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Buying low on César Hernández makes sense

A prime bounce back candidate at a low price

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals - Game Two Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

There are seemingly more notable players on the free agent market than ever before as a result of being non-tendered, which plays perfectly into the hands of teams who have holes but will not spend extravagantly to fill them.

The Cleveland Indians are one such team, and former Philadelphia Phillies second baseman César Hernández is a recently non-tendered player who fills a hole. His projected $11.8 million salary in arbitration is a non-starter for the Indians, as it was for the Phillies, who cast him into free agency.

Hernández made $7.75 million in his penultimate arbitration year in 2019, which turned out to be a massive setback year in which his swing rates jumped, and his seemingly consistent walk rate plummeted.

As for how that affects his 2020 salary will be seen, but Hernández is too talented to go without a major league contract. It would make sense that he would seek no less than a two-year deal that locks in a salary and buys out his final arbitration year, which he would still hold after signing a free agent contract for the upcoming year.

It goes without saying that the Indians have a hole in the infield, one which could be filled at second or third, with José Ramírez filling in at the other. While Hernández may not be the most sensible, cost-effective free agent for Cleveland (looking at you, our friend), he is as good a player as exists on the market within a reasonable budget. Whether or not he fits the Indians’ budget will depend on how much interest he receives.

Hernández is a league-average defender up the middle, at best. His defensive metrics are generally negative, but he has posted above-average seasons at second base, like his 6 DRS season in 2019, or his positive UZR seasons in 2016-17.

As a hitter, the 29-year-old is around league average, floating near a .300 average in his best years, but a wRC+ around the high 110’s, or low 90’s. Entering his 30’s on a season that is quite an outlier, there is a possibility one team sees him as a bounce back candidate and ponies up something in the area between his 2019 salary and that projected $11.8 million.

Salary aside, the Indians are a sensible place for Hernández to go in terms of their approach. Boasting a bottom-10 Swing% and a top-10 BB%, Terry Francona’s staff has been one to emphasize plate discipline, and Hernández saw a 6.7% drop in BB% last year, worst in the majors.

There is not a direct correlation between Hernández’s BB% and his wRC+ or OPS, nor is there one between his swing rates or BABIP, the latter of which has sat at career lows over the past two seasons.

Those two seasons have been quite opposite in his approach, reaching peak patience with a career-high BB% in 2018, and unprecedented aggressiveness from a relative standpoint where he swung at and made contact with pitches outside the zone at a spiked rate. That hacking came in an apparent attempt to hone in on low breaking balls and high fastballs, as opposed to not doing that, the generally approved-on approach.

The 2019 season complicates things plenty. It could either be a complete throwaway of an outlier, or it could be a sign of what is yet to come. One would tend to believe a track record of walks over an aggressive attempt to save his career in Philly, but nothing is written in stone.

Despite the negative fan sentiment towards Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo, who does in fact exist, the team has seen light-hitting middle infielder prospects Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez turn into power threats by funneling pitches into their preferred zones. Not to say that Hernández could become a 30-homer threat just by joining them, but pitch selection was a relative strong suit for the Venezuelan prior to 2019.

If the price falls low enough, and a certain former Indians outfielder gets a worthwhile paycheck, Hernández makes as much sense at second base as any alternative at that position.

2019 Potential Second Base Options

Gavin Lux Dodgers 600 19 125 10 0.328 0.434 0.761 0.322 101 0.5 -1 1.3 1.4 2.2
Howie Kendrick Nationals 600 20 97 6 0.355 0.48 0.835 0.351 118 -1.3 -0.1 12.6 -12 2
Brian Dozier 600 25 129 8 0.326 0.437 0.763 0.323 99 0.6 -1.7 -0.1 0.5 2
Cesar Hernandez 600 11 102 10 0.352 0.394 0.746 0.322 98 0.7 -1.3 -0.6 0.9 2
Asdrubal Cabrera 600 21 120 3 0.33 0.441 0.77 0.326 101 -2.7 -0.6 -2.2 1.7 1.9
Jonathan Villar Marlins 600 16 153 29 0.327 0.407 0.734 0.315 96 2.8 -4.8 -0.1 -2.3 1.7
Whit Merrifield Royals 600 12 100 20 0.337 0.427 0.764 0.323 99 2.3 -2 1.4 -6 1.6
Jason Kipnis 600 18 113 7 0.314 0.412 0.726 0.308 89 0.7 -0.8 -7.6 1.6 1.4
Starlin Castro 600 19 109 4 0.317 0.433 0.75 0.316 94 -1 -2.9 -5.7 -0.6 1.4
Jonathan Schoop 600 28 143 2 0.3 0.465 0.765 0.318 96 -1 -4.6 -4.2 -2.2 1.4
Eric Sogard 600 11 94 8 0.334 0.381 0.716 0.309 89 0.5 -1.1 -7.7 -0.3 1.2
Jose Peraza 600 11 77 17 0.316 0.394 0.71 0.303 86 1.3 -2.3 -10 1.6 1.2
Steamer 600 PA projections for potential Indians 2B acquisitions in 2019. Steamer/FanGraphs

Considering the cost of Lux and third basemen like Anthony Rendon(, you cowards) or Josh Donaldson, Hernández still projects to be as good as anyone within the team’s potential budget. Considering his Steamer projections skew largely towards his recent career-worst numbers, the potential upside in the second baseman would be a large upgrade.