Since the Detroit Tigers began tearing down in July of 2017, their biggest trades have remained a sore spot, while most of the value generated in prospect talent has come from some of the smaller moves. The December 2017 trade of Ian Kinsler to the Los Angels Angels may yet prove to be one of their better deals if Wilkel Hernandez has anything to say about it.
Hernandez was initially signed back in 2017 as an international free agent out of Venezuela. The lanky right-hander received a $125,000 bonus from the Los Angeles Angels, but wasn’t out of rookie ball yet when GM Billy Eppler flipped him to the Tigers in return for Kinsler.
In short, he wasn’t sought after, but his size and advanced velocity as a 17-year-old made him an interesting and inexpensive bet. Several years on, Hernandez has refined his delivery but the leap in terms of stuff and command has yet to arrive.
The 2019 season saw him graduate from rookie ball and take the step up to full season ball. He spun 101 1⁄3 innings for the West Michigan Whitecaps and capped the campaign with a solid run of good starts. From July 10th through the end of the season in August, he allowed more than one run on only one occasion to post a solid 3.73 ERA with a nice 3.26 FIP to back it up.
Hernandez remains a little to the side of potential rather than reality, but he does have some advantages over most starters his age. The 20-year-old can touch 96 mph already, and while he’s gotten stronger and more powerful off the rubber over the past year, his 6’3” frame still has room for a little more muscle and hopefully, more consistent mid-90’s velocity. He throws a lot of strikes, and at his best can spot it to both sides of the plate.
Still a bit of a beanpole when he came over to the Tigers, the added strength, especially in his legs, has helped him refine a fairly classic delivery that produces easy armspeed. A high leg kick leads him into a smooth, powerful delivery with a little bit of late release that helps with deception. He generates good drive to the plate and leverages a strong plant leg to get downward plane and extension on his riding heater. A lot of whiffs and weak contact in the air characterized the fastball in his work for the West Michigan Whitecaps this season.
Hernandez sits 93-94 mph for the most part with a little extra available when needed. Hopefully he responds well as the Tigers increase his workload and can build a little more consistent mid-90’s heat, but he really hasn’t seen much in the way of velocity gains since entering pro ball.
That athleticism has also translated to solid control for Hernandez’s age. He throws strikes, limits walks, and can really work an A-ball lineup over with the fastball. In short, he’s set up well for success in Lakeland this year, and a decent low key pick for a breakout player in the Tigers’ system.
At this point in his development, Wilkel Hernandez is still a fringe prospect for good reasons. The quality and consistency of the curveball and changeup remain quite underwhelming. Hernandez does get plenty of whiffs on his fastball, yet the lack of a swing and miss secondary left him with just a respectable strikeout rate of 20.8 percent.
To make himself into a viable major league reliever, one of those secondary pitches needs to make a leap. To hit his ceiling as a backend starter, it’ll take better versions of both pitches and substantial gains in command. Fortunately, Hernandez just completed his age 20 season, so there is still plenty of time.
One of Hernandez’s main goals this year was to incorporate a new circle change grip in hope of getting better velocity separation from his fastball. The pitch has a lot of armside action at its best and was better overall this year, but it’s still inconsistent in speed and shape.
There is an average future curveball visible in Hernandez’s breaker, but it isn’t much of a weapon for him yet. He gets good depth and a little tilt on the mid 70’s offering, and it could play well off the heavy dose of high fourseam fastballs he throws. On it’s own merits however, the curveball just isn’t very sharp and Hernandez doesn’t seem to trust it. If it’s ever going to generate whiffs he’s going to need a firmer version with better bite.
Right now, it’s enough that Hernandez has a lively arm and throws strikes. There appears to be some projection left, and some aptitude for improvement, but he’s still on the fringes of real prospect status. The Angels and now the Tigers have been waiting a few years for pro conditioning and workloads to produce a real jump in his velocity. There is plenty of potential here, but it’s time for some element of his game to break out. The 2020 season should tell us a good deal more about his future outlook.
Projected 2020 team: Advanced-A Lakeland Flying Tigers
Hernandez handled the Midwest League without too much trouble. He’s ready to handle a bit more experienced class of hitter, and should spend the whole season in the Florida State League. Look for him to progress to around 130 innings this year, and work hard to advance his secondary pitches. If he can hit those markers there will be substantially more interest in him this time next year.