For first time, Detroit Tigers’ César Hernández enters spring training without assurances

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers infielder César Hernández, who blasted a career-high 21 home runs across 637 plate appearances with the Cleveland Guardians in 2021, ran into a travel issue amid MLB’s lockout last offseason.

He went to native Venezuela to celebrate Christmas with his family and realized his passport had expired. The 32-year-old held a green card, but without a valid passport, he couldn’t return to the United States.

“I stayed there for three months, and I didn’t do anything there,” Hernández said in English. “I didn’t have a facility for my workouts, so I didn’t do anything. When I came here (to the U.S.) and started working out, I had one week before big-league camp opened. I only worked out for one week.”

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Hernández, a 10-year MLB veteran, saw his power metrics plummet. His average exit velocity dropped from 87.4 mph in 2021 to 84.8 mph in 2022, and his hard-hit rate dropped from 33.2% in 2021 to 29.7% in 2022. As a result, he registered one home run in 617 plate appearances.

“I would hit the ball, and I would say, ‘Oh, that ball is gone,’ but the ball went to the warning track,” Hernández said. “That was the result because I didn’t work out. If I work out like the year before, the ball can hit the wall or maybe be a home run.”

He is on a mission to hit more home runs in 2023 but isn’t guaranteed a spot on the Tigers’ Opening Day roster.

For the first time in his career, Hernández signed a minor-league contract — rather than a major-league contract — with an invitation to MLB spring training. He will earn $1.5 million, plus a potential $1.85 million in performance bonuses, if he makes the Tigers’ big-league roster.

Hernández has been a free agent four times in his career. He locked in three guaranteed one-year deals before this offseason: $6.25 million with the Guardians for 2020, $5 million with the Guardians for 2021 and $4.5 million with the Washington Nationals for 2022.

“I have to make the team first,” Hernández said. “I feel like I have a really good chance to make the team because they have two positions open: third base and second base. I know (Jonathan) Schoop is there (at second base), but he can play third, too, and I can play third. I will see what happens in spring training.”

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Recapturing some of his limited power in spring training would help his case, so Hernández went back to his regular routine this offseason. He focused on weight training for the first three months, took a brief break around Christmas and then transitioned into his mobility and hitting programs.

Unlike before, Hernández feels confident in his preparation.

“To me, that was the problem, and that’s why I didn’t hit more home runs,” said Hernández, who averaged 16 home runs per 162 games from 2018-21. “The power is there. Last year, I saw the ball, hit the ball, and it went to the warning track. The year before, I would hit the ball, and it would be a home run.”

‘Let’s go do 21 or more’

Hernández played for the Nationals, the worst team in the National League, last season and hit .248 with 28 doubles (three shy of his career-high), one homer, 45 walks and 114 strikeouts in 147 games.

A .629 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and an 84 wRC+ were his lowest marks in those categories as an everyday player, which dates back to 2015. He has played more than 145 games in five of the past seven full campaigns.

It was a frustrating season.

“For me, it’s too late to change,” Hernández said. “Everyone talks about the swing, launch angle and hitting the ball in the air. I tell people, ‘I can’t change my swing right now because I’m 32.’ If I was younger, like 21 or 22, I could change, but I’m 32 and can’t change my game because it won’t make a big difference. I will be the same. I know I’m not a power hitter, but if I hit the ball well, I’ll hit home runs.”

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Hernández, trusting his offseason regimen to provide the power, still brings plenty to the table in the batter’s box.

The switch-hitter has been successful on either side of the plate throughout his career. Since 2019, he has hit .257 with 39 home runs in 2,182 plate appearances against righties and .253 with 15 homers in 649 plate appearances against lefties.

He knows how to draw walks, posting a 7.3% walk rate last season (9.4% in his career), and how to avoid strikeouts, posting an 18.5% strikeout rate last season (19.3% in his career). His 20.4% swing-and-miss rate and 25.9% chase rate ranked 36th and 43rd, respectively, among 130 qualified hitters last season.

“The only thing I’m changing is working out a little bit more,” Hernández said. “I’m going to work more and more and more to get better every single day.”

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There’s another factor to consider: Nelson Pérez, the Tigers’ new strength and conditioning coach. Before joining the Tigers this offseason, Pérez spent the past 16 seasons working for Cleveland and the past 13 seasons as the assistant strength and conditioning coach.

He was integral to Hernández’s power surge in 2021.

Entering 2021, Hernández had spent his entire career working out after games. He doesn’t know why that was the norm, but postgame workouts were a part of his daily routine for as long as he could remember. But then, Pérez instructed him to exercise when he arrived at the ballpark, before hitting drills, fielding drills and the game.

“Sometimes, the strength coach can change everything,” Hernández said. “I started (working out) before the game, and I saw the results. I would go to the weight room, do my workout and then start hitting. You do the workout, and you go hit right after. I think that’s the key.”

When Hernández signed with the Tigers, Pérez called him to discuss expectations for the upcoming season.

He shared words of optimism.

“Let’s go do 21 (home runs) or more,” Perez said, “like you did in Cleveland.”

Finding a fit

In May 2013, Hernández made his MLB debut for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Veteran players like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard mentored Hernández through a couple of seasons at the highest level. They taught him about routine and discipline, and once 2015 came around, Hernández became a regular in the lineup.

“I’ll try to help the younger guys,” said Hernández, who doesn’t consider himself a natural leader but wants to ease his way into that role with the Tigers. “The only veteran guys are Miggy (Miguel Cabrera), Javy (Javier Báez) and Schoop. If I can help the younger guys grow up quicker, that’s going to be good. That’s what every team needs.”

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Hernández could play several positions if he reaches the major leagues this season. He won the 2020 American League Gold Glove at second base and also has experience at third base, center field, shortstop and left field. His strength is his speed, but his weakness is his arm strength.

Second base and third base seem like the most likely landing spots. Recently, Hernández spoke with manager A.J. Hinch and reassured him he would be willing to play anywhere on the diamond.

“Second base is my natural position, but I can do the job at whatever position,” Hernández said. “The other thing that can help me is there aren’t shifts anymore. They’re not using it anymore, so now they need a second baseman that can cover more space, and I can move from side to side.”

At some point, Hernández is expected to contribute to the Tigers. The terms of his minor-league contract don’t include an opt-out clause, so if he isn’t a member of the 26-man roster when the regular season begins, he will report to Triple-A Toledo and wait for an opportunity.

But Hernández has a clear goal.

He plans to win a job in spring training.

“It’s not easy because you have — not pressure — but you have to make a good impression on that team,” Hernández said. “If you played for that team in the minor leagues, or you played for that team last year, it’s easier because the people know you and what you can do to help the team. When you go to a new team, nobody knows you.”

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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