Bulked-up Cesar Hernandez looks to build on last season’s breakout

Bulked-up Cesar Hernandez looks to build on last season’s breakout

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Cesar Hernandez added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame over the winter, taking him to 180 pounds.

So does that mean he’ll be swinging for the fences this season?

“No,” the 26-year-old second baseman said in front of his locker on Friday. “Line drives and ground balls.”

Hernandez learned his lesson last season. The 5-foot-10 switch-hitter was hitting .248 with a .293 on-base percentage when he was benched on June 20.

Manager Pete Mackanin pulled him aside that day in Minneapolis and delivered a message.

“I told him this wasn’t a rest, that he was going to have to change his swing, eliminate the uppercut, or I was going to start playing Whitey (Andres Blanco) more,” Mackanin said.

Bench coach/infield guru Larry Bowa delivered a similar message, telling Hernandez, “You’ll be sitting next to me on the bench for the rest of the season if you don’t make changes.”

Hernandez responded quickly.

“I watched him in batting practice that day and he was hitting down on everything — line drives,” Bowa said.

As it turned out, Hernandez’s benching lasted only a couple of days. Tommy Joseph felt ill before the final game of the series in Minnesota and Mackanin needed Blanco to play first base. Mackanin had no choice but to play Hernandez and the response was immediate. Hernandez went 4 for 4 with a triple, a walk and three runs scored that day.

After the June 21 benching, Hernandez’s batting average for the remainder of the season was .327, 13th-best in the majors over that span. His on-base percentage was .421, fifth-best in the majors over that span.

Hernandez admitted that the benching lit a fire under him.

“I understood the message,” he said. “I knew I needed to improve. I needed to do things better. It’s what I focused on.”

Hernandez’s play after the benching earned him a nice pay raise — from $525,000 to $2.55 million as a first-time arbitration-eligible player — and solidified his standing as the club’s leadoff man.

But Hernandez is hardly a proven player.

There remains curiosity about whether his strong second half in 2016 was a one-time hot streak or the start of something big, consistent and long running. Hernandez needs to continue to prove that it was the latter because middle infield is fast becoming an area of depth in the Phillies organization. 

The club will have a prospect playing second base in Triple A (Jesmuel Valentin) and Double A (Scott Kingery) this season. And lest we forget, second base still could be a landing spot for Freddy Galvis if shortstop J.P. Crawford ascends to Philadelphia. Also, left fielder Howie Kendrick is a natural second baseman so he could be in the picture if the Phillies decided to capitalize on Hernandez’s trade value. Nothing seems imminent, but numerous baseball sources say the Phillies did put Hernandez in play this offseason -- at a very steep price.

Basically, it’s up to Hernandez to lock himself in as a fixture at the position and that can only be done by playing the way he did in the second half of 2016.

“I know I can be better,” he said. “If I’m consistent and I try to do things the right way, I can be very successful. That’s the plan.”

Hernandez ended last season at 165 pounds. He spent time in the weight room this winter, as evidenced by his new bulk. He hopes the added strength will allow him to send line drives into the gaps this season – he led the majors with 11 triples last season – and said the bulkier frame would not affect his speed. In fact, his big goal for the season is getting on base and stealing 30 bags. He had 17 steals last season but was caught 13 times. He wants to improve that percentage.

Mackanin is all for that.

“It will help just to get in scoring position more often,” he said. “Cesar is one of the fastest players in baseball. He just needs work on his jumps, reading pitchers’ moves. I think he’s capable of it. It will enhance his overall value as a player.”

Tonight's lineup: Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp back in after day off

Tonight's lineup: Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp back in after day off

The Phillies, winners of six straight, are using a more traditional lineup for tonight's series open in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.

Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, and Cameron Rupp are all back in the lineup after getting Thursday afternoon off against the Marlins. Hernandez is back in his usual leadoff spot, while Joseph is hitting seventh and Rupp eighth. Freddy Galvis is back in the two-hole.

Maikel Franco will look to continue his hot streak tonight against Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda. Franco is 9 for 23 with a double, two homers, 10 RBIs, three walks and just one strikeout during the Phillies' current winning streak.

Franco is 2 for 5 with a strikeout and two singles in his career against Maeda.

Here is the Phillies' full lineup.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Aaron Altherr, LF
7. Tommy Joseph, 1B
8. Cameron Rupp, C
9. Jerad Eickhoff, P

And the Dodgers' lineup:

1. Andrew Toles, CF
2. Corey Seager, SS
3. Justin Turner, 3B
4. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
5. Yasmani Grandal, C
6. Chase Utley, 2B
7. Cody Bellinger, LF
8. Enrique Hernandez, RF
9. Kenta Maeda, P

For more on tonight's game, check out Corey Seidman's game notes.

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Next 15 games will show us who the Phils are

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Next 15 games will show us who the Phils are

Phillies (11-9) at Dodgers (11-12)
10:10 p.m. on The Comcast Network; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Draft, schmaft. The streaking Phillies are the best story in town.

OK, maybe not until Monday. But there's a buzz around this Phillies team, which has won six games in a row but begins a tough road trip Friday night in L.A.

Let's take a look:

1. Daunting stretch commences
The Phillies played well for the first seven weeks last season and carried a 25-19 record into a difficult road trip through Detroit and Chicago.

