The Cleveland Indians will deploy a new full-time second baseman for the first time in nearly a decade. Does Cesar Hernandez represent an upgrade?
For as long as just about anyone in Cleveland can remember, second base at Progressive Field has been occupied primarily by Jason Kipnis. With that era likely over for good, it’s time to focus on whether Cesar Hernandez can help improve the Cleveland Indians offense in Kipnis’ stead.
The first leg up Hernandez has on Kipnis is that he’s a switch-hitter. That wouldn’t have helped the Indians much in 2019, when Hernandez posted a lowly 67 wRC+ against left-handed pitching. For his career, however, Hernandez owns a serviceable 97 wRC+ in such matchups, a marginal yet noticeable step up from Kipnis’ 82 wRC+ versus southpaws.
Kipnis is also several years removed from being a consistent on-base threat, as he hasn’t posted an OBP above .315 since 2016. Hernandez’s lowest such mark in the same span is .333, which he put up in 2019. He drew walks at a double-digit percentage in each of his three seasons between 2016-18. Assuming Hernandez’s career-low 6.7% walk rate in 2019 is an outlier set to trend upward once again in 2020, that alone could help strengthen the Indians’ lineup enough to qualify as an improvement.
Hernandez lacks the power to hit in the middle of the order, which means he’s going to fall in at one extreme end or the other. There’s plenty of time for a shake-up between now and Opening Day, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Hernandez open the season as the Indians’ ninth hitter. That said, his best-case hitting profile is well-suited for a leadoff role, and giving him a chance there would benefit the Indians as a whole.
Terry Francona has been hesitant to move Francisco Lindor from the leadoff spot due to his comfort level there, but there’s a clear argument to be made for giving the star shortstop more opportunities to drive in runs. Slotting a walk-happy contact hitter into the one-hole and rearranging the next three positions to include some order of Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Carlos Santana could create massive headaches for opposing pitchers to begin games.
Hernandez will certainly need to return to his former self in 2020 for this experiment to be worthy of a try, but the potential is there for it to pan out. In terms of having the ability to hit leadoff and lengthen the heart of Cleveland’s batting order, Hernandez could provide the Tribe with a much-needed offensive boost in 2020.