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Offseason Decision: Hernández’s Option

Should the results overrule the history?

Division Series - Houston Astros v Chicago White Sox - Game Three
Holding onto César Hernández for 2022 is the smart play, rather than wading into a daunting free agent market.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

While my opinions on the wisdom of picking up Craig Kimbrel’s option were pretty clear-cut (and I am aghast at the number of people who believe he can actually be traded for something worthwhile), the decision on César Hernández’s option is far murkier.

When Rick Hahn traded Nick Madrigal to the Cubs for Kimbrel, it was assumed that Hernández was going to fill the void left by picking up his $6 million option for 2022. Though by no means a superstar, César had been a steady hand for his entire career on both offense and defense, and $6 million to lock down the position with a competent veteran seemed a good way to fill in on a budget while investing more heavily elsewhere (right field, anybody?).

The problem was, as bad as Kimbrel was in a White Sox uniform, Hernández was arguably worse. From 2015 until the time of the trade, he was literally a league-average bat, with an OPS+ of 100 across that time. His season OPS was never higher than 110 or lower than 92, sitting at exactly 100 in 2021 when he was traded. This, on top of solid middle-infield defense that won him a Gold Glove in 2020, made Hernández an average-plus contributor more often than not; not a cornerstone, but definitely a solid ancillary player.

Additionally, Hernández was a durable player, averaging 146 games from 2015-19 and playing in all but two games in 2020. This allowed him to generate decent counting stats along the way, leading the league once each in doubles and triples. There was no reason to think that, at a minimum, the White Sox wouldn’t get enough baseball out of him for the 2021 stretch run to justify handing him $6 million for 2022.

If there was one oddity to César’s numbers at the time of the trade, it was the shape of his production. From 2015-20, Hernandez produced a .278/.355/.390 triple-slash; short on isolated power, but generally solid with contact and on-base skills. In 2021, his average and OBP tanked to .231/.307 before the trade, but his power had spiked to produce a .431 slugging percentage. Needless to say, an 88-point increase in ISO was surprising, but just barely papered over the decline in the rest of his offensive profile.

Post-trade, César’s batting average and OBP remained steady at .232/.309, but his power absolutely disappeared, with his slugging percentage cratering to a ghastly .299. This was shocking, especially considering the reputation the Sox Park has for being homer-friendly. Nonetheless, the one thing that had carried the decline in Hernández’s hitting stats disappeared, leaving the White Sox with another dead spot in their batting order.

Compounding this problem was that Hernández’s defense, ordinarily a carrying piece in his overall profile, appeared to decline considerably. It is difficult to pin down a reliable metric, and they tend to be all over the place, as while by DRS Hernández posted a career worst -11 this season, he also had one of the best UZR ratings of his career (5.8). He still rated as a plus in turning double plays and, on top of it all, is generally still a net positive on the bases.

By the eye test, Hernández was equally confounding. There were times watching his play one felt the steady, veteran reliability commensurate with his reputation. At others, he could be undeniably frustrating. Perhaps it was just a consequence of the mud march to the season’s conclusion, but White Sox fans did not seem to feel they had gotten what they were expecting out of the deal in any facet of his performance.

So that leaves us with the overarching question: is César Hernández worth Lee Majors money?

Answer: depends.

I’m willing to give Hernández a bit of a pass for the defensive lapses. There has been a lot of consternation over a lack of defensive shifting this season, and a seeming unpreparedness on the part of the organization in scouting opposing teams for proper defensive positioning. It’s at least one component of why Aaron Bummer and, to a lesser extent, Dallas Keuchel were not able to capitalize on strong ground ball rates like they did in 2020. As such, I’m willing to be more charitable about Hernández’s prospects in the field for 2022.

As for hitting, it’s hard to say. Obviously, it would be completely unacceptable for him to continue slugging worse than .300, nor do I think that is normal for him. I also do not think a .430 slugging percentage and a 25 home run-pace is normal for him. He may now be a hitter who produces a .230-.240 average with a .300-.310 OBP. If you combine that with his typical slugging profile from years past, that amounts to a below-average bat, but not a total waste of space. If his defense rebounds to some sort of solid level, you’re looking at about a 1.5-2.0 WAR player who can justify a $6 million salary.

So, having said that, the entire decision comes down to where the White Sox want to invest their money and how much Jerry Reinsdorf is willing to spend (familiar territory, I know). If money is no object, then they could aim much higher and sign Marcus Semien or Chris Taylor for 3-4 times what Hernández makes. Even in this scenario, picking up Hernández’s option might be a good hedge against the possibility (if not likelihood) of missing out on a top guy.

Alternately, if the White Sox intend to aim high for right field (FINALLY!) or perhaps even their starting rotation, $6 million for Hernández wouldn’t necessarily be a terrible commitment to secure a competent player for the position, and allow more time for in-house options (Romy González, Ti’Quan Forbes, José Rodríguez, Yolbert Sánchez, possibly even Jake Burger) to sort themselves out. If it allows them to invest heavily at another area of need, there are worse ideas than committing to Hernández on a budget. It’s certainly smarter than investing in Adam Eaton or Nomar Mazara was.

As stated in my previous article on Kimbrel, the White Sox are up against the wall financially barring Jerry upping payroll about $30+ million past previous club records. With Hernández back in the fold, team payroll committed for 2022 would be approximately $141+ million for 12 players (Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Dallas Keuchel, José Abreu, Hernández, Tim Anderson, Yoán Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez, Liam Hendriks, Aaron Bummer). Adding in pre-arb players who are probably roster locks for 2022 (Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Garrett Crochet, José Ruiz) and possible/probable arbitration-eligible players who will be retained outside of Giolito (Adam Engel, Reynaldo López), that puts their roster at about 18 players for ~$150 million.

That leaves them with gaping holes in right field, backup catcher, and at least one, if not two, reliable bullpen arms. If the plan is not to bump payroll up into the $180 million range (which would have been eighth in MLB this season), it is going to be next to impossible to add a premium option anywhere without jettisoning a piece of the young core like Moncada, salary dumping a veteran like Keuchel or Abreu (and good luck on either, for entirely different reasons), or re-working a contract to free up some capital (big maybe on this for Abreu).

My personal opinion: Pick up the option.

Nothing is guaranteed in free agency, and as much as I would love to bring Semien back to the South Side, there is going to be a bidding war for his services — something the White Sox don’t have a strong history of winning in free agency (particularly for likely nine-figure deals). At worst, they’re able to bring a better option in the fold and Hernández becomes an expensive but useful utility player, one who you feel much more comfortable with playing every day than a Danny Mendick in the event of an injury. And if they miss out on a better option, at least the one they’re left with is probably going to be all right.