Meet Cristian Hernandez, The Cubs International Target Some Call 'Baby A-Rod'
One of the top players available in this year’s international class, Cristian Hernandez has earned plenty of accolades for a swing that has drawn comparisons with Manny Machado and an all-around game that reminds some of a young Alex Rodriguez.
Even so, Hernandez said his most memorable moment in baseball came not in the batter’s box, but on the mound.
Playing as a 12-year-old in a tournament in the Dominican Republic, Hernandez—who was a do-everything utility player back then—was on the mound late in a game when his coach gave him the hook and sent him to second base.
The pitcher who relieved Hernandez gave up the runs that eventually cost his team the game and its spot in the tournament. Years later, the moment still stings.
“That’s something I haven’t forgotten,” Hernandez said, with the help of a translator, “because it really hurt me a lot to lose that tournament.”
Hernandez’s pitching days are behind him now, and he is widely expected to sign a seven-figure deal with the Cubs once the international signing period opens. Normally, that would happen on July 2, but the coronavirus pandemic has shaken up everything in the sport. The international signing period is no exception. It has been pushed back to Jan. 15.
All Hernandez can do is wait and stay as ready as possible. He’s continuing to work out to the best of his abilities in the Dominican Republic and has gotten to a field as often as possible. Mostly, though, he’s trying to stay patient, which isn’t always easy.
“I’ve been staying in shape, working out at home and doing my exercise routines,” he said. “I do feel a little anxious waiting for some news on when the day I’m going to sign will be. I’m a little nervous and anxious because there’s so much unknown out there.”
The most talented Dominican shortstop in this year’s class, Hernandez will earn his bonus thanks to a combination of a powerful bat and a body that looks like it will add strength without forcing him to move off shortstop.
If the Cubs do officially sign him, Hernandez will join a deep and talented collection of middle infielders, from 2018 first-rounder Nico Hoerner (who made his big league debut at the end of 2019 after just 89 minor league games) to upstarts like Pedro Martinez, Rafael Morel, Fabian Pertuz and Aramis Ademan.
That list also includes Kevin Made, another shortstop from the Dominican Republic, whom the Cubs inked for $1 million last July.
Like many top prospects, Hernandez honed his game by playing against competition a level or two above his age group.
“It’s not the same to compete against players my own age than it is competing against players who are a level or two higher than me, players who are older and bigger and stronger,” Hernandez said. “Around 12 years old, I kind of rose to the level of the older guys, but when I was 10 and 11 years old I was already playing at the higher category.”
Hernandez’s mom got him into the game, and he’s been in love ever since. He didn’t play any other sports growing up, and he has had so much success on the diamond that he simply cannot recall the first time he hit a home run.
“From the minute I started playing, I became obsessed with it,” said Hernandez, who quickly began opening eyes. “Around 11 years old, I would hear it from my coaches and I could see that my tools and abilities were special.”
Obviously, other people began agreeing with that assessment. Just two players in this year’s international signing class are likely to command a larger signing bonus than Hernandez. Those players are Cuban outfielder Pedro Leon and fellow Dominican shortstop Armando Cruz, who are expected to ink with the Astros and Nationals.
Though other teams’ boards might differ somewhat, all would agree that Hernandez’s potential to hit for average and power while potentially remaining at shortstop makes him one of the top talents in the class.
“I think when we got our first look at him—and, to be honest, with the comps that are being thrown around—he looks like A-Rod,” said an international scouting director with a team that does not expect to sign Hernandez. “He’s a baby A-Rod.”
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The swing that produces that power, the one that has reminded others of Machado, has come without much outside molding. He doesn’t have access to the technology—Rapsodo, TrackMan and the like—that he will once he signs and reports to an major league organization’s complex, so he’s just done what’s come naturally.
So far, it’s worked.
“My swing has been natural forever. I’ve always tried to make it better and work hard to gain strength and bat speed,” Hernandez said. “I’ve realized my swing is very similar to Machado’s. There’s a lot of comps between our swings, but that was never intentional.”
To earn even passing comparisons to Alex Rodriguez and Machado, one has to have power. Even at 15 years old, Hernandez’s thump is obvious.
“You can easily project (his power) to plus. The ball really comes off his bat well. It’s a clean, easy swing with power to the middle of the field,” the international director said. “His body, from the time we first started watching him, to when he committed, to the videos I’ve seen since then, he hasn’t gotten much bigger or stronger.
“That being said, just the way the ball comes off the bat and the way the swing path comes through the zone, it’s really easy to project power. I’d call it plus in the future.”
Hernandez’s body appearing to remain the same year over year could work in his favor. Too much extra muscle could push him to third base—where his power would still profile but his overall value would take a small hit.
If he can balance strength and litheness as he matures, Hernandez could quickly prove his most optimistic evaluators correct.
“The lack of projection in the body over a one-to-two-year window, it probably points to him sticking at shortstop. It probably points to him growing a couple of inches, adding on a little weight and looking like a middle infielder more than a third baseman,” the international director said. “I don’t have any concerns about him slowing down or being forced to move to third base.
“When we were initially projecting him, you obviously throw the A-Rod body comp on him, and you kind of expect him to grow into his body and get a little bit bigger, and that hasn’t happened yet.”
As soon as the international signing period could be delayed, it was delayed. And that expected outcome—that the period will open on Jan. 15—became official on June 15.
But when that day comes, Hernandez will be ready to prove he’s worthy of the hype.