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.”