Elier Hernandez is 22 years old. This is easy to forget, of course.
Once a symbol of the Royals’ resurgent international scouting department, Hernandez has spent nearly six years in the organization. He has repeated rookie ball, struggled in the low minors and spent much of his career looking for consistency at the plate. He has evolved from a Dominican Republic teenager who signed for $3.05 million in 2011 — still the largest bonus in club history for an international amateur free agent — to an outfielder who has mostly disappeared from prospect rankings. Yet as the 2017 season began, Hernandez offered signs of a possible breakout.
He opened the season batting .306 with a .336 on-base percentage and in 30 games at Class A Wilmington. He posted a .844 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percent), bouncing back from a sluggish 2016. The performance earned him a promotion to Class AA Northwest Arkansas last week. The Royals are hopeful that the offensive production will continue in the hitter-friendly confines of the Texas League.
“You forget how young they are along the way,” said J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ assistant general manager for player personnel.
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The timeline for an international player can often feel accelerated, Picollo says. They can sign at 16 or 17 years old. This means they must be protected on the 40-man roster at a younger age. Their ‘options’ can disappear quickly. But then there are players such as Hernandez, who develop at a slower pace, who keep moving through the system, and then one day you turn around, and they are still just 22 years old at Class AA.
“He’s very much age appropriate for the league,” Picollo said. “He’s always been sort of young for the league, and then he’s appropriate for the league, and that’s when he starts hitting.”
The Royals still believe in Hernandez’s tools and makeup, the skill set that attracted them in the first place. A 6-foot-3, 200-pound outfielder, he possesses above-average speed and the ability to play center field — though club officials see him more suited to play in a corner spot. The questions, for most of his career, have centered on his ability to develop at the plate and access the power in his athletic frame.
In parts of six minor-league seasons, Hernandez is a career .257 hitter with a .301 on-base percentage and 24 homers in 527 games. In addition, his strikeout numbers have continued to spike as he’s climbed through the minor leagues. He struck out 120 times in both 2015 and 2016. He recorded 35 strikeouts in 124 at-bats at Class A Wilmington this year before earning his promotion.
In some ways, Hernandez’s career has followed a similar pattern. He has struggled in his first season at a new level. He’s made measurable progress the following year. In 2016, for instance, Hernandez batted .226 with a .281 on-base percentage and two homers in 134 games at Wilmington. He returned the level this season and appeared more comfortable, hitting .306 in his first 30 games.
“He’s an extremely hard worker, an intelligent guy,” Picollo said. “He’s a leader. He’s a guy that’s hard not to pull for because he does everything right. He just hasn’t had a ton of success with the bat.”
After his numbers at Wilmington, Royals officials will be curious to see how Hernandez performs at Northwest Arkansas. Offensive statistics are often depressed in Wilmington’s Frawley Stadium. So Hernandez could expect an uptick in his power numbers at Northwest Arkansas. For now, though, he will be focused on building on his success at Wilmington.
“We say all the time: The road map or the timetable for these guys, it’s different for all of them,” Picollo said. “With Elier, it just takes a little bit of time for him to adjust.”