Over the winter, two big questions hovered around Cesar Hernandez:
1. Would he be a Phillie on opening day?
2. Would he survive without Freddy Galvis?
On the threshold of Memorial Day, traditionally the first checkpoint of the baseball marathon, the answers are yes and yes.
And, oh yeah, the surprising Phillies have the third-best record in the National League at 28-19.
“I think we are where we are because of the consistent play of Cesar Hernandez in many ways,” first-year manager Gabe Kapler said. “He’s been that much of a steady rock.”
The Phillies’ ears have been open for trade offers on Hernandez the last two winters. Industry sources say the price has been high because the front office values Hernandez’s strong on-base skills. No team has met that price, and given the Phillies’ strong start — and Hernandez’s role in it — it’s difficult to imagine the team subtracting such an integral contributor this season. With Scott Kingery signed long term, the club would probably listen again on Hernandez next offseason, but for now he seems to be a glue player. And with him not slated to become a free agent until after the 2020 season, well, maybe Hernandez will be around for quite some time. Who knows? He certainly has the skills that this see-pitches, grind-out-at-bats, get-on-base front office wants to build around.
“I think industry-wide, Cesar’s contributions are underappreciated,” Kapler said. “I think he is the epitome of a winning player. He makes a baseball team better. The play at second base, the base running, the energy, the durability ...
“He makes our offense go. He goes up to lead off a game and we’re better because of the way he managed that at-bat. It happens every night. He never gives an at-bat away. He sees pitches. He goes 0-2 and we always feel like it’s going to somehow end up 3-2.”
On Wednesday, Hernandez knocked in a run and extended his on-base streak to 27 straight games in a 4-0 win that allowed the Phillies to take two of three from NL East rival Atlanta. The first-place Braves lead the Phils by a half game in the standings.
Hernandez also turned 28 on Wednesday, so it’s a good time to take stock in how far he has come since succeeding Chase Utley at second base during the 2015 season.
Since the start of 2016, Hernandez ranks fourth among major-league second basemen in on-base percentage (.374), second in walks (159), and sixth in batting average (.291), hits (360) and pitches per plate appearance (4.02). This season, he leads all big-league second basemen in on-base percentage (.385), walks (31) and pitches per plate appearance (4.43).
It seems as if Hernandez has been around forever — and for good reason. He signed as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in the summer of 2006, the same day the Phillies signed another Venezuelan infielder, Galvis. Though the two grew up several hours apart in their home country, they knew each other well as kids. They were frequent opponents in tournaments and would stay with each other’s family on trips to their respective hometowns. They were teammates for a couple of seasons in the minors and double-play partners in the majors the last three seasons.
While Hernandez was quiet and would only speak English, his second language, around those he trusted, Galvis was gregarious and comfortable speaking publicly in his second language. He emerged as a team leader his last couple of seasons with the Phillies and played stellar defense. Those qualities didn’t earn him a spot in the team’s future as he lacked the on-base skills the front office values. He was traded to San Diego in December.
Some wondered how Galvis’ departure would affect Hernandez. After all, Galvis always seemed to be the Batman and Hernandez the Robin in this relationship.
With the help of team translator Diego Ettedgui, Hernandez recently talked about that perception.
“Something that people need to understand, even though we were so close and played for the same team, at the end of the day we are different people,” Hernandez said. “We have different goals, different problems in life, different points of view.
“Deep down, I knew at some point I was going to have to do things on my own and I was mentally ready for that. Because sooner or later either he was going to stay and I was going to go, or he was going to go and I was going to stay. And who knows where I’m going to be next year. It’s baseball.
“You learn along the way in this game. I didn’t learn only from Freddy. I learned from Jimmy (Rollins). I Iearned from Chase. I picked their brains and watched them interact with others.”
Hernandez said he was not threatened when Kingery, whose best position is second base, received a six-year, $24 million contract extension in spring training, and his confident play supports that claim. But seeing players he once looked up to like Rollins and Utley, and those he played aside, like Galvis, get traded has given Hernandez perspective and opened his eyes to the business realities of baseball.
“I was very happy for Kingery,” Hernandez said. “I thought it was awesome that he got that contract. That’s what every player dreams about.
“As for what it means for my future, I haven’t given that a lot of thought. I know that I play for the Phillies and I also play for 29 other teams. They’re always watching, they’re always on the lookout, they always want players.
“Of course, something I would love is to be a Phillie forever. I’ve been part of this organization all my life. I feel comfortable here. So if I was to ever sign a contract here, I would love that. To be able to have a career like Jimmy or (Ryan) Howard, that would be fantastic.
“But if that’s not the case, I understand.”
Hernandez’s willingness to speak thoughtfully about his future showed a growing maturity. And so does this: He’s able to compartmentalize the now and the future. He’s willing to talk about the future occasionally. But his focus is on the now. Remember, he was in the organization when the guys he refers to — Rollins, Utley, Howard — were winning titles. He would like nothing more than to be the leadoff man on the team that breaks the Phillies’ six-year postseason drought.
“I think the rebuild is basically over,” Hernandez said. “We have some hungry players. I think it’s key for us to stay united with a positive atmosphere. If we keep playing the way we are, we can go far.”