The Giants have an infield spot to fill, maybe two. They have an open outfield spot. These are the battles of spring. These are, barring any surprises, the only battles of spring. So you're going to read a lot about them. You're going to read so many articles about the last spots on the bench, that you might even find yourself reading an article about Gorkys Hernandez.
The 28-year-old Hernandez was signed as a minor-league free agent this offseason after spending parts of his career with the Tigers, Marlins, Braves, Pirates, White Sox, and Royals. The right-handed hitter was a Baseball America top-100 prospect for two years in a row, and they had this to say about him in 2008:
Hernandez draws comparisons to a young Kenny Lofton as a speedster with gap power. He makes good contact and has shown the ability to make adjustments against experienced pitchers.
And in 2009:
Hernandez has all the tools to be a quintessential leadoff hitter and center fielder. He drives the ball from gap to gap with his line-drive swing and is a weapon on the bases with above-average speed. He covers tremendous ground in center with his quickness and prices routes, and he also has a strong, accurate arm.
Sounds like a franchise player, give or take, and then he stopped hitting. Or, rather, he never really started. Part of the problem was that he was young for most of his leagues, so the numbers were always taken with a grain of salt. Another part of the problem was that he was traded three times (once for baseball hero Edgar Renteria), and four different sets of instructors and organizational philosophies can't be good for a fast-tracked tools monster.
When Hernandez finally reached the majors in 2012, it was after two seasons of solid defense league-average OBP in Triple-A in his age-23 and 24 seasons, but nothing that would force a team to give him a starting role. Or even a 40-man roster spot, so he bounced around.
Hernandez bottomed out in Triple-A for the White Sox in 2014. He hit .233/.292/.290 in 193 plate appearances, and he was released in June. Then the Giants won the World Series again. That doesn't have anything to do with Hernandez, but I'm building a timeline, and it helps me think. And there were happier times ahead for him, too, as he re-joined the Pirates, and his 2015 season was a relative success. A .288/.368/.406 line doesn't sound like much, but he doubled his walk rate and made more contact. He followed that up with an impressive .333/.412/.408 line in Venezuela this winter in 228 at-bats.
The .406 Triple-A slugging percentage was his highest since rookie ball, which is both the good and bad news with him. Ah, but if he hit .400 with 30 dingers, he wouldn't be available on a Giants special. And if there's one player in camp who fits that Andres Torres/Gregor Blanco template, it's Hernandez. Blanks is a physical marvel who can hit VW Bugs over the left-field wall, which doesn't sound like the typical Giants bench player. Hernandez is more of a familiar story, with unquestioned speed and defense anchoring any thoughts that he could help a big-league club. The only thing missing is the ability to hit well enough to stick, and the Giants have shown the ability to mine that from their minor-league free agent outfielders.
While it feels lazy to slap a Blanco comparison on Hernandez (center field! speed! Venezuelan!), it works on several levels. Blanco usually paired his low-to-average strikeout rate with low batting averages, but walked enough and hit for just enough power to keep getting at-bats in the upper minors. People kept taking a chance that his not-hopeless bat would come around enough to catch up with his baserunning and glove, and the Giants were in the right place at the right time. Hernandez has the same story, except we don't know how the Giants chapter ends yet. As a right-handed complement to Blanco, he makes a lot of sense.
Alex Pavlovic is here to point out that Bruce Bochy might agree:
We take note around here when Bochy mentions a player he wasn’t asked about. So there was this today: "This Hernandez, he’s intriguing. He’s coming off a nice winter ball (season), he’s a center fielder. I’m looking forward to watching him play."
If there's a roadblock to Hernandez being a frontrunner, it's that he's a little too similar to Blanco. Even though he's right-handed, I'm not sure how many five-homer outfielders the Giants need to carry, even if they can all play center and run like the dickens. Jarrett Parker, Mac Williamson, and Blanks might all make more sense as pinch-hitters in the eighth inning, down by a run, especially if Blanco is already available as the single-steal-score-on-a-single alternative in that situation.
If Kelby Tomlinson can prove his mettle at shortstop this spring, the Giants could take both Hernandez and one of those outfielders. It would work beautifully until Brandon Crawford had to miss a week. On second thought, there's probably just one outfield spot open.
As usual, the spring will have a lot to say about who actually makes the roster, which almost seems bonkers. But that's how they decided on Torres and Blanco, so I don't know. If Torres doesn't hit .400 in the Cactus League in 2009, does he make the team? If he doesn't, does he kick around Fresno and move to a different team after the season? Do the Giants win the World Series the following year? Do they make a stupid move after losing the 2010 NL West, which means the 2012 and 2014 World Series turn out differently?
And you thought that spring training stats don't mean anything. If Hernandez has a strong spring, he'll be one of the finalists for the last outfield spot. He's one of the more intriguing possibilities in camp, and the Giants didn't just sign him so that I could stock up on "Gorkys Park" puns, or that Natto could Photoshop some Gorkys II: Gorkys' Revenge posters.
Though I'd like to think it was a consideration. Regardless, here's Gorkys Hernandez, one of the players to watch closely this spring.