They won one game on that trip, beginning a stretch of 19 losses in 24 games. With that, their season was effectively over.

"We've just got to continue that for a little bit longer than we did last year," Pete Mackanin said after Thursday's win.

It won't be easy. The Phillies have three at Dodger Stadium, then four at Wrigley Field against the defending champion-Cubs, then they play six of their next eight against the Nationals, who've been the best team in baseball this month. (They also have a two-game series with the Mariners in there.)

Even if the Phils go something like 6-9 during this upcoming stretch, they'd emerge out of it 17-18, which would be a more-than-respectable start given the difficulty of their early-season schedule.

The good news is that after facing the Nationals six more times the next two weeks, the Phillies don't play them again until September.

2. Be like Maik
Maikel Franco's hot bat has carried the Phillies over the last week. 

During the six-game winning streak, he's gone 9 for 23 (.391) with a double, two homers, 10 RBIs, three walks and just one strikeout. The grand slam was great but the best sign has been the way he's used the whole field and not gotten himself out.

Franco is hitting mistake-pitches right now. It's something we haven't seen him do consistently the last two seasons because of his over-aggressiveness.

This hot streak won't last forever — in fact, it might not even make the trip out West. But Franco has indeed shown that when he's seeing the ball well, he can carry an offense. We used to say that often about the Phillies' previous cleanup hitter, didn't we?

3. Also, be like Eick
The Phillies have played so well the last week that even the national folks at MLB Network took notice Thursday night.

Greg Amsinger, Dan Plesac and Eric Byrnes did two whole segments on the Phillies, and at the end of one of them Plesac said that, "When this team is ready to contend again, Jerad Eickhoff will be front and center."

Eickhoff is finally getting some recognition.

Every athlete in every sport will tell you consistency is what they seek the most. It's as cliche as it gets, and it's usually meaningless because nothing in sports is totally consistent. You're hot for a few weeks, teams adjust, a cold spell begins, etc.

Well, Eickhoff is totally consistent. He's pitched six or more innings in 26 of 37 starts the last two seasons and he's allowed three earned runs or less in 31 of them.

Every fifth day, the Phillies know what they're going to get: at least six quality innings that keep them in the game and provide them a chance for a late win.

The Phils never seem to hit for Eickhoff, who is 0-1 this season despite stellar numbers: a 2.55 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, more than a strikeout per inning and a .200 opponents' batting average.

Eickhoff has been considerably better at home than on the road during his brief career, posting a 2.95 ERA at Citizens Bank Park and a 3.80 ERA everywhere else.

He's never pitched at Dodger Stadium, a ballpark that definitely favors pitchers.

Eickhoff's lone meeting with the Dodgers came last August. It was one of the few games he allowed more than four runs, but the Phillies actually provided some offense to get him off the hook. He struck out eight but was taken deep by Justin Turner and Yasmani Grandal.

4. A look at the Dodgers
Over are the days when the Dodgers had too many productive outfielders to play at one time. Matt Kemp has been traded twice, Andre Ethier can't get on the field, Joc Pederson is on the DL and Yasiel Puig has become a mediocre player.

The Dodgers' lineup looks a lot different these days, especially with first baseman Adrian Gonzalez shelved temporarily with a forearm injury that's bothered him for months.

Turner and Corey Seager are the two standouts in L.A.'s lineup. 

It's often mentioned that the Mets shouldn't have let Daniel Murphy walk, but losing Turner hurt nearly as much. Since signing with the Dodgers in 2014, Turner has hit .300/.368/.491 with 90 doubles, 50 home runs and 201 RBIs in 407 games. He's coming off an insane second half last season and leads the NL with nine doubles.

Seager has so far lived up to every bit of hype. In 898 plate appearances, he's hit .312 with a .900 OPS. He walks, he has massive power, he hits doubles (40 last season) and plays really good defense.

The key to holding the Dodgers in check is getting past that 2-3 of Seager and Turner. The rest of the lineup is lacking right now with Gonzalez, Pederson and Logan Forsythe banged up.

The Dodgers earlier this week called up one of their top prospects in first baseman Cody Bellinger. He's 1 for 10 with five strikeouts through three games. He entered the season as Baseball America's No. 7 prospect in the majors. The guy has hit bombs at every minor-league level.

5. Phils face Maeda
• The Phillies will face second-year Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda, who went 16-11 with a 3.48 ERA last season but hasn't pitched well yet in 2017. In four starts, he's 1-2 with a 8.05 ERA and has allowed seven home runs in 19 innings.

Maeda doesn't go too deep into games. He's lasted less than six innings in 21 of his 36 starts with the Dodgers.

Maeda got the win both times he faced the Phillies last season but didn't pitch particularly well either time. He gave up five runs in 11 innings on four homers. The home runs were hit by Aaron Altherr, Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez and Cameron Rupp.

Galvis and Hernandez each reached base against him three times.

Maeda has five pitches: a four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, sinker and curveball. He primarily uses the fastball and slider against righties but will throw any of those pitches to a lefty. The changeup has been by far his best pitch in the majors (.204 opponents' batting average, no home runs allowed) and the curveball has been by far his worst (.383).