Cesar Hernandez

Cesar Hernandez looks fast and healthy in return to Phillies' lineup

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USA Today Images

Cesar Hernandez looks fast and healthy in return to Phillies' lineup

BRADENTON, Fla. — Playing for the first time in 17 days, Cesar Hernandez had a couple of good swings in his return to the Phillies' lineup Thursday.

Hernandez, who had been dealing with a strained hip flexor, led off for the Phils and played second base. With Jean Segura at shortstop and Maikel Franco at third base, the Phillies had three-quarters of their projected opening day infield together. (Rhys Hoskins was in Port Charlotte as the Phils' other split-squad DH.)

Hernandez stroked a line drive single to right field to lead off the game and reached on a hard-hit error to first base in the third inning. It was a sharp liner that short-hopped Pirates first baseman Josh Bell and bounced off his glove. Hernandez looked healthy and fast in busting it down the first-base line to beat the return throw.

Hernandez said Thursday was about making sure his fingers and legs felt good and they did. He admitted he's a little rusty at the plate, but he does have two more weeks until opening day to get his timing back.

It will be interesting to see whether Hernandez leads off for the Phillies on Mar. 28. Early in camp, manager Gabe Kapler indicated that he liked Hernandez in that spot and was expecting a return to his pre-2018 form. In 2016 and '17, Hernandez hit .294 with a .372 on-base percentage, an elite mark.

As Hernandez missed 2½ weeks with the injury, Andrew McCutchen drew the majority of leadoff plate appearances for the Phillies. McCutchen brings more power to the leadoff spot and similar on-base skills. Hernandez is the faster runner. The stolen base hasn't been as much a part of Hernandez's game as it should be, but McCutchen has been an even less successful base-stealer in recent years, going just 42 for 68.

The advantage of leading Hernandez off is that it would further lengthen the Phillies' lineup. If you bat him first, you can bat McCutchen sixth and have a more consistent bat in that run-producing spot. Whereas if you bat McCutchen first, Hernandez might fit best in the 8-hole with Maikel Franco sixth.

Hernandez wants to lead off but doesn't mind if he's at the bottom of the order.

Kapler said Wednesday that this year, he'll be going with his gut more in setting the lineup. He has more wiggle room with a lineup this talented. There isn't as pressing a need to gain every marginal advantage with perfect lineup optimization because this batting order should score runs even if not constructed flawlessly.

If Hernandez does lead off and maintains the on-base percentage he has throughout his career, he has a chance to blow past his career-high of 91 runs scored.

"I want to score 100-plus runs," he said. "Having guys like Segura, Bryce, Realmuto, it will be nice."

The next Phillie to return will be Odubel Herrera (hamstring), who is slated to DH on Saturday in Clearwater.

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Cesar Hernandez, Odubel Herrera returning in next 3 days; who backs up Rhys Hoskins at 1B?

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Cesar Hernandez, Odubel Herrera returning in next 3 days; who backs up Rhys Hoskins at 1B?

TAMPA, Fla. — The Phillies will get two of their projected starters back in the lineup this week when Cesar Hernandez returns from a strained hip flexor and Odubel Herrera (hamstring) makes his Grapefruit League debut.

Hernandez will lead off and play second base for the Phillies' split squad in Bradenton Thursday against the Pirates. 

Herrera will be the Phillies' designated hitter Saturday in Clearwater against the Astros.

Both had five plate appearances in a minor-league game Wednesday. Hernandez played second base for five innings.

Roman Quinn ran around in center field. He's progressing but isn't as close to a return. It still seems likely that Quinn will open the season on the injured list and work his way back timing-wise. 

Maikel Franco returned to the Phillies' lineup Wednesday night against the Yankees after missing a few days with a bug that made its way through the Phillies' clubhouse.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler still has not officially named Herrera his starting centerfielder or Franco his starting third baseman. 

Franco is competing with Scott Kingery and Herrera is competing with Aaron Altherr. Kapler said earlier in the week that he doesn't see Nick Williams as a centerfielder.

"We're taking a wait-and-see approach with both of those guys," Kapler said Wednesday of the third base battle. "It's a little early. Definitely taking it slowly, want to see more, want to see both of them compete and bring their highest energy levels every day.

"I still see it as a fight for reps in center field right now. Odubel needs to ensure that he's healthy and that he's physically capable of taking (a big workload) in center field. We're interested in his at-bats, his defense, his baserunning, his ability to show us that he's healthy, that he's a complete player. That will provide a lot of reassurance for us. That's what we're looking for from him."

Backup first baseman

A common question this spring has been who backs up Rhys Hoskins at first base?

"Rhys Hoskins is gonna play first base just about every day this season," Kapler said. "From there, I think we have a couple of guys who can play first base: Kingery, Sean Rodriguez, Franco can go over there and play first base if necessary. We have some options."

Rodriguez is battling to make the team.

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Phillies updates on Bryce Harper, Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Hunter, Roman Quinn

Phillies updates on Bryce Harper, Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Hunter, Roman Quinn

SARASOTA, Fla. — The Phillies anticipate that Bryce Harper will play three times in the next five days. The plan is for Harper to play right field on Monday afternoon in Clearwater against the Rays, Wednesday night in Tampa against the Yankees and Friday in Clearwater against the Blue Jays.

Harper's first-inning plate appearance Monday will likely come against Blake Snell, one of the game's toughest lefties and the reigning American League Cy Young winner.

As for the injured Phillies ...

• Cesar Hernandez (strained hip flexor) and Odubel Herrera (hamstring) took groundballs on Sunday morning and manager Gabe Kapler was encouraged by the progress he saw. Hernandez ran 10- to 15-yard sprints. 

Both could play in games within the next 5-10 days, Kapler said.

• There is also optimism about Roman Quinn, who has been out since Feb. 27 with a strained oblique, though it is less likely we'll see Quinn soon. The injury may keep him off the opening day roster if he's unable to compile enough plate appearances to be ready for March 28.

• Tommy Hunter, out with a strained flexor muscle in his throwing arm, played catch. He will be on a throwing program and the Phils will take it slowly. He, too, is unlikely for opening day.

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