Stop me if you’ve heard this one before- a versatile, energetic but unspectacular infielder is discarded by his lowly team. In a move that barely registers on the radar, the Dodgers acquire the player in question, rewarding him with a salary that doesn’t constitute 1% of the team’s gaudy overall payroll. Early in the season, the young player struggles with the limited playing time he’s given. This doesn’t bother the fans much, though, seeing how most of them don’t even know who the guy is! Then, injuries to starters change his fate. Quietly at first and then with increasing fanfare, the player flourishes. The player goes from expendable utility player, to super-utility player, to potential star player.
It’s pretty incredible that a team with so many well-known (and well-paid!) players can find such great fortune with someone so low-cost, whom hardly anyone ever heard of. Even more amazing is the fact that it happened two years in a row. With Hector Olivera’s departure to Atlanta, Justin Turner had finally been assured his rightful place in the Dodgers’ everyday lineup- in the MIDDLE of it, in fact! Being exactly one year behind Turner, Kiké Hernandez might have to wait a little bit longer. But if he keeps this up, it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself completing that final transition to everyday player, as well.
Hernandez’s evolution this season has been fun to watch. Starting out as a quirky fan favorite- kind of a modern-day Mickey Hatcher- Hernandez gradually became a force to be reckoned with. Probably the least heralded player of the seven involved in what was essentially a 3-way trade between the Dodgers, Marlins, and Angels, Hernandez has probably been the most productive zsince the All-Star break. This has to be a relief for Andrew Friedman and company. It was always an extreme risk to trade Dee Gordon, a budding star, for one year of Howie Kendrick. (Giving up Dan Haren without a dollar of compensation didn’t help, either.) No matter how good Howie was going to be this season- and to be fair, he has been quite good- it was all going to be about whether he could get the Dodgers to, if not THROUGH, the World Series. (Those aren’t terms that I came up with- that’s how the trade was set up from the day it was made. We’ll leave Chris Hatcher and Austin Barnes out of the equation, until given reason to do otherwise.) When Howie went down with a somewhat serious looking hamstring injury last week, it looked like the short-term nature of the trade might have gotten that much shorter.
Enter Kiké Hernandez. After spending the first few days of Kendrick’s injury looking at newly acquired prospect Jose Peraza, the Dodgers made Hernandez the everyday second baseman. (Peraza was sent back to Oklahoma, to make room for Turner’s return from the disabled list.) Hernandez continued to do what he had been doing for some time, both in the field and at the plate. The only difference is that now, he gets to play the same position on an everyday basis. While it’s only been a few days at the time of this post, the results have been head-turning, especially his 435 foot homerun into the left-field pavilion on Saturday. Of course, a few games isn’t enough to make ANY kind of meaningful judgment on what someone can do at the big league level. But at the time of this posting, Hernandez has 147 at-bats this season, or roughly the amount that Justin Turner had last year, before people started taking him seriously. Unlikely as it may seem, for the second year in a row, we are starting to see the same thing happen again.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence that Kiké Hernandez is for real, is the fact that HE says he is for real. When asked about his super-utility player status, the young man who has gained a reputation as a goofball becomes as serious as a military commander. (During high school, Hernandez attended the American Military Academy in Puerto Rico.) To whomever asks him the question, Hernandez responds- without a hint of sarcasm- that he is NOT a utility player, has never been one, and does not intend to be one now. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) He is also quick to point out that he is only 23 years old, and while respectful of the fact that Howie Kendrick is the team’s second baseman if healthy, being someone else’s understudy is not part of his long-term career plan.
This is all very impressive stuff, let alone from a 23 year old, playing in his first (almost) full Major League season, with a brand new organization. In spite of all this, it is too early to know if he’s for real. But with such a unique combination of poise, perspective, and confidence without arrogance, it should give Dodger fans, along with ALL fans of baseball*, reason to hope that he is.
*Okay, maybe not Giants fans.