On the Pharm: Hernandez gets look in center field

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On the Pharm: Hernandez gets look in center field

READING, Pa. -- “Now batting: Centerfielder, Cesar Hernandez.”

The public address announcer at FirstEnergy Stadium introduced the 23-year-old hundreds of times during the prospect's 102-game stint with Reading last year, but never quite like this. It used to be “second baseman, Cesar Hernandez,” but those days may be in the past.

On Monday night, Hernandez should have been on his way to Reno, Nev., to take part in the Triple A All-Star Game. He was elected to the game after batting .306 with 28 RBIs and 45 runs scored with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. The Phillies' organization, however, had other ideas for their Venezuela-born prospect.

About a month ago, the Phillies decided to experiment with Hernandez, who had been the IronPigs' starting second baseman for all but a brief nine-game call-up with the Phillies from May 29 to June 8. Hernandez regularly began taking fly balls in center field during batting practice and he advanced far enough to start five games last week.

It may be perfect timing given the injury to Phillies centerfielder Ben Revere (see story).

"Well, we feel like it's an option, and again, we don't know if that's what we're going to do, but we're going to look at it as quickly as we can," Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan said. "This didn't start a few days ago. We've been doing this kind of behind the scenes for a while. Cesar Hernandez can help us on the major-league team. It may not be in an every-day role, it may be off the bench at some point in time, but he can run, he can steal a base, he's a switch-hitter, he can bunt -- he can do a lot of things. If he can play the outfield, it just gives us more options, because, honestly, it's a piece we don't have."

The Phillies are trying to find out if and where Hernandez has a future within the organization. Scouts love his bat and already think that part of his game is almost major-league ready. He's a career .293 hitter in seven minor-league seasons and was 7 for 28 (.250) with the Phillies earlier this year. However, he’s had some issues defensively. He’s already committed nine errors at second base this year and 83 in his minor-league career. After moving to the outfield with Lehigh Valley, Hernandez committed one error in 12 chances.

"We've got to figure out exactly how he can best help us in the major leagues because we do feel like he can help us up there," Jordan said. "We started talking about this, we started shagging some balls in center and we got our outfielder coordinator in there and started getting into it a little bit.

"We feel like the best way to get a good read is just doing it over and over and over consecutive nights. He's going to be fine, given enough time -- he could be a good centerfielder."

On Monday night, Hernandez played nine innings in center field, committed a fielding error in the fifth inning and made three put-outs. He also went 2 for 4 at the plate with a double, walk and an RBI.

"Cesar's come a long way. I had him two years ago in the Florida State League and we were fortunate enough to put him on the roster and it's paid off for us," Reading manager Dusty Wathan said. "He's become a better ball player in all facets of his game. He's stealing more bases now, he's hitting the ball with more authority than he did, obviously just getting older and learning his swing -- all those things help. He's becoming a baseball player right now and slowly learning center field."

Hernandez’s time with Reading will be short-lived. He’s expected to play two more games in center for the Fightin Phils before rejoining the IronPigs when they begin the second half of their Triple A season on Thursday. In the meantime, he’ll continue to fine-tune his defensive skills in hopes of earning a chance to make a new name for himself as an outfielder in the Phillies' system. 

And he’ll need to, because when Hernandez made his 2013 debut with Reading on Monday, he was the only player without a name on the back of his jersey.

Phillies Phodder: Jerad Eickhoff, a new bat, Montgomery and other matters

Phillies Phodder: Jerad Eickhoff, a new bat, Montgomery and other matters

A few Phillies thoughts between NFL playoff games:
 
Jerad Eickhoff was in town the other day putting smiles on the faces of some special kids at CSN Philly’s annual Shining Star Awards dinner, which benefits the March of Dimes.
 
Before the event, Eickhoff was a guest on Philly Sports Talk and he was asked about the possibility of being the Phillies' opening day starter April 3 in Cincinnati. The right-hander said all the right things, noting that there were several worthy candidates and that the decision ultimately would be made by manager Pete Mackanin, and he was right on all counts.
 
In the big picture, it doesn’t matter a whole lot who gets the ball on opening day. The goal of every starter is to stay healthy for a full season and if he does that he’ll end up with 33 starts and ample opportunity to pitch himself to the top of the rotation.
 
Still, starting on opening day is a big honor, even if a lot of folks won’t remember who got the ball for the opener much beyond Memorial Day.
 
The 2017 Phillies have two legitimate candidates for opening day starter: Jeremy Hellickson and Eickhoff. 

Hellickson got the nod last year and did nothing to suggest he does not deserve the honor again this year. The veteran right-hander pitched 189 innings over 32 starts and was a pro’s pro from the moment he stepped foot in the clubhouse.
 
But with all due respect to Hellickson, this early vote for the opening day assignment goes to Eickhoff for a number of reasons.
 
First of all, he’s earned it with his performance. He led the starting staff in starts (33), innings (197 1/3) and ERA (3.65) in 2017. He delivered 20 quality starts and became just the fourth Phillie in the last 20 years to make 33 starts and record a 3.65 ERA or better, joining Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling. Mackanin and pitching coach Bob McClure constantly stress to the staff the importance of throwing strikes. Eickhoff responded in 2016. His ratio of 1.92 walks per nine innings was the fourth-best mark among National League starters in 2016.

In addition, he's earned it with his conduct and example. The guy approaches his craft with a maturity, dedication, work ethic and seriousness that is reminiscent of Roy Halladay.

