a vital skill for an inexperienced young pitcher. The Tigers have demonstrated some ability to handle players like him at the lower levels. This all bodes well for his future as a pro ballplayer.
All right, folks, say it with me. One, two, three: “Command!”
Like most raw young pitching prospects, Hernandez needs to refine his ability to spot the ball in and out of the strike zone. We mentioned that his fastball flashes plus when he is commanding it well, but that isn’t often the case. The fastball’s evaluation plummets when he is not hitting his spots. If Hernandez is not able to get himself together with regularity, it will undermine his chances of success in the coming years.
When a young pitcher already boasts precocious stuff, requirements for command are a little looser. That isn’t the case here. Hernandez will need to demonstrate real improvements in his strike throwing to continue a march through the farm system. He already has good balance and athleticism for a teenager with a slender 6’3 frame. On the other hand, he will probably need to add a good deal more lean muscle on his bones in the years to come while maintaining that athleticism.
Hernandez’s other real weakness involves his breaking ball. It’s a curve that he shows some feel for, but it lacks conviction at times. It’s a bit of a sweepy pitch, and is a good fit for his unusual arm slot, which hitters have an awkward time reading. The building blocks are there for it to become an average pitch, but like with his changeup, work needs to be done to get it to that point (and hopefully beyond) with any real consistency.
Projected 2019 Team: Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps
Hernandez didn’t spend very much time with West Michigan in 2018, and the Tigers will be in no rush to get him to the higher levels in 2019. Working with young pitchers is usually an exercise in patience, and Hernandez is no exception. West Michigan is a good environment for him working with pitching coach Willie Blair under Lance Parrish’s oversight. Hernandez will likely be one of their frontline starters. A full season there isn’t out of the question, but an excellent spring could also vault him to Lakeland. As always, West Michigan’s pitching staff will be a crowded one next season.