Is 34-year-old Hernandez a left fielder, pinch-hitter or DH?

PLAYER REVIEW: YADIEL HERNANDEZ

Age on opening day 2022: 34

How acquired: Signed as international free agent, October 2016

MLB service time: 1 year, 28 days

2021 salary: $570,500

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

2021 stats: 112 G, 289 PA, 264 AB, 33 R, 72 H, 8 2B, 1 3B, 9 HR, 32 RBI, 3 SB, 0 CS, 22 BB, 59 SO, .273 AVG, .329 OBP, .413 SLG, .742 OPS, 103 OPS+, minus-8 DRS, 0.2 fWAR, 0.1 bWAR

Quotable: “We don’t know - I don’t know - what’s going to happen with the DH or no DH in our league. But I think he has potential to either play DH or play left field for us coming up next year, and give us good at-bats, especially against right-handed pitching.” - manager Davey Martinez

Thumbnail image for Hernandez-Takes-Off-for-First-Sidebar.jpg2021 analysis: It’s easy to forget now, but Yadiel Hernandez wasn’t supposed to make the opening day roster. Despite a .469 batting average and 1.219 OPS in spring training, the veteran outfielder was optioned to Triple-A during the final days of camp. And though he did wind up in the big leagues for the delayed season opener as one of the COVID-19 injured list replacements, he was sent back down a week later.

Hernandez got the call again April 20 when Juan Soto needed to go on the IL with a shoulder strain, and began to take advantage of the opportunity. He did so by doing what he’s always been able to do at every level of the sport: hit fastballs, including to the opposite field, with authority.

Hernandez was able to stick in the majors, though, because he made advances in other areas at the plate. He excelled against lefties, batting .300 (24-for-80) with an .861 OPS against them. He proved he could enjoy moderate success coming off the bench, batting .260 (13-for-50) as a pinch-hitter. And he began to hit changeups as well, producing a .325 batting average off the pitch after hitting a scant .200 in limited time in 2021.

By the time the trade deadline came and went, Hernandez finally found himself in the Nationals’ lineup on a daily basis. He started 43 of the team’s final 58 games, totaling seven homers and 23 RBIs during a prolonged stretch that often saw him batting fifth in the order behind Soto and Josh Bell.

Hernandez made some strides defensively, but he remained a liability in the field, struggling in particular to track down balls hit at or near the wall. He rated 43rd out of 45 major league left fielders in Defensive Runs Saved and recorded only one outfield assist.

2022 outlook: There’s some real question about how the Nationals want to proceed next season with Hernandez. Is he their starting left fielder in 2022? Is he part of a platoon, getting starts versus righties (even though he had better numbers vs. lefties)? Is he best served coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter? Or might he thrive as a designated hitter if the National League adopts it?

It’s not necessarily a simple question to answer. Hernandez has some real skills at the plate, and he can be a valuable hitter on almost any ballclub. But he’s also 34 with only one-plus seasons of major league experience. And his defense really is a liability, hurting his value.

This much we know: Despite his advanced age, Hernandez will again make a salary near the league minimum next season. He deserves to make the roster, at worst as a strong left-handed pinch-hitting option. Perhaps there will be an opportunity get starts in left field. Or perhaps as a full-time DH.

Hernandez probably isn’t going to blossom into an elite big league hitter at this point in his life. But he’s still pretty good at what he does right now. And the Nats should be able to find a way to maximize his performance.

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