If one were to go to fangraphs and look at the list of every player who played even an inning of center field this year and then search that list for guys who were originally cast as infielders, one would find the following names:
Dustin Ackley (kinda, he played CF at UNC until an injury moved him to 1B and started his pro career at 2B)
That’s it. Of those players, only Hamilton has the pure physical tools explosive enough to leave you doubtless about his ability to play center field (provided he can make proper reads off the bat). Ackley, Amarista and Hernandez each have an argument and the rest are just emergency options. This list isn’t exactly bursting with Major League impact. There’s not an overwhelming successful contemporary case that’s sets a precedent for what the Phillies were exploring with Hernandez.
But it’s good they were exploring. Hernandez (who I wrote extensively about here) is a fine defensive secondbaseman with tremendous bat to ball skills who lacks the power to profile as a first-division regular at the position. A wrist injury suffered mid-season slowed his bat a tad and yet Hernandez still managed to hit .289/.344/.331 in 131 big league plate appearances. There’s big leaguer talent there. You can’t blame the Phillies for trying to find away to get it on the field with Chase Utley locked into his position for another few years. To this point, it has not gone well. Hernandez has looked predictably tentative in center quite often and relied on his easy plus speed to make up for some circuitous routes he takes to ball hit toward the gaps. The physical gift of GoGetIt is there but a feel for the position (one which career CFs have been grooming since probably high school) is not, at least right now. But he’s only played 44 games at the position and that feel might come. I asked Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus about just how long a look to give players transitioning to CF:
“I would give it time if they have the physical skills to begin with. I don’t think CF is as tough as some people do. It takes instincts and speed, but you can argue that the reading the angles from a corner spot is more complicated.”
Hernandez is probably playing winter ball in Venezuela (he played for Los Bravos de Margarita last year, but they don’t have their roster for this year up just yet. Opening Day is today) but whether he continues to play the outfield there remains to be seen. Those teams like to win, not develop kids for big league clubs. I think it’s reasonable to give this experiment a little more time.
At worst, Hernandez doesn’t grasp CF to a point of viability and he essentially becomes a backup second baseman, something that doesn’t exist in baseball today because of the large pitching staffs carried on most 25-man rosters. I’m sure both OF corners are reasonable options to explore to make him versatile enough to be worth carrying on a Major league bench. I maintain that this young man is a second-division regular at second base and I love to see him get a shot with another organization if the situation arises where Philly can get something in return.
My grade: B