By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
El Duque was an Expo.
No one would blame you, however, if you don’t remember him with the club.
After all, his tenure with the Expos consisted of seven spring training innings and three rehab starts with the class-A Advanced Brevard County Manatees in 2003, before he underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
That’s definitely not what Expos general manager Omar Minaya had in mind when he acquired the 37-year-old right-hander on January 15, 2003 as part of a three-team trade that saw the Expos part with ace Bartolo Colon.
As was too frequently the case with the Expos during that era, Minaya was forced to deal Colon, who had gone 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA in 17 starts down the stretch for them in 2002, due to financial constraints. Colon, who had also won 10 games with Cleveland in 2002, would make $8.25 million in 2003.
It was also no secret that the Expos, then owned by Major League Baseball, had no choice but to trade Colon and this hindered Minaya in trade discussions. It also didn’t help that Colon had ballooned to close to 260 pounds that off-season (up from his then playing weight of 230), according to a report by Jack Todd in the Montreal Gazette. Todd reported that Seattle Mariners GM Pat Gillick was initially interested in Colon until he travelled to the Dominican Republic and saw the shape the veteran right-hander was in.
So Minaya was disappointed when the Expos ultimately only received Hernandez, reliever Rocky Biddle, first baseman Jeff Liefer and a reported $2 million in cash from the Chicago White Sox for Colon. The New York Yankees had dealt Hernandez to the White Sox for reliever Antonio Osuna and a pitching prospect to make the deal happen. As part of the trade, the Bombers agreed to help pay a portion of Hernandez’s 2003 salary.
“The reason we’re here today is that there were no great offers out there,” Minaya told reporters about the trade on January 15, 2003. “You would think a 20-game winner, a guy who’s in the prime of his career and relatively not making that much money compared with his production, I’d have a lot of great offers . . . But there weren’t a lot of great offers for him. Believe me, I didn’t walk away from a deal I thought I should have taken.”
In the same conversation, Minaya managed to set his disappointment aside to praise Hernandez.
“Not only is he a good pitcher, he’s a great competitor, a great teammate,” said Minaya. “He’s already talking about how we can get these guys thinking we can win.”
Hernandez would bring with him not only his inspiring story of fleeing Cuba, but a track record of success on the mound with the Yankees. In his previous five seasons as a starter, “El Duque” had registered 53 wins and posted a 3.85 ERA. But he was at his best in the postseason, winning his first eight playoff decisions and helping the Yankees to three consecutive World Series titles from 1998 to 2000.
Hernandez was also the type of pitcher that Montreal baseball fans had grown to love over the years. He had a funky delivery that included a high leg kick. He pulled his socks up high. He had confidence and swagger. And most importantly, he was looking forward to pitching in Montreal.
On February 10 that year, the Expos avoided an arbitration hearing with Hernandez by signing him to a one-year, $4.1 million deal. An Associated Press report indicated that all but $300,000 of Hernandez’s 2003 salary was going to be paid by the Yankees and White Sox.
“Having El Duque for free keeps us competitive,” Minaya told ESPN in early March that year.
Expos manager Frank Robinson was also excited to have Hernandez in his rotation.
“We have a lot less questions (about the starting rotation) this year,” Robinson told ESPN for an article published on March 7, 2003. “Last year, I just felt it was (Javier) Vazquez and (Tony) Armas, and that was basically it. This year, we feel good, think we have all the spots filled.”
Coming off a 83-79 record and a surprising second-place finish in the National League East in 2002, the Expos were considered darkhorse contenders in 2003. The club not only looked to have a solid rotation with Vazquez, Armas, Tomo Okha and Hernandez, but their offence included Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera, Wil Codero and Brad Wilkerson.
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be for the Expos or for Hernandez, whose tenure with the club seemed doomed from the start.
The Cuban right-hander couldn’t make his first spring start due to a toothache. However, less than a week later, on March 7, he tossed three scoreless innings in his Expos’ debut against the Philadelphia Phillies. And seven days after that, he pitched four innings in his second start before complaining of soreness in his throwing shoulder.
The Expos shut him down as a precautionary measure and when he was still sidelined two weeks later, he told reporters he had a slight tear in his rotator cuff.
“It happens to all pitchers,” Hernandez told the Montreal Gazette about his injury.
He had undergone an MRI and Expos assistant GM Tony Siegle said the results showed “nothing alarming” in Hernandez’s shoulder, but the veteran hurler would be out for four-to-six weeks.
“I don’t know when I’ll pitch. I’d love to pitch tomorrow,” Hernandez told the Montreal Gazette for their March 30, 2003 issue. “Today, for example, I feel great. But there is going to be a period where I try to gain strength back through the throwing program. And the injury will tell me when I can throw in a game”
The Expos were optimistic that Hernandez would return to pitch for them in May.
“The power of his arm is fine,” said Siegle. “With manipulations, there was no pain, which is a good sign.”
Five days prior to El Duque’s MRI results being shared, the Expos had acquired his half brother Livan from the San Francisco Giants to replace him in the rotation. Livan had been a workhorse starter for several years and had earned a World Series ring with the Florida Marlins in 1997.
“He pitches a lot of innings,” said Minaya of Livan, after acquiring the right-hander. “Let’s hope they’re quality innings.”
And for the most part they were. Livan went 15-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 33 starts for the Expos, spanning 233 1/3 innings, in 2003.
Meanwhile his half-brother continued to rehab in Miami, Fla., and seemed to be progressing well. His first rehab start with the class-A Advanced Brevard County Manatees in late April went well. His second start, however, was a disaster. On May 3, he was shelled for six runs in the first inning. He’d attempt to make one more start with the Manatees before complaining again of discomfort in his shoulder.
Hernandez was reexamined by doctors and he decided to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder on May 12. The Expos reported that the surgery would sideline Hernandez for at least three months, but expressed optimism that the veteran could return before the end of the season. But Hernandez’s shoulder never felt strong enough to come back to the Expos.
In December 2003, the Expos decided not to tender Hernandez a contract, making him a free agent.
The Cuban righty eventually re-signed with the Yankees on March 13, 2004 and he returned to their rotation on July 11 and proceeded to post an 8-2 record with a 3.30 ERA in 15 starts down the stretch.
Following that campaign, he inked a two-year deal with the White Sox. He struggled as a starter in 2005, but the Sox employed him as a reliever in the postseason and he tossed four scoreless innings to help them win the World Series. It was his fourth World Series ring.
That December, Hernandez was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a package for former Expos teammate Javier Vazquez. He struggled to a 6.11 ERA in nine starts with the D-Backs before being dealt to the New York Mets where he went 9-7 with a 4.09 ERA in 20 starts to help them clinch a playoff spot.
The 41-year-old right-hander returned to the Mets the following year and posted a 9-5 record and a 3.72 ERA in 27 appearances, including 24 starts. That season proved to be his last big league campaign.
Hernandez finished his nine-season major league career with 90 wins. Unfortunately, for Minaya and the Expos, none of those came with Montreal.