All of this leads us to another reason that Eickhoff should get the opening day nod: The Phillies are a building team and Eickhoff, 26 years old and under team control for five more seasons, is going to be around for a while. Hellickson will likely depart for free agency after this season. Ditto Clay Buchholz. Awarding Eickhoff the opening day start would be a show of faith in the pitcher, a message that management believes he can be a rock and a leader in the rotation now and in the future. 
 
And as for the notion that holding Eickhoff back until the second or third game of the season would help keep him away from opposing teams’ top pitchers and get him better matchups and possibly more run support. Well, Eickhoff already knows what it’s like to face top rivals and keep his team in the game. Last year, he matched up against Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and twice against both Kyle Hendricks and Zack Greinke. Late in the season, he faced NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer twice and lefty stud Chris Sale once. He pitched 19 innings in those three starts and allowed six runs. Pretty solid.
 
It’s certainly not the most important decision that Mackanin & Co. will face between now and April, but when it comes to opening day starter, well, we like Eick.
 
• Spring training is less than a month away, but the Phillies’ offseason roster construction remains in progress. You can pretty much bank on the club adding a bat, likely a left-handed-hitting outfielder, in the coming days.
 
Brandon Moss and Michael Saunders, both free-agent outfielders, remain the most likely targets, with Moss probably the best fit because of his ability to help out at first base.
 
The Phillies have had longstanding interest in Jay Bruce, who is on the Mets’ trading block, but sources say the price for him is two prospects. The rebuilding Phillies are committed to hanging on to their prospects. Moss or Saunders would cost just money, making them better fits on a short-term deal.

• The Phillies will officially open their new developmental academy in the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. The club has leased four different facilities since ramping up efforts in the DR in 1994. The new facility, built on 45 acres in Boca Chica, is co-owned by the Phillies and Minnesota Twins. The two teams have separate baseball facilities and dormitories for up to 78 players. The clubs share kitchen, dining and field maintenance costs.
 
Read more about the new facility here.
  
• Agreeing at the midpoint and avoiding a hearing is always the goal when a player and his team exchange salary figures during the arbitration process. Cesar Hernandez submitted a figure of $2.8 million and the Phillies came in at $2 million. Shake hands at $2.4 million and move on.
 
• We mentioned this recently, but it’s worth repeating because it’s so remarkable. At home in 2016, the Phillies recorded a team batting average of .230 and a team on-base percentage of .291. Those marks were the club’s worst in more than a century of official record keeping.
 
• Phillies prospect Carlos Tocci is a strong candidate for the rookie of the year award in the Venezuelan winter league. The 21-year-old outfielder hit .323 with a .403 on-base percentage in 59 games for the Aragua ballclub.
 
Odubel Herrera was rookie of the year and batting champion in the Venezuelan league two years ago.
 
• And finally, Phillies chairman David Montgomery was among the honorees at the 14th annual Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation In the Spirit of the Game awards dinner Saturday night in Beverly Hills, California.
 
Montgomery received the Allan H. “Bud” Selig Executive Leadership Award. Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, Bo Jackson, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and a host of legendary scouts were among the other honorees at the event.
 
It was nice to see an organization dedicated to scouting recognize Montgomery, who served as Phillies president from 1997 to 2014. As leader of the Phillies, Montgomery always realized the importance of scouts in building a successful organization, and in his typical style built personal relationships with every member of his club’s scouting staff, right down to the area guys who drive around baseball’s backstreets in search of young talent. Winning the 2008 World Series was the highlight of Montgomery’s time as club president and that team was built on the back of good scouting.
 
So congratulations to one of the classiest and most respected men in the game on a most fitting honor.

Phillies avoid arbitration with Jeanmar Gomez, exchange figures with Cesar Hernandez

Phillies avoid arbitration with Jeanmar Gomez, exchange figures with Cesar Hernandez

Updated: 7:50 p.m.

The Phillies and relief pitcher Jeanmar Gomez on Friday avoided salary arbitration by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $4.2 million, according to a major league source.

Friday was the deadline for teams and arbitration-eligible players to exchange salary figures. The Phils avoided arbitration with shortstop Freddy Galvis on Thursday with a one-year, $4.35 million agreement.

Second baseman Cesar Hernandez is the team's lone remaining arbitration-eligible player. 

Hernandez and the team exchanged salary proposals on Friday. Hernandez is seeking $2.8 million. The team offered $2 million. The two sides can continue to negotiate and if a settlement is not reached, an arbitration panel will decide on Hernandez's 2017 salary by picking the player's asking price or the team's offer. Agreements are typically stuck at or near the midpoint before a hearing is even needed. Hearings are held during the first two weeks of February, if needed.

Hernandez made $525,000 in 2016. He hit .294 with a .371 on-base percentage and led the majors with 11 triples.

Cody Asche and Darin Ruf were also set to enter arbitration years but Asche was non-tendered and Ruf was traded to the Dodgers.

This is Gomez's final arbitration year; he's set for free agency after the season. It's a nice raise for a reliever who made $1.4 million in 2016.

Gomez surprisingly emerged as the Phillies' closer early in the season. He was the one man in early April who seized the late-inning opportunity and he carried the closer's job into the final weeks of September.

Gomez saved 37 games in 43 opportunities after registering just one in his career prior to 2016. He had a 2.97 ERA with 34 saves on Sept. 1 but had a rocky final month, allowing 17 earned runs in eight innings. It raised his season ERA to 4.85.

The Phillies added some relief depth this offseason in Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek. They also have Hector Neris, who had a 2.58 ERA with 102 strikeouts in 80 innings last season, consistently showing a disappearing splitter. 

So it's no given Gomez keeps the closer's job in 2017. In fact, it would seem unlikely given his shaky September and the type of stuff Neris and Benoit possess.

CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury contributed to this story.