The free agent market might as well be shark-infested waters for the Cleveland Indians’ front office. Very rarely do general manager Mike Chernoff and club president Chris Antonetti venture far from shore in their fishing boat, unless of course a journeyman outfielder is calling for help.
Last offseason was business as usual, with one exception. The departure of Jason Kipnis and the end of his nine-year tenure as the Tribe’s second baseman forced their hand, and César Hernández was signed to a one-year contract worth $6.25 million.
And I can confidently say that was $6.25 million well spent.
In his final season in Cleveland, Kipnis slashed .245/.304/.410 and was worth 82 wRC+. And his price tag for that production was $14.5 million. In his first (and probably last, if we’re being honest) season with the Indians, Hernández slashed .283/.355/.408 and was worth 108 wRC+.
The Indians were able to cut salary, drop the 33-year-old Kipnis and pick up the 30-year-old Hernández, and improve offensive production at second base. It was a free agent signing that made complete sense for Cleveland in December, and it clearly worked out in their favor.
But I think what surprised everyone was just how invaluable he was to the lineup, which is both a testament to Hernández and an indictment of the Indians’ offense as a whole.
Compared to the rest of the American League, Hernández ranked 7th in OBP, 14th in SLG, 10th in wRC+, and 3rd in WAR (1.9) among all qualified second basemen. Compared to the rest of the Indians’ lineup, Hernández ranked 2nd in runs (35), 1st in hits (66), first in doubles (20), second in AVG, 3rd in OBP, fourth in SLG, and 2nd in WAR. He was everything the Tribe could have asked for, settling into the No. 2 spot in the lineup by putting up good at-bats (4.12 pitches per plate appearance) and getting on base to set the table for José Ramírez.
I shudder to utter the word “clutch,” but Hernández was also productive at the plate with men on base (.356 AVG) and runners in scoring position (.386 AVG). He was actually less productive with the bases empty (.240 AVG). According to FanGraphs, the higher the leverage, the better Hernández performed, boasting a .381 batting average in high leverage plate appearances.
Defensively, Hernández had perhaps his best season since 2017. FanGraphs’ total runs above or below average based on Hernández’s defensive contributions (fielding and position) was 4.7 for 2020, after posting -0.9 and 1.6 in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
No matter how you slice it, Hernández was a smart pick-up for the Tribe. The crime is that he wasn’t surrounded by a better lineup. I would be surprised if he ends up back in Cleveland, but the free agent market will certainly be, uh, interesting as teams across baseball cry poor this offseason in the wake of an abbreviated season with no fans and less revenue. Under normal circumstances, Hernandez’s show-me season after being non-tendered by the Phillies would put the 30-year-old in line for a decent free agent contract.