BUFFALO, N.Y. – Like many players on July 31, Teoscar Hernandez’s attention was divided between his game that night in Omaha and the looming non-waiver trade deadline.
The 24-year-old outfielder was four months into a fine season with the triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, and even though his path to the big-leagues was blocked by a stacked Houston Astros roster, he was following the news out of curiosity. He’d given very little thought to the possibility of a trade. Then, roughly two hours before the 4 p.m. ET deadline, his phone rang with assistant general manager Mike Elias was on the other end of the line.
“He told me I just got traded for Francisco Liriano and when first he told me that, I was like, ‘Really? Is this happening?’” Hernandez recalls. “Then I felt so happy. I don’t know why. My first reaction was like the same one when I got called up (to the majors) last year – I was so excited.”
Those feelings may have been similar because the Toronto Blue Jays were both the team he debuted against in the big-leagues, and the club he was dealt to. Adding to the symmetry is that he was traded for Liriano, who served up both Hernandez’s first hit, a home run, that fateful Aug. 12, 2016 night.
The connections all crossed his mind as he processed the sudden change to his career, to his life. There was promise and opportunity with the Blue Jays, who have little certainty in their outfield for 2018 and highly coveted him. A lot of it.
“It feels weird that you got traded for the man (against whom) you got your first hit, first homer, first RBI,” Hernandez says. “It makes me happy because Liriano is a big guy, so to be part of a trade for him, I feel like they think (highly) of me, they hand a lot of opportunity to me. It was good. It was a day I’m not going to forget, and I think it’s the best chance for me to get to the big-leagues.”
On a muggy afternoon under a granite sky, Hernandez is wearing a red Buffalo Bisons hoodie as he hops out of the home dugout and onto the grass at Coca Cola Field. Manager Bobby Meacham is out by the mound feeding a pitching machine for bunt drills, firing off difficult-to-deaden pitches right at the knees.
Hernandez joins him by the mound, the two discuss technique, and he closely watches teammates like speedster Roemon Fields work to not foul the ball off before jumping in for his round.
“He’s going to be good, man. He’s all ears,” says Meacham. “You don’t get the feeling he thinks he knows everything, or he’s got it all figured out. He’s open to what we have to say, whether it’s baserunning, or hitting. He’s just wow. He’s looking at you going, ‘OK, OK, OK,’ and he’s sorting through things really well. If I had to teach anybody a lesson in baseball, it’s for young guys to take in information, sort through it and take for yourself what you can use. That’s what it looks like he’s trying to do.”
Hernandez’s transition from Fresno of the Pacific Coast League to Buffalo of the triple-A equivalent International League didn’t start particularly well, as he went 3-for-34 with three RBIs, six walks and 17 strikeouts over his first 10 games in Buffalo.
But over his next three games he went 7-for-14 with two doubles, a triple, a homer and six RBIs, including a game-winning single in the 10th inning Wednesday against Indianapolis.
Maybe, some suggest, he was pressing with a new team, trying to make a good first impression. Or maybe it was simply a slump, the kind every player goes through. But Hernandez makes no excuses.
“I know I’ve had a pretty bad start here with the Bisons, but it happens. It’s baseball,” he says. “But I’m starting to get better, starting to see better pitches and not chase those pitches in the dirt or swinging and missing. That’s one of the biggest things I have to work on.”
At the end of a disappointing 2015 season, Hernandez did a lot of navel-gazing about what had gone wrong. In 2014, he slashed .294/.376/.550 as a 21-year-old at advanced-A Lancaster, earning a late-season promotion to double-A Corpus Christi, where he showed well with a .773 OPS in 23 games. His stock was on the rise. But his return engagement there the next season was a mess, as he slashed .219/.275/.362 with 126 strikeouts in 514 plate appearances.
All the progress he’d made, momentum he had built had stalled in a big way.
“It was a rough year,” Hernandez says. “I’d never seen those breaking pitches, they were really good. In high-A, they were young guys who didn’t know how to pitch. I learned a lot from that year and last year I concentrated and put in my mind that I had to be much better about the strikeouts, about the hitting zone and before the season started I worked so hard.”
Most prospects don’t make it and the Astros started to wonder if trouble recognizing and handling spin might be what holds him back. But well before the next season’s spring training started, Hernandez impressed club officials by working out daily at their complex in the Dominican Republic. He ran coaches ragged asking them to help him learn to identify breaking balls, and to feed balls into the machine so he could practice hitting off-speed offerings.
