Long thought to be a place-holder, could Cesar Hernandez be a part of the next great Phillies team? (Frank Klose/SportsTalkPhilly)
Last May, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez made a simple declaration.
"I want to be the second baseman of the future," Hernandez said to Matt Breen of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Despite the presence of Scott Kingery on the major league roster, Hernandez has started all eight of the Phillies games at second base. In all eight of those games, Hernandez has led off. His .310 average and .471 on-base percentage suggest that we may soon be forced to entertain the discussion of Hernandez being a part of the team's long-term plans.
Hernandez, who will turn 28 next month, has led the Phillies in walks three consecutive seasons. With both Carlos Santana and J.P. Crawford on the roster this year, that streak is likely to come to an end, but the Venezuelan-born second baseman does a very good job of controlling the strike-zone, a trait valued by Matt Klentak's front-office. In eight games, he's already walked seven times.
Though he's hit the team's first home run of the season in consecutive years, Hernandez isn't much of a power threat. But when you consider that he's the leadoff hitter, Hernandez's job is to set the table for Santana, Rhys Hoskins and Maikel Franco, among others. He does an excellent job of doing that.
Not only has Hernandez led the Phillies in walks for three straight seasons, but he finished five hits behind former Phillie Freddy Galvis for the team lead in hits in 2017. That's despite the fact that an oblique injury caused him to miss over a month last summer. So Hernandez finished just five hits behind Galvis for the team lead in hits, despite batting 97 less times than him. In 2016, Hernandez's 161 hits were also second on the team, just six behind Odubel Herrera, who made the National League All-Star team. Currently, he's tied with Herrera for second on the team in hits with nine, two behind Hoskins.
Since the start of the 2016 season, Hernandez's .374 on-base percentage ranks fourth among qualified second baseman. The three names above him? Jose Altuve, Daniel Murphy and DJ LeMahieu. Altuve's arguably been the sport's best player over the past two years not named Mike Trout. Since the start of the 2015 playoffs, Murphy has been one of the best pure hitters in baseball. And LeMahieu is one of the most well-rounded players in the sport.
Not only is Hernandez in good company as an offensive player, but over the past two years, only Dustin Pedroia grades out better as a fielder at second base, per FanGraphs. That Hernandez has never been nominated for a Gold Glove Award is an indictment on the laziness that goes into voting for defensive awards across sports. No National League second baseman has a higher dWAR or UZR than Hernandez since the beginning of the 2016 season.
If not for Kingery, the Phillies may have made Hernandez one of the first internal extensions that they reached under Klentak. Instead, the Phillies have listened to offers for Hernandez over the past two offseasons, with the understanding that while he's been one of the 10 best second baseman in the league since 2016, Kingery has a chance to be the best second baseman.
But despite their need for major league pitching depth, the Phillies have been hesitant to part with Hernandez's production. Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia reported that the Phillies asking price was "very steep" for Hernandez during the 2016 offseason. Salisbury reported this past offseason that while the Los Angeles Angels were interested in Hernandez for the second consecutive offseason, they "found the Phillies price to be too high."
This wasn't an Angels team that was unwilling to spend: general manager Billy Eppler re-signed OF Justin Upton to a five-year/$106 million deal, landed Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani and after he couldn't pull off a deal for Hernandez, Eppler instead traded for Ian Kinsler. The Angels went for it this past offseason, in an attempt to put a more competitive team around the aforementioned Trout. But even they viewed the Phillies desired return for Hernandez to be too much, perhaps a sign of how highly the Phillies think of him.
No one's suggesting that the Phillies don't pick up the phone if inquires are made on Hernandez - they have two really good second baseman. It could be that Hernandez is the Placido Polanco to Kingery's Chase Utley (it's a loose comparison, just play along). Polanco was a very productive second baseman for the Phillies, but clearly not better than Utley, whose peak was as good as just about any second baseman in baseball history.
So the Phillies traded Polanco to the Detroit Tigers in June 2005. Though he wasn't employed by the Phillies for much longer, general manager Ed Wade didn't end up with egg on his face for the trade. As mentioned in the prior paragraph, Utley's prime will make him an interesting Hall of Fame candidate at the end of his career. The Phillies even salvaged a piece in Ugueth Urbina that was an effective relief piece, one that likely would have been part of some playoff Phillies teams had he not been convicted of attempted murder.
However, even if we play along and say that Urbina pitched more than a few months in the Phillies bullpen, the club still would have been better with Polanco, who posted a 5.4 fWAR in a tremendous individual season of 2005. Despite a down individual season in 2006, the lasting image from that season is Polanco jumping up and down rounding the bases after his teammate Magglio Ordonez hit a walkoff home run to send the Tigers to the World Series.
