In her 2021 Washington Nationals Top MLB Prospects write-up, Lacy Lusk of Baseball America made a bold prediction: three seasons from now, in the year 2024, a 36-year-old Yadiel Hernández will be the starting designated hitter in DC.
Okay, so it wasn’t so much a prediction as it was a tacit concession to the absolute desolation that is the Nationals’ farm system. Still, in the projected lineup portion of their system evaluation page, Hernández got the nod at DH. That there’s no player more likely to be ready to slot into a hypothetical designated hitter role three seasons from now anywhere in the organization says much more about the Nats’ development pipeline than it does Hernández.
When we plug into our Occuluses (Occuli?) to experience Nats’ Park on Opening Day in 2024 from the on-field perspective of your National of choice – like Being John Malkovich for sports fans – it’s not wholly impossible that Hernández will be among your choices. Even in the rosiest version of the next three years, one where the Nats never need use one of Hernández’s three options and he stays on the active roster for the next 2 1/2 seasons, he’d still only be in his first season of arbitration eligibility and, therefore, affordable, even at the age of 36.
That’s actually not an insignificant point in his favor, even three years out. The Nats will need some cost-efficient options while paying a 35-year-old Stephen Strasburg $35MM and 34-year-old Patrick Corbin $35.4MM. Both hurlers will have picked up full no-trade clauses by that time through 10-and-5 rights (unless the next CBA eliminates that provision). And if they haven’t signed lucrative long-term extensions yet, both Juan Soto and Victor Robles will be entering what-sure-to-be expensive final seasons of arbitration in 2024. At that point, Mr. Nat Ryan Zimmerman will probably be making more to manage the club that he’s being paid now to backup Josh Bell at first. That or he’ll still be making $1MM to backup first base (he’ll be 39).
I’m not saying that Hernández will have a starting spot three seasons from now. After all, he doesn’t have a starting spot now. He’s a 33-year-old backup corner outfielder with 88 career plate appearances. That said, he has intrigued thus far, slashing .278/.333/.407, good for 104 wRC+. But with Soto in right, there’s only one other corner outfield spot available and finding a designated hitter isn’t much more difficult than finding a cicada in DC today.
But I am absolutely rooting for him. And you should too.
What’s most wild about Hernández is his non-traditional prospect path. The Nationals signed him out of Cuba in 2016 with the less-than-ringing endorsement of, “We thought we’d take a chance on him.” That was from Johnny Dipuglia (via Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post), the Nats’ Director of Latin American Operations since 2009.
To truly understand Hernández’s prospect status at the time of his signing, you really only need know two numbers: $200K, the bonus amount the Nats paid to sign him, and 29 – his age at the time.
Despite that, he spent four years in the minor leagues, a not-uncommon development period for prospects. Still, after two years in Double-A and two years in Triple-A, Hernández finally got a cup of coffee during the 2020 season as a 32-year-old. He appeared in 12 games, almost exclusively as a designated or pinch hitter during the second half of the Nats’ moribund title defense.
He didn’t exactly excel: 57 wRC+ in 28 plate appearances, a measly 3.6 percent walk rate and chunky 42.9 percent strikeout rate. His usage and status as a corner outfielder without blazing speed conjures a ready archetype as a glove-less power bat off the bench. A spiritual replacement for Matt Adams, or even, being generous, an extremely poor man’s Yermín Mercedes.
Mercedes, of course, might be the story of the season. The White Sox 28-year-old rookie designated hitter has hit like Nelson Cruz in the early part of this season. He got a hit in each of his first eight career plate appearances, and he’s currently rocking a 178 wRC+. Recently, he made waves for blasting a Willians Astudillo 47 mph softball pitch 407 feet at more than 109 miles per hour. He’s a strong man. His star has risen so suddenly and so steeply at the ripe ole age of 28 that there’s no telling the story of the 2021 season without him.
That’s not the case for Yadiel Hernández. The Nationals’ 33-year-old right fielder isn’t going to dot the radar of most fanbases, and he’s not likely to make a significant impact on the season in a macro sense. If the Nationals can’t get their act together, he’ll be nothing more than a footnote. Losing teams field all manner of players, and it’s hard to graduate from the ranks of the so-called Quad-A player while coming off the bench for, these days, the Pirates or Tigers.
Even DMV locals haven’t probably taken much notice of Hernández, except in their disappointment as he replaced Soto in right field for the 14-day stretch from April 20th until May 4th. Soto was on the injured list with a sore shoulder. If you were only watching the Nats on defense, you might have remarked that Soto looked shorter than usual, but otherwise his absence could easily have slipped your notice. Hernández isn’t exactly an imposing presence at 5’9″, 185 pounds.
Though he didn’t make Fangraphs’ selection of the Nats’ top-22 prospects list from April – which is saying something considering their horrible system – but he did get a mention in the “Major League Ready Depth” department. Nor did he make Baseball America’s list of the Nats’ top-30 prospects, and they give Washington the ignominious distinction of the worst farm system in all of baseball.
Baseball America never even put together a scouting report on him, though he didn’t wholly escape their notice. Lacy Lusk wrote at the end of March, “Outfielder Yadiel Hernández, who made his major league debut at age 32 in 2020, hit .469/.500/.719 in 21 games this spring.”
She also provided this telling quote: “Whether you’re here in the beginning, middle, end—sooner or later, you’ll help us win games up here,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of Hernández. “I know that.”
Count Ben Clemens over at Fangraphs as a believer as well. He wrote just two days ago about how his launch angles and significant opposite field power suggest he could be a bit of a lurking giant. He’ll likely need an injury to pave the way to playing time, however, as even if Kyle Schwarber leaves in the offseason, they probably won’t hand the reins outright to Hernández.
A designated hitter in the National League would surely help his chances for regular playing time, however. With a new CBA coming, there’s a good chance the DH could come to the NL on a permanent basis as early as next season. If everything breaks right, Hernández might not even have to wait until 2024 to find himself a regular part of the Nats’ offense.
Give Hernández credit for hanging in there through three minor league seasons. He was a pro in his home country, a top-20 player in Cuba at the time of his defection. I guarantee he didn’t make that choice to play in Harrisburg, Fresno, and Syracuse. Competing against literal children while in his thirties isn’t necessarily the easiest environment in which to thrive.
And yet, while his parent club was winning the World Series in 2019, Hernández did thrive, slashing .323/.406/.604 across 508 plate appearances in Triple-A in 2019. He’s being rewarded with a relatively secure roster spot in DC, even if it does come with a limited ceiling so long as Soto and Kyle Schwarber in the corners.
So yes, give him credit, because he deserves it, and give him that big league check. Or maybe, just for fun, give him that starting spot. He’s always had a patient approach at the plate and with regular reps, he should be able to almost double the 5.7 percent walk rate he’s posted thus far. He’s more of a line drive hitter than a home run guy, but his power has increased the last couple of seasons. And though his playing time at DH suggests otherwise, he actually has a reputation as being a good defender. In his younger days, he could even handle center. He might not be that guy now, but we don’t really know who he is.
If Lusk is right, gosh willing, we’ll get to find out sooner than 2024.
Photos by All-Pro Reels Photography (https://www.flickr.com/people/joeglo/) | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)