DENVER – Appearances in all-star games were long predestined for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette, whose relatively rapid acclimation to the big-leagues mirrored their meteoric rises through the minors. It wasn’t always that way for Marcus Semien, although in recent years he steadily put himself on a track where it felt imminent ahead of his breakthrough this year.
Teoscar Hernandez, on the other hand, kept emphasizing how he “came from nowhere,” to win a spot in the American League’s starting lineup for Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic, and his hard-knocks pathway made him all the more appreciative of the recognition.
"I say I came nowhere because my name doesn't have anybody (influential) behind me,” Hernandez said. “I didn't sign for a big bonus. I wasn't a big prospect. I was just a guy that signed and went through the process in the minor leagues to make it to the big-leagues. And I'm still working hard to be part of the big-leagues for a long time.”
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With the Houston Astros, who signed him for $20,000 as an international free agent on Feb. 17, 2011, Hernandez was blocked and expendable. Traded to the Toronto Blue Jays at the deadline in 2017, he got the runway he needed to find himself at the plate, overcoming a 2019 demotion and doubts that he’d ever make it, and is fortunate he got the extra chance many players don’t get.
For that reason, Hernandez is relishing the all-star experience, answering questions in his usual affable manner while seated in a promenade alongside the American League’s top players.
While he didn’t want to point to a specific personal nadir, Hernandez was demoted to triple-A in May 2019 after opening the season batting .189/.262/.299. He returned a couple weeks later and since then, he’s batting .276/.335/.529 with 50 homers, 38 doubles and 132 RBIs in 823 plate appearances. To contextualize that versus other hitters, his weighted Runs Created Plus during that time is 128.
“It is not just me (who has doubts), every player that comes from nowhere the way I did thinks things like that, when am I going to get the chance to show what I've got?” Hernandez said. “That chance finally came and here we are.”
Key to that is the organizational patience the Blue Jays showed in his handling, letting him rebuild in the minors and quickly recalling him once ready. They had opportunities to give at the time, and his emergence is part of the reward for the lost years of 2018 and ’19.
“That was a huge difference. When I was in Houston I didn't get the chance that I deserved,” Hernandez said. “Coming to Toronto and a team that was rebuilding, they believed in my talent, they believed in everything that I had and I appreciate that from the bottom of my heart. It means a lot because they were the only team that I feel that really gave me the chance to show my skills and what can do in the big-leagues.”
There are some parallels for Semien, who began his career with the Chicago White Sox and was traded to the Oakland Athletics as part of a 2014 deal for Jeff Samardzija. Back home on the West Coast, he steadily built himself into an MVP calibre shortstop and while his 2019 season was certainly worthy, he didn’t get an all-star nod until now.
"A lot of players come into the league and they do well right away and then, for whatever reason, you hit a roadblock,” Semien said. “Some guys get sent down, some guys struggle and grind through it if you have the work ethic to get it right and continue to get it better. Because the league will adjust to you every single day. If you know that, I think you'll be OK. I've seen that with some of the young guys this year where you have a couple of tough games early in the season and you think the world's over. I'm looking at it just laughing because I know at the end of August and September, they're going to be just fine. But you have to go through it first to know what it is.”
Guerrero and Bichette learned the deal growing up with their all-star dads and now it’s their turn.
Guerrero, the game’s leading vote-getter, is plastered all over downtown Denver in Major League Baseball’s promotional ads for the game, a symbol of his status in the sport. A year ago some wondered if the hype that preceded him to the majors was warranted, but his breakout has quashed that talk for good.
“It's unbelievable,” Guerrero said of seeing his image on buildings and light posts. “But like I always say, the work I put in at home in the Dominican back in the off-season is paying off right now. And this is nothing right now. I know I've got to continue working very hard to get more things accomplished.”
Bichette’s pathway has been smoother but he points out that he’s gone through “my own little ups and downs, whether people realize it or not.” Returning to Coors Field is a homecoming of sorts since his dad Dante starred for the Rockies and Bichette regularly took batting practice on the field as a teenager.
But the all-star selection is his own achievement, the first of what should be many more.
“If I accomplish the things that I want to accomplish, the milestones will come, like being here and hopefully making the playoffs, hopefully winning individual awards, stuff like that,” he said. “I try to get better every day, trying to become a better player and that's really it.”