Polanco may not have been especially keen on the idea of playing third base at that time, but it's a position that he was more than capable of playing. We know this because he ultimately returned to the Phillies in 2010 as a third baseman, a position he won a Gold Glove Award at in 2011. The Phillies spent the 2006 and 2007 seasons with Abraham Nunez, Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs, all of whom were better suited to be utility men, splitting time at third base. They, no doubt, would have been better with Polanco manning the hot corner of an infield that featured Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard.
Hernandez's ceiling may not be as high as Polanco's was, but it feels like there are many similarities in this case. Polanco was an extremely productive 29-year-old when the Phillies traded him. Hernandez is 27, soon-to-be 28. Polanco was a strong fielding second baseman that was pushed out of his primary position by a long-time top prospect. Rather than retaining Polanco, the Phillies elected to trade him, paving the way for Utley to play second. Many think Hernandez will end up with a similar fate.
This case isn't exactly the same, however. Utley initially worked with the late John Vukovich in an attempt to become serviceable at third base. The Phillies deemed that he wasn't capable of regularly playing the position. Shortstop, obviously, was occupied by Rollins.
This time around, the replacement for the incumbent second baseman is capable of playing other positions. Kingery hasn't started a game at second at the major league level in 2018, but he has at third base, shortstop and right field. He's also appeared in left field.
What's also different about this era is that the future of the right side of the Phillies infield is still largely up in the air. Maikel Franco had 10 RBIs between Thursday and Saturday's wins over the Miami Marlins, but is coming off of a disastrous 2017 season. Though J.P. Crawford was the organization's top prospect for nearly half a decade, the former first-round pick's bat has been bipolar through the upper levels of the minor leagues and into the majors. His 18.4 percent walk percentage in his brief stint at the majors in 2017 may have been impressive, but he hit just .214 and is batting .043 through his first 23 at-bats of 2018.
Meanwhile, Hernandez continues to quietly go about being the team's leadoff hitter and starting second baseman. The Phillies control him through the 2020 season. Until Franco and/or Crawford prove to be better players than Hernandez, the Phillies would be wise to hold onto Hernandez. There's a chance the Phillies make a play for Manny Machado this offseason, though the New York Yankees appear to be fairly heavy favorites to land the services of the Hall of Fame caliber SS/3B.
There may come a day where the Phillies decide that they believe Hernandez would make more sense in the Ben Zobrist type role that Kingery has played in so far than Kingery. Hernandez has some experience playing in the outfield, as well as at third base and shortstop. If Crawford doesn't pan out (which certainly remains to be seen) and the Phillies decide at some point to try a middle infield of Hernandez and Kingery regularly, Hernandez's build may make him a more natural fit at shortstop.
Still, Kingery's shown an eagerness to play at whatever position gets him in the lineup. (Gabe Kapler said in Spring Training that Kingery even mentioned that he has past catching experience, an idea that Kapler quickly squashed.) And for as steady as Hernandez has been at the plate, he's been a very effective second baseman the past two seasons.
The best course of action for the Phillies may be to just let things be until circumstances dictate them doing something. Right now, circumstances have dictated Hernandez leading off and playing second base every game. And with every game that Hernandez reaches base multiple times, which he has done five times already in 2018, it becomes even more likely that he's part of the Phillies plans for the foreseeable future.
Nick Williams has started just three of the Phillies first eight games. (Brandon Apter/SportsTalkPhilly)
By now, Nick Williams doesn't need me to say that his comment Thursday about computers making the Phillies lineup wasn't smart. He's apologized to manager Gabe Kapler and it appears that when he made the initial quote, he was laughing. So the quote may have looked worse in text than it sounded.
Still, as J. Cole once said, all good jokes contain true sh*t.
Even if Williams was joking, there still kind of is the insinuation put forward by his quote that if someone that wasn't as analytically focused as Kapler was the manager, he would be playing more frequently. So let's pretend that Pete Mackanin was still the manager of the Phillies. Or even Charlie Manuel. Would they be playing Williams every day when the Phillies have 10 starting caliber position players and only eight positions to play them at? Williams doesn't even believe that.
Rhys Hoskins is hitting over .400. He's going to start pretty much every game in left field. Odubel Herrera, a 2016 All-Star, is batting .360 and doesn't even seem to have consistently clicked at the plate in 2018 yet. When you factor in that he's been one of the best fielding center fielders since 2015, it stands to reason that he's going to start a majority of games in center field.
