San Francisco Giants: Where Did Gorkys Hernandez Come From?

Mar 6, 2016; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants center fielder Gorkys Hernandez (66) scores on a wild pitch during the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Scottsdale Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 6, 2016; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants center fielder Gorkys Hernandez (66) scores on a wild pitch during the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Scottsdale Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

Gorkys Hernandez has made a good first impression with the San Francisco Giants, but where exactly did this veteran outfielder come from?

Every year in Spring Training, there’s one or two players that come in with little to no expectations, but end up opening a lot of eyes. The San Francisco Giants are no strangers to such a situation, as Gregor Blanco made the opening day roster in 2012 as a non-roster invitee, and Justin Maxwll did the same just last year. Though he’ll have a much harder time cracking the opening day roster this year, outfielder Gorkys Hernandez has impressed in his short time as a Giant.

Where did Hernandez come from? It’s a fair question to ask, but maybe the more appropriate question would be “where hasn’t Hernandez been?”.

Hernandez is the prototypical “journeyman” ballplayer. After signing with the Detriot Tigers in 2005 at the ripe old age of 16, the Venezuelan has bounced around in various minor league organizations, including a couple cup of coffee stints in the major leagues.

His basebal journey began in the Gulf Coast League, playing for the Tigers’ affiliate in 2006, and the following year was a big one for Hernandez. Playing for Detroit’s Class-A affiliate, the West Michigan Whitecaps, he batted .293 with 25 doubles, five triples, four home runs, drove in 50 runs, and stole a league-leading 54 bags. He earned the Western League’s MVP award, was named both a midseason and postseason all-star, and participated in the All-Star Futures Game, drawing a walk and scoring a run.

While other players from that year’s Future game, like Joey Votto, Geovany Soto, Evan Longoria, and Jacoby Ellsbury, have gone on to big careers and big paydays, Hernandez has been stuck in the slow lane. Before the 2008 season began, Hernandez was part of a package that sent Edgar Renteria to the Tigers from the Atlanta Braves, and that was just the beginning of a series of moves for the young outfielder.

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Despite being listed as a top-five prospect in Atlanta’s organization, he lasted for just a season and a half there before he was traded again in the middle of the 2009 season. This time, Hernandez, along with pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, was sent to Pittsburgh with All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth headed to the Braves.

Hernandez would stick with the Pirates for a relatively long time, spending half of 2009 and all of 2010 and 2011 in their minor league system, mostly as a middle of the road hitter whose best value came from his glove. His time finally came on May 18th, 2012, when Hernandez received the long-awaited call to the big leagues for the first time. Three days later he would take his first at-bat, striking out as a pinch-hitter. Another six days later, he collected his first career hit, a two-run, pinch-hit single.

At the 2012 trade deadline, Hernandez was on the move again, as the Pirates dealt him to the Miami Marlins for first baseman Gaby Sanchez. He would hang around in the big leagues with the Marlins for the rest of the season, getting somewhat regular playing time over the final two months of the year. In 45 games and 132 at-bats, Hernandez batted .212 and hit three triples, three home runs, and drove in 11 runs.

In 2013, Hernandez headed back to the minor leagues, starting the year with Miami’s Triple-A team, the New Orleans Zephyrs. That again didn’t last long, as he was traded for the fourth time, this time to the Kansas City Royals for minor league infielder Alex McClure, who played just seven games for Miami’s Double-A team (the Jacksonville Suns) before retiring from professional baseball. Hernandez spent the rest of the season with the Omaha Storm Chasers, Kansas City’s Triple-A club, and signed a minor league deal to stay with the Royals in the 2014 offseason.

Just after the 2014 minor league season began, Hernandez found himself on the move yet again, his fifth trade in eight years, as the Royals sent him to their division rivals, the Chicago White Sox for cash considerations. He played just 47 games and hit .233 for the Charlotte Knights (Chicago’s Triple-A squad) before he was released on June 11th.

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Hernandez, now 26 years old, spent the rest of the year looking for work, but wasn’t picked up until after the season when the Pirates brought him back on a minor league pact, complete with an invite to big league camp in Spring Training. Hernandez didn’t crack the opening day roster and spent the vast majority of the year in Triple-A again. But on June 28th, over three years after his big league debut, Hernandez was called up to Pittsburgh again, starting in place of an injured Gregory Polanco.

His second stint with the Pirates was mostly unforgettable, as he was hitless in five at-bats over eight games (although he did record a stolen base), but he made the highlight reels for all the wrong reasons. On June 30th, he committed the “mother of all baserunning errors” when he was the potential game-winning run in the 14th inning of a tie game. That was his “biggest” moment from his second stint with Pittsburgh, as he was optioned back a few days later.

Still just 28 years old, Hernandez is now in camp with San Francisco on a minor league deal looking to make his mark on a new fanbase in the month of Cactus League games leading up to the season. While getting a lot of run in center field, Hernandez has done just that.

The tools that once made him a top prospect are still in place. He’s played great defense, proving himself to be a quite rangy center fielder with a strong arm that should force runners to think twice before attempting to take an extra base. He still has top-notch speed, which comes into play with his outfield defense, and has stolen four bags without being caught.

This spring, Hernandez has also shown an offensive ability that hasn’t always been there in the past. In 29 at-bats, he’s picked up 10 hits for a .345 average, including two doubles and a triple off Oakland A’s ace Sonny Gray, and has driven in four runs while scoring five. Hernandez has struck out five times compared to four walks, much better than his career minor league rate of 2.5 strikeouts per walk (of course, obligatory “small sample size” alert).

Hernandez almost assuredly isn’t going to break camp with the Giants on the opening day roster. Something downright catastrophic would have to happen for Hernandez to trade in his Spring Training number 66 for a more conventional number for a major league outfielder. But it should be comforting to manager Bruce Bochy and the rest of the staff that there is another capable center fielder with big league experience within the organization, especially given the past injury history troubles for the Giants’ new center fielder, and the man he replaced.

As has been well-documented, new center fielder Denard Span, who signed a three-year deal this offseason, missed 101 games in 2016 because he went under the knife thrice, and the former man in the middle of the outfield Angel Pagan has missed an average of 61 games over the past three seasons. Last season proved that depth can dissipate quickly, as all three Giants’ starting outfielders (Pagan, Hunter Pence, and Nori Aoki), as well as their primary fourth outfielder (Gregor Blanco) spent chunks of 2015 on the shelf.

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Hernandez is still low on the organizational depth chart for outfielders, with young sluggers like Mac Williamson (maybe the everyday left fielder of the future) and Jarrett Parker in front of him. If he does get called up, Hernandez likely wouldn’t be an impact bat, but he does bring a specific skill-set to the table that would certainly be of use to the Giants.