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Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo on calling up Yadiel Hernandez

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Yadiel Hernandez will turn 33 in October, and he finally made his MLB debut this year after a long journey...

MLB: SEP 12 Braves at Nationals Photo by Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“We thought we’d take a chance on him,” Washington Nationals’ Assistant GM and VP of International Operations, Johnny DiPuglia, told Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes in October of 2016.

DiPuglia and the Nationals had just signed 29-year-old, Cuban-born outfielder Yadiel Hernandez for $200K, a year after he’d left the Cuban National Team while playing a tournament in North Carolina.

“The Cuban market is now to the point where it’s so overinflated that you’re paying high dollars for the kind of guys you can probably develop yourself,” DiPuglia said. “We’ve got guys like [Rafael] Bautista, [Juan] Soto and [Victor] Robles that we signed for less money than some teams are spending on these Cuban guys that haven’t panned out.”

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

In spite of his advanced age (baseball/prospect-wise), Hernandez, who played for the Cocodrilos de Matanzas in the Cuban Baseball Federation between 2009-2014, was an appealing sign for DiPuglia.

“He’s a solid baseball player, and for the price we got him — compared to what the Cuban market is — with the money we had available, we took a chance,” DiPuglia said. “He is older. He’s gonna play at 29 years old, so he’s got to be on the fast track.”

In three seasons, 370 games, and 1,460 plate appearances in the Nationals’ farm system from 2017-19, Hernandez put up a combined .301/.385/.503 line with 61 doubles and 63 homers.

In 2019, Hernandez led, “Washington’s Minor League system in home runs (33), RBIs (90), slugging percentage (.604), OPS (1.009), hits (142), extra-base hits (56) and runs scored (87),” as the Nationals noted when he was called up earlier this week to make his debut in the majors.

Hernandez also led the Nationals’ full-season minor leaguers, “in batting average (.323),” “while his .406 on-base percentage ranked second,” and he, “was named Fresno’s team,” MVP, “... and was selected to the Triple-A All-Star game in his first full Triple-A season.”

“Great story,” manager Davey Martinez said.

“He’s worked his tail off to get here. Super proud of him. He’ll play some left field, DH some, pinch hit some, but really happy that he’s here, really happy that he’s worked — great kid.”

The Nationals have called up a number of players for their big league debuts this season, seven total, actually, but why did they finally decide to give Hernandez a shot?

GM Mike Rizzo explained the thinking behind their decision when he spoke to reporters on a Zoom call on Sunday afternoon. And why did they actually sign him in the first place? He isn’t exactly the profile of the kind of player the club usually pursues.

“He was a good veteran hitter on the Cuban national team,” Rizzo explained. “He was a left-handed bat that our international scouts liked and wanted to sign.

“When those scouts are very passionate about wanting to sign a player, they liked the skill set, but they loved the make-up, and I think that I owe it to those scouts to reward them for their hard work and signing players that they want, if all the determining factors fit for us, and they did.

MLB: Washington Nationals-Workouts Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“And the reason that he got to the big leagues is nothing else than he earned it. He had a terrific season in 2019 in Triple-A and earned his way to the big leagues, and if you don’t get to the big leagues after the season that he had in Triple-A last season, when do you get promoted and what message does that send to the rest of the guys down in the minor leagues?

“We like to reward guys for playing well, and being good teammates, and he certainly has been that throughout his tenure here with the Nats.”

Just making it to the majors is one thing, of course, and as hard as it is, staying there is even more difficult.

“It’s a huge sacrifice to get here,” Hernandez said when he spoke about getting called up last week, “but I feel like it’s not just about getting here, it’s about staying here, and helping the team win any way I can, and being that the Nationals are my team, that’s who I want to help, obviously play here for a long time and help them win as many games as possible and obviously have a long career for myself and in doing so, help them any way that I can.”