That leaves right field for Williams to play in. The problem is that Aaron Altherr is also competing for at-bats in right field. On some days, Scott Kingery is as well.
Kingery aside, the Phillies may just be higher on Altherr than Williams. He walks more than Williams and grades out better as a fielder (though neither Williams or Altherr graded out well in 2017.) At 27 - with Bryce Harper's free agency lurking and Adam Haseley and Mickey Moniak in their farm system - the Phillies may view 2018 as their last chance to get an extended look at Altherr. That may come at the expense of Williams.
What also works against Williams is that Altherr, despite being right-handed, has hit 20 points better in his career against right-handed pitchers than lefties. But when the Phillies face left-handed pitchers, they still seem to like the matchup of the right-handed hitting Altherr over the left-handed hitting Williams. The Phillies faced left-handed starters in two of their three games against the Marlins. They are scheduled to do so again Monday, with Cody Reed scheduled to start for the Cincinnati Reds. That means that Williams likely won't start again Monday.
There is one game that Williams seems pretty likely to start in: Thursday April 19 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That day the Phillies will be giving away a powder blue Williams shirsey to all fans 15 and over. It would be strange for Williams not to start that day. Then again, maybe I'm wrong in thinking that Kapler, Matt Klentak or the computers are worried about the promotional item that the Phillies are giving away that night.
- The most difficult week of the year to write about baseball is the first week of the regular season. On one hand, there's a crowd of people that are ready to binge on baseball news and commentary because they are so excited about the season starting. On the other hand, a few games is such a small sample size, and even if your preface any thoughts by saying that, the "it's only the first week" crowd comes out in full force.
- Is there anything that Rhys Hoskins can't do at the plate? Through the first eight games of the season, he's hitting .440 and seeing nearly four-and-a-half pitchers per plate appearance. How scared of Hoskins are teams? In the final two games of the Phillies three-game weekend series with the Marlins, Hoskins walked four times. All four of those walks were non-intentional, four-pitch walks. Teams don't want to just put Hoskins on base, but they also aren't going to let him beat them. For his part, Hoskins doesn't seem interested in chasing bad pitches - he'll be happy just to trot to first base and keep the line moving. And hey, when opposing pitchers do make mistakes to him, he capitalizes. On top of walking four times in the final two games of the series, he drove in four runs.
- Much has been made of the fact that Phillies are leading the league in pitches seen per plate appearance, a category that they finished 20th in during the 2017 season. Some of that can be chalked up to the fact that Cesar Hernandez has been joined by other pieces in the lineup - Rhys Hoskins for a full season and Carlos Santana - that are more patient. But this also seems to be a culture that Gabe Kapler and hitting coach John Mallee have created. Maikel Franco is seeing 4.50 pitches per plate appearance in 2018 - his career average is 3.64. Odubel Herrera is back at 4.00, the mark he hovered around in his first two seasons, after dipping to 3.88 in 2017. Aaron Altherr, despite a slow start at the plate, is seeing 5.19 pitches per plate appearance in 2018, which is way up from the 3.87 mark he posted in 2017.
- It's unclear what has been up with Andrew Knapp behind the plate so far this season. Knapp, to the surprise of many, started the team's first two games of the season. He seemed to have some sort of case of the yips against the Braves. Knapp, on a noteable amount of occasions, didn't catch pitches that weren't in the dirt. He also allowed a passed ball in the team's season-opening loss. Instead of just holding onto the passed ball and living to see another play, Knapp attempted to throw out Freddie Freeman at third base, who he had next-to-no chance to throw out. Knapp's throw one-hopped Maikel Franco, and trickled into the outfield, allowing Freeman to score, and Kurt Suzuki, the eventual tying run, to move up the third base. Sunday, he allowed another passed ball in the eighth inning of what turned out to be a 6-3 loss to the Marlins.
- Former Phillies manager Pete Mackanin asked for two professional hitters at the end of the 2016 season to mix into a talented, but young lineup. Unfortunately for him, he missed Carlos Santana by a year. In the team's extra-inning win over the Braves earlier this month, Santana put on a professional hitting clinic. In addition to walking once, he had two sacrifice flies and a home run. The second of those sacrifice flies allowed J.P. Crawford, the eventual winning run, to score. Gabe Kapler raved about Santana's final at-bat of the game to Matt Breen of The Philadelphia Inquirer, calling the at-bat "incredible and unbelievable and exceptional." Sunday, despite it coming in a loss, Santana shortened up his swing with two strikes in the bottom of the first and made sure to hit a deep fly ball that allowed Cesar Hernandez to score.