Time for Phillies to see what Cesar Hernandez can do

Second baseman Cesar Hernandez, one of the Phils' top position prospects, is up with the big team.
Second baseman Cesar Hernandez, one of the Phils' top position prospects, is up with the big team. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 31, 2013

The Phillies either passed along bad news on Wednesday or finally owned up to some.

It really doesn't matter which, because whether they were previously being optimistic or deceptive, the facts come out the same way. Chase Utley isn't going to be out for merely two weeks with a strained abdominal muscle. It's going to be more like a month, and that's if everything goes right.

In case you hadn't noticed, everything going exactly right is not a specialty of the Phillies this season.

Even after last night's 4-3 win over the Red Sox, the Phils are still below .500 and operating with two of their better position players on the disabled list. Two starters from the opening day rotation are out as well, and most of the guys who have stayed healthy are no great shakes.

Every small streak of success has been matched by an equal and opposite streak of failure, and that's what happens to teams that aren't good enough to play well consistently.

So, what to do?

Looking to the future and using the rest of this season to help get there would be one idea, and the Phils might have taken a step in that direction when they called up second baseman Cesar Hernandez to take, at least for a few days, the roster spot left open when Michael Young was granted bereavement leave.

If the front office has decided that Hernandez will eventually inherit second base from Utley, it might have also decided that right now would be a fine time to start the transition. It wouldn't be a surprise if Hernandez stays even after Young returns, or if his audition at second becomes the first major move in a full-blown rebuilding phase.

"I'm going to play him," manager Charlie Manuel said of Hernandez. "It might be hard for him to stay on the team . . . when Utley gets back, but who knows? Things happen in baseball. He might really show us he can play."

Hernandez was hitting .308 at Lehigh Valley and is considered one of the top position player prospects in the minor-league system. Having arrived from Rochester, N.Y., at just about game time, he made his major-league debut in the seventh inning Wednesday with a pinch-hit fly ball to center field and then remained in the game at second base. The switch-hitter also grounded out sharply to second in the eighth.

Hernandez was placed on the 40-man roster in 2011 at the age of 20 because the organization was afraid of losing him in the Rule 5 draft. He has moved quickly through the system. This would be a fine time to find out more about him because, since his service clock started early, he can't be sent to the minors next season, even at the end of spring training, without clearing waivers.

"I hope this is a good thing for him. He knows he means a lot to us and what we think of him," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "I don't know how many opportunities he'll have to play. Hopefully, it gives us a chance to see what he can do. You never know how guys are going to react their first time in the big leagues. But he's a talented kid."

Using today as a rehearsal for tomorrow has its dangers, of course. One of them would be that the team, in going with Hernandez or other prospects ahead of short-term veterans, would probably win fewer games that way. Another is the risk of hurting the younger players more than helping them.

It is accepted, for instance, that Domonic Brown's progress was probably slowed by his first trips to the big-league team. Brown is having some success now - he hit his 12th and 13th home runs Wednesday - but that might have come sooner if he didn't have such a tough time in his 184 at-bats in 2011 and 187 at-bats in 2012.

"We had a need at a time we were really trying to win. We needed a lefthanded bat . . . so we brought him [up], maybe to the detriment of his development and maybe too early," Amaro said. "I told Charlie, 'He's not a ready-made product yet, but this is the best guy we have now.' "

Those decisions are always delicate, and the organization is facing a bunch of them as the old guard gets progressively older and the hope that there is one more run left in those players continues to fade.

Thus far, Amaro has been steadfast in saying it is too early to give up on the season, or to properly assess what how good the Phillies can be until they get healthier. That is a logical thing to say, and he might even believe it, but 50 games in a baseball season is usually enough to tell a few truths. Even if healthy, the Phils don't seem talented enough to contend.

So, again, what to do?

If Cesar Hernandez hangs around for a while that might be a good indicator of whether the load-out has begun in earnest, even if it isn't acknowledged. There are things the organization needs to know about its next team. It already knows enough about the current one.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @bobfordsports.

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