On December 23, 2019, the Tribe signed César Hernández to a one-year deal worth $6.25 million. Heading into the offseason, the front office had a huge hole at second to fill. After declining to pick up Jason Kipnis’s $16.5 million option for the 2020 season, which triggered a $2.5 million buyout, the Indians entered the market for a second baseman. Jose Ramirez offered to switch positions, however, Tribe GM Chris Antonetti stated that the team prefers for him to stay at third. It should be noted that Ramirez may be switching positions in the near future with the arrival of third baseman Nolan Jones, Cleveland’s top-rated prospect, expected in 2021. This may explain why the Indians only offered Hernández a one-year contract. With this signing, the Indians were able to get better while saving at least $5.75 million this season.
Hernández, who is projected to bat seventh or eighth depending on the pitcher, is a slight upgrade over the diminished Kipnis. He has shown versatility in the Phillies lineup, where he mostly batted leadoff but was quite adept batting in the fifth through eighth spots. Although he is coming off a relatively down year, Hernández managed to slash .279/.333/.408. While this was not enough for the Phillies to pay him the projected $11.8 million he would earn in arbitration, it was better than what Kipnis gave the Tribe last year offensively. True, it was not substantially better, but his age and cost have to be considered. He is three years younger and much cheaper for the small-market Indians. Further, he has shown himself to be more durable than Kipnis over the past three seasons, missing only 36 games to Kipnis’s 128. The Indians hope that Hernández reverts to his 2016-17 form, where he had a 7.1 WAR.
In general, Hernández has shown himself to be a patient hitter who feeds on the fastball. Although there was a marked drop in his walk rate last season along with a higher rate of chasing pitches out of the zone, this may have simply been the pressures of what was a contract year for him. Terry Francona’s staff is a good place for him to regain that patient approach as the Tribe is a top-ten team in terms of walk percentage. He has shown a bit of pop with his bat, belting fifteen home runs in 2018 and fourteen in 2019. The switch-hitter struggled mightily against left-handed pitching last season particularly in terms of power numbers. His slugging percentage was nearly one hundred points higher when batting from the left. In years past, the difference between the two was not so pronounced. Overall, he has shown himself to be a league-average hitter with the capability of being a bit above average at times.
Defensively, Hernández will not make the fans forget the easy eloquence of Roberto Alomar. He has shown himself to be a league-average defender at best. His advanced defensive metrics have generally been negative, but Hernández has shown some above-average seasons at second. For instance, he managed six Defensive Runs Saved last year, which was much better than Kipnis’s negative seven. However, he does not appear to be a major upgrade defensively.
The signing of César Hernández is relatively low-risk. It does not represent a major upgrade, but can be if he reverts to his 2016-17 form. If he does not work out this season, there is the potential to see him leave in free agency, while the aforementioned Jose Ramirez/Nolan Jones situation plays out at second and third. While it would have been nice to get him for cheaper, it should be noted that some of the other top second basemen in free agency received contracts in the six million per year range. This appears to be a savvy signing for a front office working with a very tight budget.