As the Washington Nationals’ season hurtled toward its mid-October halt, the organization quietly broke character for a moment, though no one took much notice. Late in September, the Nationals agreed to sign 29-year-old Cuban outfielder Yadiel Hernandez to a minor league deal, an uncommon foray into the bloated Cuban market they usually avoid.
“We thought we’d take a chance on him,” said Johnny DiPuglia, the Nats’ vice president of international operations. “He’s got a profile for us. We’ll find out.”
The Nationals do not usually pursue Cuban players. They have funneled much of their international budget toward redeveloping their Dominican program and mining the rest of Latin America for less expensive talent than the more-polished Cuban Serie A offers.
While other teams have spent tens of millions on top Cuban players — such as Yulieski Gurriel, who hit .262 in 36 games with the Astros after signing for $47.5 million over five years — the Nationals have looked elsewhere for young international talent.
“The Cuban market is now to the point where it’s so overinflated that you’re paying high dollars for the kind of guys you can probably develop yourself,” DiPuglia said. “We’ve got guys like [Rafael] Bautista, [Juan] Soto and [Victor] Robles that we signed for less money than some teams are spending on these Cuban guys that haven’t panned out.”
Bautista, who led the minors in stolen bases last season, Robles, who rocked up prospect ranking lists this season, and Soto, who won the Most Valuable Player Award in the Gulf Coast League, are all Dominican-born players the Nationals signed young and molded into top outfield prospects. They paid $200,000 for Hernandez, who will play the 2017 season at age 29 and is therefore beyond his most malleable years.
“He’s a solid baseball player, and for the price we got him — compared to what the Cuban market is — with the money we had available, we took a chance,” DiPuglia said. “He is older. He’s gonna play at 29 years old, so he’s got to be on the fast track.”
DiPuglia admitted some unpredictability in Hernandez’s path with the Nationals, given that he has not played a game since the middle of the 2015 season when he left the Cuban national team during a tournament in North Carolina. In his last full season there, Hernandez hit .369 with a .509 on-base percentage.
“He’s not your high-profile Cuban player, but he’s a legit left-handed hitter who grinds at-bats,” DiPuglia said. “He’s not a big, physical guy, but he’s always put up good numbers, a really good on-base percentage in every league he’s played in. He’s got the ability to bunt, the ability to hit the ball the other way, move runners over, he can play all three outfield positions.”
In other words, the 5-foot-10 Cuban is a solid professional player, a high-floor, low-ceiling type who won a Gold Glove in Cuba in the 2013-14 season and could serve as a left-handed hitter off the bench or a defensive replacement late. Baseball America rated him as the 16th-best player in Cuba last year. But DiPuglia said he might have to play some extended spring training to get at-bats after nearly two lost seasons.
“He knows how to play. I think if he does what we think he can, he shouldn’t be at each level very long,” DiPuglia said. “But you never know. He might be stale now after being out of baseball for a long time. Who knows? He’s a good human being. We’ve done a lot of make-up checking with him. We’ll see what happens.”
The Nationals entered this postseason with no clear-cut, left-handed hitting outfield option off the bench. Ben Revere is arbitration-eligible this offseason, but the Nationals have a decision to make after his average hovered around .200 this season. Brian Goodwin showed well in his big league opportunity, but he is unproven, too.
Perhaps Hernandez will play his way into the major-league mix at some point next season. The Nationals do not sign players like him often, but they are willing to take the $200,000 chance that he will.