The work paid off with a big rebound in ’16, as he slashed .305/.384/.437 in 69 games at double-A, was promoted to triple-A, where he posted an OPS of .865 and appeared in 41 games with the Astros, slashing .230/.304/.420.
“The big thing that helped me was mental preparation. I was so focused working on that,” he says. “I forgot about homers. I forgot about RBIs. I forgot about everything – I just concentrated on my strike zone, my pitch recognition and getting on base more. That’s the thing that helped me have that big year last year.”
The consensus among a handful of rival executives polled is that at minimum, Hernandez will eventually become a good fourth outfielder for the Blue Jays. But one added an important caveat: Given the work ethic and determination, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him develop into a decent everyday player.
That wouldn’t surprise Felix Francisco, who served as the special assistant to the general manager/Latin American operations with the Astros when they signed Hernandez for $20,000 on Feb. 17, 2011.
“We first saw Teoscar as a third baseman, and he was OK in outfield. I thought at first he was a corner guy,” says Francisco, who is now a special assignment scout with the Kansas City Royals. “He could swing the bat, a little power. He’s an unbelievable person, great guy. Hard-working guy, honest guy. Teoscar’s family was involved the whole time from Day 1 until he got signed.”
Hernandez was born in Cotui, Dominican Republic but was raised about 40 minutes south in the small valley town of Maimon, set in the centre of the country. He picked up his work ethic from his mother, Carmen, and his dad, Teofilo, and applied it to the first love of his life – baseball.
“I was five, six when I started to play, I played all the time, in the street, in the backyard, without shoes,” he recalls with a smile. “I played everything, too. I love sports. I was good at basketball, too, and volleyball. But in the Dominican, you can’t get that big in basketball or volleyball. The better opportunity for sports over there is baseball.”
Eventually, Hernandez’s talents landed him a spot at a training academy run by Luis Coronado, who started him off at shortstop and later had him play third as well. He had played the infield almost exclusively when a couple of local Astros scouts came by to watch a workout late in 2010. He introduced Hernandez but the scouts said they were looking for outfielders, and Coronado said no problem, he could play the outfield, too, throwing him into the field cold.
They asked him to show off his throws, and gifted with a plus arm, Hernandez’s throws from the outfield still played. After watching him they said thanks and left. Hernandez was sent home, only to be called back two months later when Francisco was coming into town. He made the final call on all signings and the Astros were interested.
“When first they told me, ‘Hey, we’re going to offer you something,’ right away I called my family and said, ‘Hey, they said they’re going make an offer. It doesn’t matter how much it is, it doesn’t matter if it’s $100, I’m going to sign and start my career,’” recalls Hernandez. “I signed for $20,000 and that’s when it started. And I’m not done yet.”
That debut in Toronto?
Hernandez remembers everything about the 5-3 Astros win at Rogers Centre: the crowd of 46,330 he saw when he ran out to play centre field; the five pitch walk from Liriano in the first plate appearance of his career; the two-out homer on a full-count pitch in the sixth that opened up a 5-2 lead; the groundball single off Ryan Tepera in the eighth; the euphoria of it all afterwards.
“At first, I didn’t realize I was in the big-leagues. I didn’t believe it happened until the next day,” he says with a grin. “The first day was like a dream. Everything was happening. I get the homer. I get another hit. I get into the field. I see that big crowd. But I didn’t realize I was there until the next day. You know when you have a good dream and then you wake up and then you say, ‘Ah, it was a dream.’ The next day when I woke up, I said, ‘Wow, I’m here. I made it.’”
Only Hernandez’s girlfriend made it up to Toronto in time to watch his debut. His parents watched the game on a big-screen TV they set up in their backyard at the family home in Maimon, surrounded by other relatives and friends.
After that first game, Hernandez phoned home and told his mother that he loved Toronto, that he’d love to play there one day. He forgot about making that comment until he was traded to the Blue Jays, with an actual opportunity to make that happen.
“I’m going to try my best to help the team – it doesn’t matter how, bunting, running, defence – I just want to get the chance to show them I can play in the big-leagues. Even if they need me as a catcher, I’ll play catcher, I don’t care,” says Hernandez. “I loved the city, the field, the people, the atmosphere on the field, the crowd. The way that I play, they’re going to love it. I’m going to do my best. I’m going to play as hard as I can to get those people enjoying the game.”