With Andrew McCutchen getting the day off Wednesday, Cesar Hernandez found his way back to a familiar spot in the lineup – lead off. The 28-year-old made the best of what will likely be a one-day return to his old stomping grounds, going 3-5 with a home run and three RBIs in a 5-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. But while the longest-tenured Phillie is likely to return to the bottom-half of the lineup Friday in Kansas City, his recent offensive production is making it difficult to imagine him becoming a full-time bench player when Scott Kingery returns from the injured list.
After a strong offensive performance Wednesday, Hernandez has a .305 batting average with three home runs, 14 RBIs and 12 walks in 2019. Hernandez’s batting average dipped to .253 in 2018, though he’s believed to have played much – if not all – of the second-half of 2018 with a broken foot. In 2016 and 2017, Hernandez led the Phillies in batting average, hitting .294 in both seasons.
If not for Scott Kingery’s presence in the organization, there probably wouldn’t be much debate about Hernandez’s place at second – both in the short and long-term. But for each of the last two seasons, Kingery, whose natural position is also second base, has lingered over Hernandez’s shoulder. He was dominant between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2017, slashing .304/.359/.530 with 26 home runs, 65 RBIs and an .889 OPS. The Phillies didn’t promote Kingery to the major league level in 2017, but after a strong Spring Training in 2018, they rewarded him with a six-year/$24 million deal – which also features three club options – that allowed them to have him on the Opening Day roster with the intention of using him in a super-utility role.
Kingery, of course, never got much of a chance to settle into the super-utility role in 2018. J.P. Crawford was the Opening Day shortstop, but had two stints on the injured list and was ineffective when he played. There was a misconception that Kingery struggled offensively in his rookie year – he hit just .226 with a -19.3 offensive WAR in 452 at-bats – because he was moved around the diamond so much. The problem with that theory is that 374 of his 452 at-bats in 2018 came as a shortstop. It’s true, Kingery had to get acclimated to playing shortstop, something that didn’t happen right away. But by the end of the 2018 season, he was fielding at a replacement level at shortstop, if not better. It was his bat that failed to come around.
Both Kingery and manager Gabe Kapler admitted at the conclusion of his rookie season that they tried a one-size-fits-all offensive approach with him, and well, the size didn’t fit him. Seeing pitches works very well for Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper. Ditto for Hernandez. Kingery thrives most when he is aggressive early in the count, an approach that he displayed early in the 2019 season.
With Jean Segura entrenched at shortstop, Hernandez still at second base and Maikel Franco’s hot start to the 2019 season, Kingery did open the season as more of a traditional bench piece. But he had 13 hits in his first 32 at-bats in 2019, including two home runs and six RBIs.
And then, just as it appeared he may be forcing his way into getting the bulk of the at-bats at second base, Kingery got hurt. Kingery strained his right hamstring on Apr. 19 in Colorado. With Odubel Herrera also on the injured list at that time, the Phillies plan had been for Kingery to get some looks in center field once they returned home from Coors Field, which is one of the tougher outfields to play defensively. Instead, he was placed on the injured list, where he’s been since.
While Kingery has been on the injured list, Hernandez, who FanGraphs graded as the fourth best fielding second baseman between 2016 and 2018, went through an inexplicable stretch in the field. After averaging just under 12 errors per season between 2016 and 2018, Hernandez made four errors in April. That doesn’t account for any defensive lapses in April that weren’t scored as errors, either. But while an occasional mental lapse on the basepaths may be something you have to live with as long as Hernandez is on the team, he’s never been a bad defender. His defensive metrics slipped in 2018, but again, he played through a broken foot for a portion of the season. While grading out as the fourth best fielding second baseman over the aforementioned span may be indicative of a shortage of strong fielders at second base and/or defensive metrics that are still a work in progress, he’s traditionally been an average or slightly above-average fielder.
If Kingery had been healthy during Hernandez’s run of defensive miscues, he may have been given the chance to grab the starting job at second base and never look back. But he wasn’t healthy. Earlier this week, Kapler told the collective media, including Scott Lauber of The Philadelphia Inquirer, that Kingery could begin to run the bases during the Phillies upcoming series against the Royals. When you factor in the possibility of him making a rehab stint, you don’t get the sense that Kingery will be rejoining the Phillies in the next week.
When he does return, it will be interesting to keep an eye on his role. Hernandez has the second highest batting average on the team, and there’s reason to think his run of errors may prove to be a blip on the radar. Hernandez is almost certainly going to lose some at-bats to Kingery at second base. But the internal opinion on Hernandez remains high, so the Phillies, who are getting limited production from their utility outfielders, may find the 2019 installment of their team is best with Kingery in the super-utility role. That doesn’t mean Kingery won’t ultimately be the Phillies starting second baseman in the future, but he’s able to play shortstop, third base and at least the two corner outfield positions. If the Phillies determine that Kingery can hold his own in center field, it may prove that he takes as many or more at-bats from the duo of Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco when he returns, as opposed to Hernandez. On the days where he doesn’t start, he could be used as a pinch hitter, pinch runner or defensive replacement at multiple different positions.
Another scenario is that Hernandez could be dangled in a trade this summer, which would open up second base for Kingery and theoretically net the Phillies a player of value at another position. The problem with that line of thinking is that for at least two offseasons, general manager Matt Klentak has been willing to listen to trade offers for Hernandez, who is under team control through 2020. He hasn’t been traded for two reasons; while opposing teams value Hernandez, the Phillies seem to value him more and there is an oversaturation of competent second baseman in the sport currently, as evidenced by the Phillies. Perhaps Hernandez could be used as a secondary piece in a mega-deal to acquire a star pitcher, but don’t hold your breath on that happening.
The reality is, Kingery, in an extremely small sample size, is hitting over .400 in 2019. If he hits at any clip in the same zip code as that when he returns, he’s going to force his way into the lineup every game, with at least some of those at-bats coming at second base. But Hernandez has held off Kingery from taking over full-time at second base for some time now. And if Wednesday afternoon was any indication, Hernandez isn’t going to give up his starting job without a fight.
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