Neither Duke nor Hernandez pitched very well and were ultimately released -- Hernandez on Friday morning -- and now the Astros will enter the season with a youthful rotation that is void of a veteran innings-eater such as Hernandez or Brett Myers, who's now the closer.
Veteran left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, 33, is the only thirtysomething in the unseasoned rotation, which also includes Bud Norris (27) and J.A. Happ (29). With Hernandez out of the picture, the final two spots will come down to either Kyle Weiland (25), Jordan Lyles (21) or Lucas Harrell (26).
Henry Sosa, 26, is also in the mix, but he's the longest shot of the bunch.
"Many of them have really stepped up and demonstrated this spring they're ready, and that's exciting for our organization," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "It remains to be seen how everybody does when the lights go on [on April 6], but for now we're very excited about the progress they've made and the readiness they've shown to compete at this level."
Only hours after he was released by the Astros, Hernandez signed a Major League contract with the Braves. The decision to release him saved the Astros $100,000. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, free agents who signed Minor League contracts and are not added to the Opening Day roster or released five days prior to Opening Day receive an additional $100,000 retention bonus.
"Yeah, it was surprising," Hernandez said of his release. "It's a business, and it's baseball. I was very surprised when this happened. It's tough to pitch like that, too. It's the decision they made, and I'm very happy for the chance. There's a lot of good people in the organization, a lot of good young players and great people. Everyone in the organization is very professional."
Hernandez had appeared to be a shoo-in to make the rotation, and about 10 days ago the Astros said Harrell and Sosa were fighting for spots in the bullpen. Manager Brad Mills said on Friday that Sosa and Harrell were back in the rotation mix. Harrell thrust himself back into consideration by allowing three hits and no earned runs in five innings against the Marlins on Wednesday.
"We were looking at [Harrell] as a long man," Luhnow said. "We knew whatever role he would play would be a multiple-inning role, so he continued to get looks in relief in that regard. We started him a few days ago and he showed us he's willing and capable and ready to do that role if that's what we need from him. We still have a few days to go before we have to make the decision, but it's good to have choices. Our young players have a bright future in front of them."
Lyles, who will start on Saturday against the Yankees at Osceola County Stadium, is 0-2 with a 6.32 ERA this spring, but he's walked only three batters in 15 2/3 innings and has been developing a new curveball, with success.
Weiland was acquired by the Astros, along with shortstop Jed Lowrie, from the Red Sox last December and has been impressive this spring. Weiland allowed three first-inning runs on Friday night against the Braves, but followed with five scoreless frames in a six-inning outing that lowered his ERA to 2.86.
"I think he's shown probably a little more than we had hoped," Mills said. "We knew what we were getting with the pitcher, but he's shown more life on his fastball, more sink on his fastball and better command of his breaking pitches. You didn't know he was going to be that polished right now."
But with youth comes uncertainty, something Luhnow understands. The Astros have made it a point to stretch out some of their relievers this spring to make sure they're capable of pitching multiple innings. Wilton Lopez, Fernando Abad and Wesley Wright each recently pitched two-inning stints.
"The bullpen has been really good this spring, and one of the reasons we've been running those guys out there for two innings is to make sure that if one of our young starters have a bad outing and doesn't get out of the third or fourth inning, we can make up the ground by having our relievers pitch more than one inning and not have a bunch of one-inning guys," Luhnow said. "That's part of our strategy in stretching these guys out a little bit."