Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Marco Hernandez.
The Question: Can Marco Hernandez stay in the majors all year?
Marco Hernandez’ entire baseball career changed the day he was sent from Chicago to Boston after the 2014 season as the player to be named later in return for Felix Doubront. In the Cubs organization, he had some low-key potential, but he never really showed it. Over the last two years, however, something has clicked and he’s shown that he has the skills to be a major-league player, even if he’s never a star or even a starter. After splitting the 2015 season between Portland and Pawtucket, he began last year in Triple-A with eyes of being called to Boston. He realized that dream very early in the season, with his first call-up coming just a couple weeks into the season.
Although he did get that desired call up, Hernandez didn’t get to spend a ton of time with the Red Sox. He rode the bus between Boston and Pawtucket all year and he accrued only 56 plate appearances over 40 games. Because of that lack of playing time, he is still prospect eligible as he enters his age-24 season. In fact, he was recently named the number seven prospect in our team prospect ranking. If he gets his way, he’ll shed the prospect title in 2017. Will Hernandez really get to spend enough time on the major-league roster to make that happen, though?
Well, the simplest part of this whole equation is figuring out if the player is good enough. Hernandez does check some boxes, but not others. On offense, he thrives by barreling the ball and leaning on his hit tool. The infielder isn’t elite in this area like many believe Andrew Benintendi to be, but he’s likely underrated. There’s a reason he hasn’t posted a batting average on balls in play under .324 at any level since 2013. The .350 BABIP he posted in his small major-league sample in 2016 probably isn’t totally sustainable, but he has the bat-to-ball skills to keep it higher than some may expect.
To go along with the bat skills, Hernandez is also a strong baserunner. It’s another part of his BABIP ability, and it also shows up after he reaches base. Even in a small sample, Fangraphs rated him as a positive base runner and the scouting reports agree. John Farrell likely agrees as well, as he leaned on Hernandez as a pinch runner when he was available on the bench. What’s odd is that he doesn’t steal many bases, with his total staying in the single digits every year since 2014. He has the potential, however, as he twice stole over 20 bases while still with the Cubs.
It’s not all positive on the offensive side of things, however. For one, he is never going to be a power hitter. In the majors last year, he posed an Isolated Power of just .078. While that’s probably a little lower than his true talent level, even his minor-league ISOs hovered around .130-.140. So, major-league ISOs around .100 probably won’t be rare for Hernandez.
The most important part of the 24-year-old’s offensive profile, however, is his plate discipline. He was better than expected in the majors last year, striking out around 18 percent of the time with a walk rate just shy of nine percent. Given his aggressive nature with the bat, that was a surprise. On the other hand, it was obviously a small sample, and he didn’t put his aggressive style to bed. He was well above-average in terms of swinging at pitches out of the zone on top of having a higher than average strikeout rate. Based on his deeper numbers and scouting reports, it’s probably fair to expect some decline in this area for Hernandez.
Finally, we have the defensive side of things. As I said in his prospect ranking post, he can play all over the infield but he is best suited for second base. Obviously, there’s no starting role available except for maybe third base, but the team may look to rest Dustin Pedroia more as he gets older. That could open Hernandez’ best spot. On the other hand, they’ll need him a lot on the left side of the infield as well, and he’s much less impressive there.
While what’s described above isn’t a great profile, it’s a pretty good bench option. Of course, it all comes down to the competition and the context around it. The only real competition for Hernandez is Josh Rutledge, who was selected by Boston in the Rule 5 draft this winter. The bad news for Hernandez here is two-fold. For one, Rutledge is a better and more experienced defensive player at third base. This is the most likely position to need to be filled. On top of that, if Rutledge doesn’t make the active roster, he is returned to Colorado. Hernandez, on the other hand, has minor-league options.
Despite all that, the latter is the better player and if he shows that to an extreme this spring, he’ll get his chance. In the end, it’ll likely all come down to his plate discipline. If he shows a better ability to lay off bad pitches this spring, it’ll show a key development. Even if that doesn’t happen, an injury will open up space for him on the active roster at some point this year. Then, he’ll have a chance to make his case for staying on the roster all year. We’ll have to wait until then to see if he can take advantage.