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.