Freddy Galvis

Still a Phillie, Cesar Hernandez earns skipper's respect as 'epitome of a winning player'

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Still a Phillie, Cesar Hernandez earns skipper's respect as 'epitome of a winning player'

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.”

Phillies' biggest surprises and disappointments through 6 weeks

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Phillies' biggest surprises and disappointments through 6 weeks

The 23-16 Phillies have exceeded expectations through six weeks, playing at a mid-90s-win pace. While few would project them to approach that total, it's interesting that they've arrived at this record despite slow starts from numerous players.

Let's take inventory of the biggest surprises and disappointments as we near the quarter-pole.

Biggest offensive surprise
Odubel Herrera is the obvious answer. We knew of his skill set and potential if everything clicked, but who would have guessed he'd be leading the National League in hitting through 40-ish games?

The widespread perception is that Herrera is a streaky player. But in reality, his bat has been hot for nearly a calendar year. Dating back to last June 3, Herrera has hit .338, second in the majors to only Jose Altuve. His .395 OBP and .550 slugging percentage are also top-10 in the NL over that span.

Herrera's slugging percentage has increased in each of his four big-league seasons. When he homers, they tend to be missiles or towering no-doubters. Sure looks capable of reaching 20-plus home runs after previously topping out at 15.

Biggest offensive disappointment
While some might still want to give this to Carlos Santana, you just can't right now. Santana has been one of baseball's hottest hitters the last week, driving in 16 runs in his last nine games. 

Despite his slow start, he has nearly as many walks (23) as strikeouts (24), and Santana’s 19 extra-base hits rank second among all major-league first basemen behind only Freddie Freeman.

So let's go with a combo here of Andrew Knapp and J.P. Crawford.

Knapp is hitting .185 with one extra-base hit and 23 strikeouts in 62 plate appearances. Because of this and Jorge Alfaro’s recent play on both sides, Alfaro has emerged as the No. 1 catcher. If both stay healthy all season, expect Alfaro to start between 95 and 110 games.

As for the injured Crawford, he's hit .188/.246/.328 with just four walks and 19 K's in 71 plate appearances. He's swung and missed a good amount and has not shown the trademark plate selection he did in the minors. It's far too early to say this is who Crawford will be, but the Phillies certainly hoped for a faster start in his first full season.

Biggest defensive surprise
Santana had a track record of top-notch first-base defense but he's been even better than advertised. Aside from his steadiness around the bag and on scoops, the Phillies have picked four runners off of first base in their last 11 games, with Santana providing the quick swipe tag each time.

There's hidden value in that and in first-base defense on the whole. You don't notice scoops unless they're missed. You don't notice the 3-6 assists unless they go into left field. 

Biggest defensive disappointment
Not to pile on Crawford, but he committed a major-league high five throwing errors from shortstop in his 20 starts this season.

Unfortunately for Crawford, his defense will always be measured up against the gloves of his predecessors, Freddy Galvis and Jimmy Rollins. Galvis and Rollins are two of the best defensive shortstops of the last two decades.

Still, the Phillies will need more consistency moving forward from Crawford, especially with ground-ballers like Jake Arrieta, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin in the rotation.

Biggest pitching surprise
It's hard to pick just one with Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez each pitching well in five of their eight starts and young relievers Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano taking steps forward.

But you have to go with Nola. Aside from Max Scherzer, is there any right-handed starting pitcher in the National League you'd put clearly ahead of Nola? After Scherzer, you have a similarly-skilled group of Nola, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Martinez and Johnny Cueto.

Nola is among the major-league leaders in every important pitching category: ERA, WHIP, opponents' batting average and OPS, soft-contact rate, groundball rate, first-pitch strikes, swinging strikes.

Last season, we saw a No. 2 starter become an ace. This season, we're watching an ace become a Cy Young candidate.

Biggest pitching disappointment
Hector Neris is the answer here based on the three blown saves, nine walks and three homers allowed through 15⅔ innings. 

Neris just isn't right at the moment. He's never trusted his fastball as much as he should, and right now his splitter isn't nearly as effective as it was the last couple seasons.

The Phillies have several relievers with closer's stuff, so it makes sense at this point to go with the hot hand rather than define Neris' role as the saver. We saw the beginnings of it Sunday with Ramos. 

Starting pitcher from Freddy Galvis trade turning heads for Phillies

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Starting pitcher from Freddy Galvis trade turning heads for Phillies

WASHINGTON — Shortstop is one of several positions the Phillies haven't gotten much from through 30 games. Their shortstops have hit .238 with a .304 on-base percentage, numbers worse than what Freddy Galvis gave them last season. 

They've also committed five errors, all by J.P. Crawford on throws. Crawford, now on the DL with a right forearm strain, is the only SS in the majors with that many throwing errors.

Out in San Diego, Galvis has played well, posting the highest OBP of his career (.323) and making just one error in 121 defensive chances. The Padres have already grown accustomed to his defensive wizardry. 

"When you have someone like that that brings consistent defense at a very high level," Padres left-hander Clayton Richard said in April, via the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It alters the course of a game." 

Trading Galvis was a difficult decision the Phillies' front office deemed necessary with his free agency approaching and Crawford and Scott Kingery ready for regular roles in the majors. It was the kind of logical baseball move teams make all the time.

And while some fans (and members of this pitching staff) may miss Galvis' defense, the trade could still work out if Enyel De Los Santos continues to pitch like he has.

De Los Santos is the 22-year-old Dominican pitching prospect the Phillies got from San Diego for Galvis. On Friday, De Los Santos was named their Minor League Pitcher of the Month for April. He responded with six scoreless innings in an IronPigs win.

In five starts with Triple A Lehigh Valley, De Los Santos is 3-0 with a 1.07 ERA. He has 33 strikeouts and 11 six walks in 25⅓ innings without allowing a home run.

This after a successful 2017 season in the hitter-friendly Double A Texas League in which De Los Santos posted a 3.78 ERA and was taken deep just 12 times in 150 innings.

De Los Santos, like almost all pitching prospects, has a mid-90s fastball but it has been his commitment to his curveball that has enabled him to take a step forward early in 2018.

Could he be up with the Phillies later this season? It's a possibility if he keeps pitching well and the No. 5 spot remains in flux. He would have to first be added to the 40-man roster, but the Phils have a few pitchers on the 40 they probably wouldn't regret designating for assignment if it gets to that point.

In any event, just remember next time you're watching a Phillies game and thinking "Galvis would have made that play," that there is still a whole lot of value to be derived from that deal, whether or not Crawford hits in 2018.