Late last night it was announced that the Washington Nationals came to terms with their first major league free agent Cesar Hernández on a 1 year $4 million contract. Hernández joins an infield with Alcides Escobar, Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia all competing for 3 positions. So what does this signing mean for the Nationals in 2022?
In his nine year career, Hernández has spent time playing SS, 3B, LF and 2b. He’s played 896 games at 2B and less than 70 at the other positions combined. So it is safe to assume that Hernández is going to be this team’s 2b. If you factor in his defensive issues at 2B (-16 career DRS) the Nationals are not going to put a defensive liability at SS. Hernández could play 3b and the Nationals could move Carter Kieboom to 2B (who has had his fair share of defensive issues at 3B) but the Nationals should not move Kieboom AGAIN. He needs to stay at 3B and work through his issues.
So what does this mean for Luis Garcia? Garcia played almost three times as many innings at SS in the minors than he did at 2B (1,010.2 at SS and 389.2 at 2B), so the easy logical decision is to move Garcia to SS. The importance of Hernández signing now is that this gives Garcia the entire offseason and all of Spring Training to practice and work at SS. Now, this is going to come with growing pains defensively. Garcia is no secret to defensive issues in the majors, but the good news is the Nationals are not going to compete so he can continue to work through these. This also allows Escobar to shift into a utility/back-up infielder role and provide the Nationals with some decent depth.
We’ve discussed his defense, so what about Hernández offensively? He’s is coming off of the worst offensive season in his career, slashing .232/.308/368 with a 21.2% k rate, a 90 wRC+ and a -6.7 OFF RTG. Hernández is a career .270/.345/.384 hitter so why the insane drop in production in 2021? Hernández’s career ISO (a stat that measures the raw power of a hitter by taking only extra-base hits and type of extra-base hits into account) is just .114, but in 2021 he had a career year for the stat (by .30 points) of .154 and also a career high in home runs at 21. That’s an extreme outlier for his career production.
It’s safe to assume that the ISO uptick led to one of his highest K% in a season and a career low BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Hernández’s BABIP in 2021 was .266 – his career BABIP is .328. Hernández has played over 100 games in six of his nine seasons and this was the first season in which he did not have over 100 singles. In fact, his 88 singles in 2021 was his least amount in a season in which he played over 100 games by 21 (2017 was his previous low where he only played 127 games).
Advanced metrics are not perfect but they help answer questions about outliers. Most of his advanced metrics suggest that positive progression should be coming in 2022. Hernández is a fine leadoff hitter when not trying to hit for power. His appeal has always been that he just gets on base. If Hernández can get back to what he has done in his career, this is a solid signing for the Nationals and a player they can swap at the deadline for a decent prospect.