Do Nats still have room for Hernandez in outfield or on bench?


Age on opening day 2023: 35

How acquired: Signed as international free agent, October 2016

MLB service time: 2 years, 28 days

2022 salary: $714,000

Contract status: Under team control, arbitration-eligible in 2024, free agent in 2027

2022 stats: 94 G, 327 PA, 305 AB, 30 R, 82 H, 16 2B, 0 3B, 9 HR, 41 RBI, 2 SB, 1 CS, 19 BB, 74 SO, .269 AVG, .312 OBP, .410 SLG, .722 OPS, 108 OPS+, -3 DRS, -0.1 fWAR, 0.4 bWAR

Quotable: “I know my role on this team. I know I’m not going to play that often, so when I do I have to be ready. I do everything possible to prepare and be ready so that I can help the team the day I am asked to play. That’s all I can do: Be prepared for when I’m called upon.” – Yadiel Hernandez, via interpreter Octavio Martinez

2022 analysis: Playing time wasn’t quite as sporadic as Hernandez suggested in that late-June quote, but it’s fair to say it changed over the course of the season. The veteran-yet-inexperienced outfielder split time in left field with Lane Thomas early on, then took over on a near-everyday basis when he jumped out to a strong start (.903 OPS through his first 25 games) while Thomas struggled.

Hernandez slumped for the next month, though, producing just a .449 OPS over his next 24 games. He finally settled into a groove consistent with his career-long numbers, and over his final 44 games hit .265/.310/.424 with six doubles, five homers, 16 RBIs and a .734 OPS.

Defense remains an issue for Hernandez, who despite repeated work is probably never going to make himself into even an average left fielder. Manager Davey Martinez typically removed him late in games when the Nationals held the lead.

Hernandez’s season came to a surprising and abrupt halt in mid-August when he strained his left calf in San Diego. Initially placed on the 10-day injured list, he was transferred to the 60-day IL one week later, effectively ending his season even though he seemed to think he still had enough time to get healthy and make it back. He wound up spending the last six weeks as a quiet observer, watching the likes of Alex Call, Josh Palacios and César Hernández take most of the Nationals’ at-bats in left field.

2023 outlook: Hernandez has never really felt like a piece of the Nats’ long-term puzzle, but he’s in the unique position of being a veteran who is still under team control for four more years and won’t even be eligible for arbitration until 2024. That makes him an affordable bat to keep around, even if club officials don’t view him as an everyday player.

Hernandez has always had solid batting skills. He can hit a fastball as well as anybody, as evidenced by his .310 batting average and .458 slugging percentage on those pitches this season. He continues to struggle with breaking balls (.210 average, .407 slugging percentage), but really saw a drop-off in production against changeups (.230 average, .295 slugging this season, down from .367 and .567 in 2021). Not surprisingly, pitchers threw more changeups against him this year, leading to a healthy dose of ground balls (50.6 percent rate).

Under different circumstances, the Nationals might opt to part ways with Hernandez this winter. But at the moment, they’re woefully thin in the outfield, with no obvious starter in left field alongside Thomas and Victor Robles. If they do go out and get a big bat for that position, it’s possible they could give up on Hernandez. But given how affordable he remains, and given his ability to provide a decent left-handed bat off the bench, it seems like he should remain part of the plan for 2023 despite not appearing to be part of the plan much beyond that.

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