Hernandez not short on his chances
Even though it's a two-man race for job, youngster's confident
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The Orioles never expected Luis Hernandez to be the next Miguel Tejada, but they hoped that he'd lay claim to the vacant shortstop slot with steady defense and consistent effort at the plate. Hernandez has underplayed even those modest expectations, though, and finds himself in a two-man battle to take the starting job.
Hernandez has made four errors in his first nine Spring Training games, and he had to go to a knee to catch a routine popup in Wednesday's game against the Mets. The Venezuela native made a strong backhand play and a throwing error later in Wednesday's game, and he has opened the door for fellow infielder Brandon Fahey, who was previously considered as a backup.
"Fielding slumps are just like hitting slumps," said Baltimore manager Dave Trembley. "You've got to work your way out of it."
Trembley acknowledged on Wednesday that the battle for shortstop is a two-man derby, and he had previously noted the absence of Freddie Bynum, who had arthroscopic surgery on Wednesday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Now Trembley has no choice but to hope that Hernandez can play up to expectations.
"I've seen Luis Hernandez play very well at shortstop. I'm confident that he not only can do that, but will do that," Trembley said before Baltimore's 6-2 loss to the Mets on Wednesday. "I've seen him do it before. I know he can do it."
Hernandez had the blessing -- or perhaps the curse, depending on your perspective -- of playing his best baseball in his first exposure to big league pitching. The diminutive shortstop batted .290 in a 30-game sample with the Orioles last year, which is 40 points better than his career Minor League average and nearly 50 better than what he did for Double-A Bowie.
The former Atlanta prospect also played well defensively while Tejada was on the disabled list, establishing a reputation in the process. Several analysts, including Trembley, tabbed him as the likely starter before the Orioles convened for Spring Training.
The offense wasn't the problem as much as the defense, which has fluctuated enough to give the Orioles some pause. Trembley has said that Hernandez appears to be nervous, which has affected him in all areas of his game.
"I think he's gotten out of his lane somewhat. He needs to get back in it," said Trembley, supporting his shortstop. "Like any young kid, he wants to do so well. All he needs to do is be himself. That's good enough."
Hernandez has denied being nervous, but he acknowledged that he hasn't played as well as he'd like.
"I don't want to say I've had a bad Spring Training or that I've done really badly, but sometimes things don't go the way I want," Hernandez said. "I'm here to practice and get better, and the way to fix things is to keep playing and working hard."
Some things are unfixable, however, and the 23-year-old's offense may rest in that category. Hernandez has just a .299 career on-base percentage and a .325 slugging mark in the Minors, numbers that don't project well for a big league future.
Fahey, for instance, has been better across the board (.260 average, .322 on-base mark and .334 slugging in the Minors) and has batted significantly worse in the Majors (.223, .288 and .292 respectively). Hernandez said on Wednesday morning that he's not worried about hitting in the big leagues and that his main task is to iron out his defense.
"If you're worried about hitting, it's hard to play defense. I know I can hit," Hernandez said. "Like everybody, you're excited for a chance to play in the big leagues. I've got a big chance. I'm just trying to take it and play hard."
Either way, he's not going to stress out too much about it. Hernandez is young and knows he has a big league future, and he said that he's not trying to replace Tejada or do more than his pedigree says he can handle.
"I really don't have a lot of pressure," Hernandez said. "I just think I've got to play. I know I can play. ... For me, I just want to play every day and get ready to play wherever I'm going to play when the season starts."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.