To some extent, Teoscar Hernandez has been a bit of an overlooked figure on the Blue Jays roster. He wasn’t part of the homegrown core of young talent, he isn’t exactly young himself since he turns 29 in October, and he wasn’t one of the major free agent signings that have played such key roles for the Jays in 2021 and (the team hopes) into the future. Hernandez did get a turn in the spotlight when he was voted into the American League’s starting All-Star lineup this past July, marking some overdue recognition of a player who has quietly been one of baseball’s best hitters over the last 26 months.
If “26 months” seems like something of an arbitrary timeline, it is because Hernandez has a pretty clear line of demarcation at almost the exact midpoint of his career. Prior to July 16, 2019, it wasn’t like Hernandez was a bad player, as he even hit 22 home runs for Toronto during the 2018 season. However, power was much pretty much all Hernandez had to offer over the first 971 plate appearances of his MLB career, as he swatted 42 home runs but batted only .231/.292/.447. This led to a 96 wRC+, and between that below-average offensive production and a very subpar outfield glove, there was some question about whether or not Hernandez could develop into anything more than a part-time player.
Needless to say, those questions have been answered. Hernandez hit a home run against the Red Sox in that July 16 game and then hit two more homers the next day, essentially heralding his arrival as a first-rate hitter. Over Hernandez’s last 916 plate appearances, he has hit 59 home runs and slashed .285/.343/.548 slash line. His 136 wRC+ since July 16, 2019 has been topped by only 12 qualified hitters in all of baseball, and he is also tied for eighth in slugging percentage in that timeframe.
Hernandez made some mechanical changes to his swing during a minor league demotion earlier in 2019, though there isn’t really a simple “lightbulb switched on” reason why Hernandez was suddenly much more productive. Looking at his numbers pre- and post-July 16, 2019, Hernandez’s walk rates have actually declined in the last 26 months, while his strikeout rates have gone from being almost league-worst to merely bad.
Hernandez always made plenty of hard contract, and with a .350 BABIP during the productive half of his career (and a .296 BABIP beforehand), there is some level of good fortune involved in Hernandez’s rise. That said, Hernandez has helped himself by making more contact in general and hitting more line drives, with his above-average baserunning allowing him to translate that hard contact into hits.
Turning to the defensive side, Hernandez has worked to become a respectable outfielder after struggling so badly in the field earlier in his career. Over 926 innings (707 in right field, 212 in left) this season, Hernandez has a +0.1 UZR/150 and +1 Outs Above Average, while the Defensive Runs Saved metric still gives him a -2 score. While a Gold Glove probably isn’t in Hernandez’s future, he has at least proven that he isn’t a DH-only player — which could prove important to his future earning potential.
Hernandez was arbitration-eligible for the first time this season, and avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $4.325MM salary. He’ll get a sizable raise coming this winter, and then another in the 2022-23 offseason before becoming eligible for free agency following the 2023 campaign. Should Hernandez keep up his level of offense next year, he should earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $17MM in 2022-23 before hitting the open market prior to his age-31 season.
That is, unless the Blue Jays keep him off the open market by working out a contract extension. With two-plus years remaining of control over Hernandez, the Jays aren’t in any immediate rush to make a decision one way or the other, and naturally quite a few other matters will need to be addressed in the interim. Re-signing impending free agents Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray seem to be a priority for the club, and one would imagine the Jays will make a hard push to extend Jose Berrios (a free agent after 2022) given how they surrendered such a notable prospect package to acquire him from the Twins at the trade deadline. Elsewhere on the extension front, Toronto might also look to land some long-term cost certainty over cornerstones Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, even though both are already controlled through the 2025 season.
In short, Hernandez might find himself somewhat overlooked again, if the Jays are content to go year-by-year. However, there is some logic in the team exploring a longer deal with the slugger right now. While the Blue Jays are one of the league’s best offensive teams, the lineup will take a big hit if Semien leaves, and the future depth has been a bit depleted — Cavan Biggio has struggled through an injury-plagued year, Rowdy Tellez was traded to the Brewers, and top prospect Austin Martin was dealt in the Berrios swap.
Speaking of the prospect ranks, the Toronto farm system has plenty of intriguing infielders and pitchers, but the Jays are short on young outfielders ready to make an impact at the big league level. While that could change in the two years before Hernandez hits free agency, the lack of young outfield depth was one reason the Jays felt compelled to sign George Springer this past offseason. There isn’t anyone immediately coming to push for Hernandez’s role, and in any case, Hernandez would seem to have a lot more job security than the much more inconsistent Randal Grichuk and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Grichuk is signed through 2023 but has provided below-average offense in Toronto, while Gurriel is controlled through 2024 but has been part of trade rumors in the past.
Only Hernandez himself (and maybe his agents at Republik Sports) would know the answer to this subject, but the outfielder also might be eager to lock in the first big payday of his professional career. Hernandez made more in 2021 than he did in the rest of his career combined, as he received only a $20K bonus when first signing with the Astros back in 2011. While $7MM+ in arb earnings is lined up for 2022, Hernandez might not want to run the risk of injury or a downturn in performance next season, so he could be open to a deal of fewer additional years, but maybe a higher average annual value in 2024 or 2025.
Grichuk’s four-year/$47MM deal in April 2019 is the only major multi-year extension of the Ross Atkins era, so there isn’t much of a hint about how this front office might approach a Hernandez extension, or if such a deal is even truly on their radar. The trade that brought Hernandez to Toronto is already one of the canniest moves of Atkins’ tenure as GM, and that trade will only look better if a deal can be worked out so Hernandez can continue to be a big part of the Blue Jays lineup for years to come.