Now that Oscar Hernandez has been selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 Draft, there are a variety of turns his career could take. All of the possibilities, though, the two most likely are that Hernandez gets returned to the Tampa Bay Rays before the end of spring training or that he lasts on the Diamondbacks roster all season while appearing in only a few games. The Rays will obviously be hoping for the former scenario, and Hernandez should be as well. Even though it will be exhilarating for him to get a chance to make a major league roster, the year playing sparingly would only hurt his development.
If Hernandez is returned to the Rays, he will spending next season at High-A ball. Hernandez has major upside defensively, featuring the arm, motions, and receiving ability to be an above-average catcher before too long. The D-Backs’ were sufficiently impressed by Hernandez’s defense to believe that he could be an impact player behind the plate right now. However, the process of turning strong defensive tools into excellent big league performance can take quite a bit of time.
In just 94 games in 2014, Hernandez allowed 12 passed balls this season and made 11 errors. The passed balls would have tied for the most in baseball while the errors would have ranked fourth. Hernandez still has intricacies of the game that he is learning, with two examples being pitch-framing and knowing when not to throw on stolen base attempts. Hernandez is talented enough not to embarrass himself right now, but he is still a couple of years away from truly being a strong defender.
Of course, we would not be nitpicking so much about Hernandez’s defense if his bat was more developed. In the Rule 5 Draft, usually players are selected from A-ball after putting up huge years. For instance, Jesus Flores delivered a .266/.335/.487 line at High-A for the New York Mets in 2006, and that was enough for the Washington Nationals to select him. Hernandez, on the other hand, was scarcely above an average hitter at Low-A–even a level below Flores’–and displayed obvious reasons for concern.
In 397 plate appearances for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, Oscar Hernandez hit to a .249/.301/.401 line with 18 doubles, 5 triples, 9 homers, and 63 RBI. The power was nice, and Hernandez even has more pop that he has yet to show in games. The major issue, though, is that Hernandez struck out 78 times against just 25 walks. He was overaggressive and his pitch-recognition needed work–and we’re talking about him facing Low-A pitchers as opposed to big league ones. There is no guarantee that Hernandez will ever hit enough to be a big league catcher, and thinking that he can get there right now doesn’t make much sense.
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If the Arizona Diamondbacks somehow bend over backwards enough to keep Hernandez on their 25-man roster all season, the primary thing that they will be doing is costing him a year of development time. They could do what the Milwaukee Brewers did with Wei-Chung Wang this year and have him play extremely sparingly before heading to the Arizona Fall League. Then maybe Hernandez could play 2016 at Double-A and resume his development without a hitch. The two clear issues with that plan, though, are that it’s much harder to have a second or third catcher that rarely plays compared to a seventh or eighth reliever, and that skipping over High-A may not go well for Hernandez.
The worst thing that could ever happen to Hernandez would be that he plays respectably for the Diamondbacks. That was the case with Flores, who hit to a .244/.310/.361 line (78 OPS+) with solid defense in 197 plate appearances for the Nationals. That was enough for them to keep him in the major leagues, and he never ended up having a full year at Double-A, let alone Triple-A. Can it really be a surprise then that Flores, who struck out 127 times against 28 walks the year before Washington picked him in the Rule 5 Draft, was eventually adjusted to by big league pitchers and saw his entire career come apart?
Instead, Oscar Hernandez has to hope that his story will parallel that of New York Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova. By 2008, Nova was already on the prospect map, but the Yankees chose not to protect him on their 40-man roster after he delivered a middling season at High-A. They were taking the risk that someone would select him in the Rule 5 Draft, and sure enough, the San Diego Padres came calling. However, Nova did not show enough to make their team out of spring training and was returned to the Yankees.
New York must have had trepidation that they would not get Nova back, but not adding him to their 40-man roster gave them a couple of advantages. They avoided wasting a roster spot on a player years from the big leagues, and they also gave Nova a little more motivation after the taste of big league ball he received in with the Padres. After improved results in 2009, the Yankees did add Nova to their 40-man roster following the season, and he made his big league debut in 2010.
The best thing for Oscar Hernandez’s career would be for him to head back to the Rays organization and attempt to follow the path of Nova. Being in the big leagues would be a dream for Hernandez, and he can’t be sure whether he will ever get another chance. But no matter how ironic it may seem, getting additional minor league time without a one-year hiatus would give Hernandez the best chance of achieving sustained success at baseball’s highest level.
While Oscar Hernandez will do everything he can to make the Arizona Diamondbacks’ roster, he will analyze the situation years from now with an entirely different perspective. As he looks back at spring training of 2015, he will understand that making the D-Backs was never going to be a good thing for him. The biggest question will be whether he will look back and will feel lucky because Arizona returned him to the Rays or feel regret because his big league time in 2015 was a reason that his career did not turn out as hoped.