The Red Sox made a move on Friday night, reportedly agreeing to a two-year deal with utility man Enrique Hernández worth a total of $14 million. The deal is not yet official and will need a corresponding move to make room on the 40-man roster, but all indications are that it is in place. This is the biggest deal the team has signed to date this winter, and in fact is the biggest deal they have signed since the Nathan Eovaldi deal back in the winter of 2018, though it’s obviously not in that same scope. Still, there is more to know at this point, including both the corresponding move and other moves to follow that will create a more clear picture of this roster. That said, I think we have enough information for an initial judgement.
For me, that judgement is: It’s fine. I’m certainly not blown away and calling the season ticket office for nonexistent tickets because I’m so excited about the addition, but I’m also not upset about it. Hernández was not my top option at second base, but he also was not on any list of players I wanted them to avoid. All I can keep coming back to is: It’s fine. It does seem that they are still going to be without that consistent bat at second base, something they’ve been dealing with since Dustin Pedroia’s injury issues took hold. But they have determined, mostly fairly I think, that they can live with that given the talent in the top half of the lineup, and especially when you add in the other things that Hernández brings to the table.
For one thing, he is a very good hitter against left-handed pitching. The Dodgers have been just about the best team in baseball at exploiting matchups and managing platoons, and Hernández has largely been able to excel in that sort of role. Over his career, as noted in the linked post above, the 29-year-old has a 120 wRC+ against lefties. That is not a small thing for the Red Sox, who over the last couple of seasons have been very good against righties but much more average with a southpaw on the mound. Hernández should theoretically be able to help make up that difference, particularly with a potentially lefty-heavy outfield.
On top of that, Hernández is expected to bring an important burst of energy and generally positive clubhouse presence. This obviously can’t be measured and I think you need the talent on the roster before you can start gaining these smaller edges with things like clubhouse presence, but it’s also not nothing. We saw the Red Sox last year, and quite frankly they were as lifeless as I can remember them. Obviously a good chunk of that was the fact that they were playing through a pandemic and also playing poorly, a combination which would bring any team down, but infusion of new, positive energy certainly can’t hurt.
The biggest thing for Hernández, though, is obviously the versatility. This is the selling point for the former Dodger just as it was with Brock Holt when he was in town. (Holt, of course, brought that similarly energetic presence as well.) Among the criticisms I’ve seen for this move, the biggest one I’ve seen is that they gave $7 million per year to a bench player, which I think is an unfair conflation with utility player. Yes, Hernández is best described as a utility player, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bench player. Holt was a utility player as well, and he made an All-Star team. So while it’s certainly not out of bounds to criticize this move, doing so on the grounds of Hernández being a bench player is decidedly not it.
In fact, I think Hernández will be fairly close to a regular on this roster. Most of that time, presumably, will be at second base. While he can play all over the place, and do so well at most spots, second base is still the best spot on the diamond for Hernández, at least if some of the advanced metrics are to be believed. This is obviously a big hole on the Red Sox roster as well. The way I see it shaking out, when a right-handed pitcher is on the mound, Hernández will presumably get most of the playing time. I think Christian Arroyo will get his chances to grab hold of a role, but to start the year I’d guess the plan would be for Hernández to start something like two-thirds or three-fourths of the time at second base when a righty is on the mound.
Again, the offense would not exactly be steady there, as Hernández has a career 82 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. However, some of that could be circumstantial. In this article from The Athletic, the following line stood out to me from a source who is described as believing Hernández can hit right-handed pitching:
The source “pointed out that hitters who stop facing righties tend to have more trouble against them. Indeed, Hernandez played a career-high 145 games in 2018, and that’s when he had his best numbers against righties. He actually hit them better (an .833 OPS) than he hit lefties (.780 OPS) that year.”
That, I think, is an interesting thought that I hadn’t considered, although there is some chicken and egg to it as well. Did Hernández have his best numbers against righties that season because he played more, or did he play more because he had his best numbers against righties? I don’t have a good answer, but the theory from the source is worth considering at least.
When a lefty is pitching, things become more interesting. After the signing, Ken Rosenthal noted that Hernández was looking for a place to play every day, and preferably at one position. That last part is notable, because the best usage would seemingly be if he can play a healthy amount of outfield as well. Right now, the Red Sox have Andrew Benintendi, Alex Verdugo and Hunter Renfroe in their outfield. By all accounts, they still have Jackie Bradley Jr. on their radar as well. If that does get done, then all of a sudden you could roll with an outfield of Renfroe, Hernández and Verdugo against left-handed pitching with the right-handed Arroyo handling second base. If Bradley is not signed and they bring in someone like, say, Kevin Pillar, then I imagine Hernández would be more likely get his wish staying more at second base.
However it shakes out, I think we’re going to see Hernández play nearly every day. Obviously injuries change plans and nothing goes as one expects in January, but right now it would be surprising if the plan wasn’t for him to play something like 140 games. What he provides in those games is up for debate, and whether or not that production will be worth $14 million over two years can be questioned as well. But the idea that he’s just a bench player doesn’t really make sense to me.
At the end of the day, this move certainly isn’t one that is going to put this team over the top, and I don’t think anyone is making that claim. As I’ve said a few times, this is fine, but not the only move they need to make. But in terms of role, Hernández is not going to be just a bit piece. He’s one of the best examples of the modern utility man, which is not the same as a bench player.