Hernandez mentoring Astros' young hurlers

Hernandez mentoring Astros' young hurlers

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Livan Hernandez gave teammate Bud Norris a birthday bear hug on Friday and asked the up-and-coming hurler how old he was.

"I'm 27," Norris said.

"Is that in Cuban years or actual years?" Hernandez joked.

Hernandez, the ageless veteran of 15-year Major League seasons, is already having a positive influence on the Astros' young clubhouse and has had no problem fitting in with the "kids." The Astros signed him for his ability to eat innings and stay healthy, but his presence is about so much more.

He's here for guys like Norris and fellow young pitchers Henry Sosa, Jordan Lyles and David Carpenter. Hernandez, 37, has seemingly done everything and seen it all in his career and has been more than willing to pass along his knowledge to his teammates. Even though he's 10 years older than Norris, the two have already formed a bond.

"I was a junior in high school when he was in the World Series with the Giants [in 2002] and I've seen him through his prime and been in the batter's box and faced him," Norris said. "He knows so much and what he's done for so long has been impressive. Anything I can take from him, I'm going to listen."

Hernandez may as well have been in a rocking chair for his Astros debut on Saturday against Washington, and that's not a knock on his age. He was at his effortless best in his first Grapefruit League start, holding his former team to three hits in two scoreless innings. He threw 22 of his 33 pitches for strikes.

The Nationals didn't bring him back this year after acquiring Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez, but Hernandez was thankful for the chance to tutor young pitchers Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and John Lannan while in Washington.

"It's good when you have people who want to learn and want to listen," he said. "It's easy to get here and tough to stay here for a long time. You want to pitch for a long time. You give the young guys advice on what it takes to be professional and smart on the mound."

The rebuilding Astros are Hernandez's eighth different team since he broke into the Majors with the Marlins at the age of 20 in 1996. He's amassed 474 starts, 1,928 strikeouts, 50 complete games and pitched 3,121 2/3 innings in his career. And he's never been on the disabled list.

Hernandez and his 83-mph fastball will likely be in the rotation to start the season, especially considering the Astros had a huge hole punched in their rotation when Brett Myers was moved to closer. Hernandez, who has thrown at least 200 innings 10 times in his career, will fill that void.

"I'm still learning," he said. "I've got 15 years in the league and I'm still learning something new every day."

No one is happier to have Hernandez in camp than pitching coach Doug Brocail, who can count on the right-hander to help mold the young staff. Brocail says Hernandez's fundamentals are out of this world and he doesn't pitch beyond his limitations, which are great examples to set.

"He's a professional," he said. "The nice thing is I don't have to do anything with him. He is what he is. One thing that's amazing is how well he's grasped onto the young guys and made them listen. He's the veteran's veteran. It's a pleasure to have him in camp."

When Hernandez threw his first bullpen session in the early days of Spring Training, Minor League catcher Chris Wallace took off his mask and couldn't help but smile when he was done catching him. Hernandez was already hitting his spots with his impeccable control.

"That was the easiest bullpen I've caught in my life," Wallace said. "Where you set up, he hits the spot. I could have probably closed my eyes and he hits the target every time. It was a cool experience. We don't get that on the [Minor League] side."

Brocail says the young pitchers are sponges when they're around Hernandez.

"We're not going to see a guy that throws 90 [mph] again, but he's spot on with everything," he said. "The kids sit in amazement and watch him in the bullpen and they're going to learn if you can pitch down the zone and hits your spots and you throw harder than he does, you're going to be successful."

Because the Astros have so few veterans, general manager Jeff Luhnow wanted to make sure the older players he brought into camp could be good role models. He appears to have hit a home run with Hernandez.

"The fact he's treating this like his first Spring Training is really impressive," Luhnow said. "He's been around a long time. He's definitely a guy that's had success in his career and has had a long career, and yet he comes to the ballpark every day wanting to show why he should be on the team. That's what we want all the guys to do."

Hernandez, who has said he wants to try golf as a second career when baseball is over, said he wouldn't mind working for the Nationals or the Astros when he's finally done playing. Of course, he's still got some work to do on the mound.

"Let's see if I can go for three more [years], or maybe more," he said. "I want to be the Jamie Moyer of right-handers."

Brian McTaggart is reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.