Hernández didn't deliver for Nats despite ample opportunity


Age on opening day 2023: 32

How acquired: Signed as free agent, November 2021

MLB service time: 8 years, 154 days

2022 salary: $4 million

Contract status: Free agent

2022 stats: 147 G, 617 PA, 560 AB, 64 R, 139 H, 28 2B, 4 3B, 1 HR, 34 RBI, 10 SB, 4 CS, 45 BB, 114 SO, .248 AVG, .311 OBP, .318 SLG, .629 OPS, 84 OPS+, -8 DRS (2B), 1 DRS (3B), 3 DRS (LF), 0.5 fWAR, 0.7 bWAR

Quotable: “I just don’t think he’s hitting the ball in the air enough. I mean, he’s hitting a lot of hard balls, a lot of line-drive outs, hitting the ball hard on the ground. He’s just having trouble getting the ball up in the air, and he’s one of the guys that we’re looking at right now, saying: ‘Why?’ We went back and looked at his video. His point of contact is a little bit further back than it was last year, so we’re trying to talk to him about hitting the ball a little bit more out front. We have noticed that they are pitching him a little bit different. They’re throwing him a lot more elevated fastballs and a lot more breaking balls against him.” – Davey Martinez, July 6

2022 analysis: As the clock ticked toward the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 2, the Nationals decided to make one significant move prior to a lockout that ultimately stretched into March. They signed César Hernández for $4 million, adding a veteran infielder they believed would help this rebuilding club, though one who didn’t look like an ideal fit for this particular team in the field. Hernández was most comfortable playing second base, which meant Luis García would either be bumped to shortstop or Triple-A, with Alcides Escobar as the starter.

The Nats did demote García to Rochester. They also made Hernández their everyday leadoff hitter, asking him to focus more on reaching base (like he did for the Phillies from 2016-18) than hitting for power (like he did for the Guardians and White Sox in 2021). Things got off to a decent start: Hernández notched 61 hits in his first 50 games, producing a .295 batting average and .345 on-base percentage. But he hit for no power, including zero home runs.

Everything was a struggle after that. Over his final 97 games, Hernández hit just .221 with a .292 on-base percentage. And though he finally hit his first (and only) homer Sept. 4 in New York, he produced a paltry .289 slugging percentage during that long closing stretch. Eventually, with CJ Abrams acquired from the Padres to play shortstop and García promoted from Triple-A and moved to second base, Hernández moved to the bench. He did get some playing time late at third base and even in left field, but that was a product of a lack of options at those positions more than a reflection of his performance.

2023 outlook: Hernández was always viewed as a one-year addition, and in fact the Nationals probably hoped he would play well enough to draw interest at the trade deadline. Instead, there was no interest, so he found himself in the awkward position of finishing out the season as one of a few underperforming veterans on a team trying to build for the future.

The Nats could’ve released Hernández at some point late in the season, especially when he was no longer in the daily lineup. That’s what they did with third baseman Maikel Franco. The fact they kept Hernández all the way through Game 162 does suggest they still believed he had value to them, particularly in the clubhouse.

But as they make plans for 2023, with Abrams and García now entrenched as the double-play combo of the future and Ildemaro Vargas making a strong case to return as the utility infielder, there’s little reason to believe the Nationals have a place for Hernández. A free agent once the World Series concludes, he’ll most likely be trying to continue his career elsewhere.

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