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.

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler played with Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez when the two were growing up in Cuba. They traveled together to Venezuela for a youth tournament.

Soler said Fernandez's ability was obvious, right from the start.

"Since he was a child, since we were kids, I knew he had something," Soler said through a translator. "He had a talent. It was very impressive."

Fernandez's death in a boating accident at the age of 24 cast a dark shadow over the major leagues on Sunday. Miami's home game against Atlanta was canceled, and several ballparks observed moments of silence. Wrigley Field's iconic hand-operated scoreboard displayed Fernandez's No. 16 in its pitching column next to Miami.

But the loss of Fernandez was felt most acutely in baseball's growing Cuban community.

"He was one of those guys that everybody loved," St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena said. "He was one of those guys that everybody knew exactly what he meant to our community. For us, it's a big, big loss. It's one of those things where our thoughts and prayers are obviously with his family, the Marlins' organization and the fans. But it gets a little bit closer because he was part of our Cuban family."

There were 23 Cubans on opening-day major league rosters this year, an increase of five over last season and the most since the commissioner's office began releasing data in 1995. Many of the players share similar stories when it comes to their perilous journey from the communist country to the majors, and the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, Fernandez and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Florida with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

He was drafted by the Marlins in 2011, and quickly turned into one of the majors' top pitchers.

"How he was on the mound was a reflection of him," Oakland first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "A guy who had a lot of fun, was himself. A very talkative guy, he would come into the room and you'd know he was in the room. Never big-leagued anyone, very professional. No matter what, he would talk to you about hitting, because he thought he was the best hitter, and he (would) talk to you about pitching, because he thought he was the best pitcher."

Alonso said Fernandez's death was "a big-time shock." Yasiel Puig used torn pieces of white athletic tape to display Fernandez's jersey on the wall in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium. Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz, who had known Fernandez since they were little kids, declined an interview request through a team spokeswoman.

"We Cuban players know each other well and all of us have a great relationship," Pena said. "For us, it's devastating news when we woke up. We were sending text messages to each other and we were showing support. It's something that obviously nobody expects."

Fernandez, who became a U.S. citizen last year, also was beloved for his stature in the Cuban community in Miami.

"He was a great humanitarian," Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman said through a translator. "He gave a lot to the community and I think that's why he got a lot of respect from the community in terms of what a great person he was and always giving, in terms of always willing to help out in whatever way he can to try to better and progress within the community someone that perhaps wasn't as fortunate as he was."

The 28-year-old Chapman lives in the Miami-area in the offseason. He said he spent some time with Fernandez while he was home.

"He would come by my house. I would go by his," Chapman said. "We would have long conversations. We would talk a lot. We spent a lot of good amount of time together. It was very special for me."

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

NEW YORK — The clubhouse mood following the Phillies17-0 loss to the Mets Sunday was somber, in part because of the disastrous game that had just wrapped up, but also because of the tragic news of Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez’s death in a boating accident early Sunday morning.

“It was rough. People are devastated. I didn’t even know him and I was crushed,” Phillies starter Jake Thompson said. “I can only imagine how that clubhouse feels. That’s something that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, to deal with something of that magnitude.”

Both teams paused for a moment of silence before Sunday’s game and the Mets taped a jersey bearing Fernandez’s name and number onto their dugout wall.

“This morning, that was quite a surprise,” manager Pete Mackanin said of the atmosphere of the day. “I don’t think it affected the players once the game started. It was such bad news this morning that everybody was kind of melancholy.”

Fernandez had built a strong track record against the Phillies in his young career, amassing a 2.88 ERA in six starts.

“It’s kind of cliché to say but you look at the start of his career and he could have been a Hall of Famer,” Thompson said.

Asked how he would remember facing Fernandez, Mackanin was succinct.

“He was a helluva pitcher,” he said.

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