The Nationals went 5-4 during their most recent West Coast road trip, and Yadiel Hernandez was one of the biggest reasons for the sudden success.
It seems like I’ve written the same story every year. Hernandez enters the season fighting to even make the roster. Then, he becomes one of the best hitters on the team.
An Unlikely Superstar?
So, what makes this year different? To start with, there’s no Adam Eaton or Josh Harrison holding one of the everyday corner outfield spots. There’s also more willingness to play less experienced players, with the Nationals in the midst of a rebuild.
Most of all, however, Hernandez has reached new heights at the plate. In past seasons, his production has regressed each time his reps become more sporadic. This time, he’s consistently in the starting lineup against right-handed pitchers, and it looks like it’ll stay that way. As a result, he’s among the league leaders in hitting. He entered Sunday batting .371 overall, including an absurd .486 average against fastballs.
Maybe he’s only playing because Lane Thomas hasn’t produced at nearly the same rate as last season. Perhaps Dee Strange-Gordon was going to play more left field before being placed on the Injured List, where he spent most of the last month.
Either way, Hernandez won’t be relegated back to the bench anytime soon. Still, what does it ultimately mean? What’s his future?
Should He Stay or Should He Go?
Despite his relative inexperience, Hernandez is 34 years old. He’s under club control through 2026. That’s four more years after this season. It’s the ultimate contradiction in this sport. He’s well past what should be his athletic prime, yet he’ll be remarkably affordable for the foreseeable future.
Do you keep him, since he’s productive and inexpensive? Or, do you move on from him, knowing he’ll be 39 once he’s due for a second contract? He’s valuable, but is he more valuable to a rebuilding team or a perennial playoff contender?
The Nationals need a few good bats, whether they’re young or old. But still, all good teams value lineup depth. If they see Hernandez as someone who could provide that, they might give up considerable minor league talent to get him. Isn’t that what the Nationals are looking for?
He Needs to Play Every Day
Either way, Yadiel Hernandez needs to be in the lineup every day — or at least close to it. The production he’s providing is extremely valuable — not to mention entertaining. He’s not a perfect player (especially defensively), and it’s not a perfect situation, but if he can continue to perform anywhere near as well as he is right now, it’ll pay off.
To Dave Martinez’s credit, he’s playing the guy who deserves to play. He hasn’t held firm to that stance at every position – most notably deviating from it at shortstop, although he did turn to Strange-Gordon there in Game 2 against the Angels as at least a change of pace from Alcides Escobar.
For the time being, Hernandez will play a lot in left field. At some point, his role could expand with some time as the designated hitter, depending on how Nelson Cruz progresses – and whether Cruz stays in Washington for long.
In any case, Hernandez is an underdog who’s turned into a clear success story. Stumbling upon a few guys like him is often the catalyst for bad teams to fast-track their rebuild.