For the most part, the Astros spread their 2024 international free agent bonus pool around, handing several mid-size bonuses while forgoing the top ranked players in the crop. The closest thing to an exception was their signing of Cuban center fielder Cesar Yanquiel Hernandez, who received the largest bag the team handed out by a sizable margin at $1.7 million. A 20 year old, Hernandez last played professionally in 2022, when he made his debut in the Cuban National Series, which is widely regarded as the strongest professional league in North America outside of MLB affiliated ball, and one of the best in the world. Hernandez’ performance in the CNS was admirable- while his .233/.398/.301 slash line wasn’t exactly explosive, he made contact at a strong clip and drew 13 walks in just 94 PAs, which is impressive for a teenager playing against grown men in one of the sport’s talent hotbeds.
Hernandez’ profile fits conveniently in the Astros system for a number of reasons. Obviously, it behooves the club to maintain their strong inroads in Cuban baseball, which have already paid serious dividends at all levels. Further, being an older signee for the international process, he has the potential to significantly impact the complexion of the system much more quickly than the 17 year olds that comprise the majority of the class. While Hernandez is likely to begin the year in complex ball to help him acclimate to his new environment and shake off the rust from his lengthy layoff from official play, skipping the DSL, and perhaps even making a Low-A debut, are both in play for 2024. In an ideal scenario, he’d follow a similar path to that of now-top prospect Luis Baez in 2023- straight to the FCL to start the year with an ability to earn a quick promotion to Low-A if his performance is there.
Like many of the Astros top position player prospects, Hernandez profiles as a potential center fielder thanks to plus speed, but he’ll likely need to sharpen the finer points of his outfield defense to last in that role. 6’0” and well filled out already, he offers some strength as well, but is seen as more of a skill first, hit over power type of bat. The Astros will hope to see him develop into a table-setting tough out at the top of a lineup with his combination of pitch selection and contact feel, skills that separate him from the bevy of three true outcome heavy bats at other levels of the system.
There are a wide range of outcomes for Hernandez’ debut season in play given his unique circumstances, but the more positive ones could see him quickly enter the upper echelon of position players in the system thanks to a profile that projects favorably to an everyday role in the high percentile outcomes. After last year’s Justin Verlander trade raided the top shelf of the cupboard, the Astros sorely need to find such players wherever possible. In Hernandez, they have a solid bet who can do so on a unique timeline for the international market.